Well, it is time to write about some not-so-Christian practices of American Christianity. I have thought a lot about this topic partly because as a foreigner I can take a perspective that many American Christians often lack. But before I tell you what I think are the five unchristian practices of Christ followers in this nation, let me make a few disclaimers. First, this is not a complaint against the nation, the USA. I have been in this country long enough to receive many blessings but also to see a shadowy side of the land. As a person who has lived in both big cities and small towns, I know the picture is more complex than what right wing or left wing politics paint.
My description here is from a fellow Christ follower’s perspective, written with love, so that those who idealize Christianity and mix it with the idolatry of nation-worship may see the dangers of their approach. Second, I write this piece as a multi-cultural observer, a traveler on the path to the Cross of Christ, and with compassion, not as a pastor wielding the Bible. That’s because I know how hard it is for a foreigner to be heard in America, and I have no intention of making it even harder by being a Bible-thumping stranger. Third, what I write here is my personal opinion, and in no way do the names or movements mentioned here endorse my conclusions. If you feel so, you are more than welcome to toss my writing aside as gibberish tainting the ideal and best form of Christianity. I won’t be upset.
So, let’s first agree on the terms, shall we? By five not-so-Christian practices of the American church, I mean five practices or tendencies of churches in this nation that may not fully match what the Gospel teaches. Obviously, all churches around the world have their own unchristian practices, but what I’m writing here is mostly visible in US Christianity. I believe that none of these ungodly practices are more pronounced elsewhere than in the new world. So here we go.
Divisiveness and Fragmentation
This is one of the most pronounced practices of US churches. This may be partly due to the history of the nation because there never was a national and official church like that of England or Germany or Russia. However, throughout history the US church became divided more and more. It is not just liberal vs. conservative churches, high liturgical vs. low liturgical churches, Catholic vs. Protestant churches. But it is also the fragmentations within these relatively unified bodies. So you have many Presbyterian groups, many Reformed groups, and dozens of Pentecostal groups. Denominations pop up and die off like mushrooms. Of course, some of these divisions are historical (like Catholic vs. Protestant), but in the US, the differences have become amplified.
Churches in America play political games like children play with toys. It’s passionate, extended, and sometimes irresponsible. If it were balanced, it would be good because I don’t think churches should be marginalized to the point where they are absolutely irrelevant and have no say in public affairs. But in America, many churches subordinate the gospel to politics. Christians have become electoral pools for either party to draw upon. Social movements and parties have divided and usurped the name of Christ. Conservatives treat Christianity as if they own it, and liberals refuse it as what the other party represents it to be rather than for what it really is.
Extreme commodification and glorification of capitalism
The commodification of the Christian faith and the intrusion of entertainment into churches has set American Christianity apart from other versions of the faith around the world. Flashy churches? You bet! Endless versions of the bibles customized to a specific niche market such as a hunter’s bible, a men’s bible, a skateboarder’s bible, a blue letter bible, a red letter bible, and whatnot? You bet! Health and wealth gospel? You bet! Christianity in America often comes dangerously close to buying into capitalism wholesale although capitalism — like communism and socialism — has deeply disagreeable aspects to the gospel.
The loss of historical consciousness
By historical consciousness I mean churches’ awareness of the historical continuation with the ancient faith and churches’ self-identification within that history. As far as I can observe, especially in non-Catholic and non-Eastern Orthodox churches, this historical self-awareness is just a theory. In practice and in worship, history and the lessons learned from it have very little bearing on the way modern churches live their lives. People do sing ancient songs and repeat the Nicene Creed, but often these actions are limited to the four walls of the church building. Outside of those walls, the churches often tend to be a social club that is more influenced by what’s going on in the world than by its own history.
Polarization on social matters
Christianity in America is polarized. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find a middle ground between conservatives and liberals. Congregations have a hard time tolerating more nuanced, complex, and balanced approaches to social issues like social justice or homosexuality or guns. Instead, people prefer the extremes. Fundamentalists of both camps attract more attention while the people willing to develop nuanced and more balanced approaches to social issues become marginalized.
That’s it. By the way, I’m not the first one to notice these peculiarities. Many Christians I’ve talked to have mentioned at least one or two of the practices listed in this post. For example, a believer from Iran once told me how he received the cold shoulder from members of the church he attended in the past. I myself am a witness to the ministers who come from minority groups, reach out to a marginalized people, yet struggle to be accepted by churches.
Practices that do not match with the gospel ought to remind us how sinful we all are and should encourage us to live humble lives. These negative trends are steeped in egotism, extreme individualism, and disproportionate nationalisms. It is American churches’ continual call to abandon them for the sake of a deeper life in the gospel.
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