But I must admit I was taken aback at the number of people who have recommended that I write When Christian is a Bad Word. The more I speak about my book and share with others my faith journey, the more people I encounter whose experience with Christians is less than positive.
The name Christian literally means "Christ one." A Christian, according to Merriam-Webster, is "one who relates to Jesus Christ and conforms to His teachings." And it doesn't take much bible study to discover that the primary teaching of Jesus teaching was to love.
Yet if we were to do a word association exercise with those outside the church and gave them the word Christian, our ivory towers would be shaken at how few would associate Christian with love. Actual studies have revealed these rather unsettling responses from those outside the church about those inside the church:
Pardon me if what I'm about to say sounds judgmental but, fellow Christians, if love is not the first word that springs to mind when others think of us we're doing it wrong. Jesus entrusted us to share His unmerited, unconditional, unrelenting love with the world. Our primary message to others is meant to be good news. For heaven's sake, that's what the word gospel means.
Yet we are seen in our culture as bearers of bad news. We're not known for what we stand for, we're known for what we stand against. Many outside the church don't hear us speak much about the promise of heaven but they've heard us warn incessantly of the threat of hell.
The sad truth is, for many people in our world--perhaps even in our block--Christian is a bad word. We are often viewed as those who not only won't accept, but will openly shun those who don't live, believe, dress, and behave as we do.
When I served as a chaplain for the police department in my hometown a young officer was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I truly enjoyed getting to know him in my visits to the hospital. Kelly, by his own admission, was not much for going to church or reading the Bible. But his conversations with me were deeply spiritual. I had no doubt that he loved the Lord.
One day when I came to visit I could tell something was wrong the moment I walked into the room. He seemed distressed, preoccupied. When the timing was right, I asked what he was thinking about. I was sure that he would open up about being fearful or perhaps angry with his diagnosis. He was just thirty years old. He had his whole life ahead of him. He just wanted to be a cop; to help people. It just wasn't right that he had to die. Perhaps he had just had a bad night.
But it wasn't physical pain or the unfairness of his situation that was stirring his emotions. It was a phone call that he had received. It seems a family member was concerned about his spiritual well-being and asked her pastor to call him. It was a phone conversation from hell. Rather than share the love of Christ by expressing concern and compassion; rather than entering Kelly's pain and asking about his physical, emotional, or spiritual struggles; rather than assuring him that our Heavenly Father is always by our side especially in times of trial; the pastor had a different agenda. He was out to save Kelly's soul.
As Kelly recalled the conversation I could see that he was trying to gather up what little strength he had left to fight back his tears. He painfully described the pastor's interrogation: What do you believe about God? Why haven't you been going to church? Why haven't you been reading your Bible? Don't you know what it says in Acts 4:12? Don't you know that those who don't believe go to hell?
Then Kelly began to sob and asked, "Why do Christians do that?"
I cried with him. Because I ask the same question.
Just like I am embarrassed by the behaviors of some who share my last name, I often find myself wanting to apologize for the words and actions of others who, like me, carry the name Christian.
I expressed to Kelly how sorry I was that he had to be subjected to that. I shared how I, too, had been wounded by the words and actions of those who call themselves Christians. I told Kelly how I had recently seen a bumper sticker with the message: Dear God: Please Protect Me From Your Followers. He laughed when I told him I was going to order one for my car.
One of the characters in the movie Hannah and Her Sisters summed it up succinctly: "If Jesus came back and saw what was going on in His name, He'd never stop throwing up."
When Christians are void of love; when we are seen as having all the answers; when we are more interested in making converts than making friends; when we don't allow others to question our beliefs; when we, in the name of Christ, refuse to associate with others because of their beliefs or "sinful behavior" we are denying a thirsty world the Living Water we are called to dispense.
We Christians need to understand that our words and actions can draw others to Jesus or make them want to run in the opposite direction. The news of Christ's redeeming love is good news. May we speak of it often. May we model it daily. May we do all that we can to make Christian a good word once again.