This is an article written by Josh Howerton, whose bio appears at the end of this article.
Let’s begin with a caveat. Nothing in the following paragraphs indicates that every church is healthy or that there aren’t issues for self-reflection and repentance. Far from it. Churches aren’t programs or buildings––they’re people. And people are messy, so churches are messy. (If you don’t believe me, read 1 Corinthians or spend more than 10 minutes in any church.) Christians—and therefore churches—are imperfect. Sometimes grievously so.
In addition to having flaws and sins, churches also have an Enemy whose primary weapon is lies. The word devil comes from the Greek word diabolos, which literally means “slanderer.” He is described as “the accuser of the brothers, who accuses them day and night” (Rev. 12:10). And that same liar, who wages a war of accusation against the church, is also “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4). Put all that together and here’s what you should expect: Satan tries to deconstruct the church Jesus is constructing (Matt. 16:18) by leveraging her faults to slander her with plausible false narratives.
And that is exactly what we find: a wide and growing gap between cultural narratives about Christianity and the reality of Christianity. Here are just five examples.
Cultural narrative #1: Christians aren’t really pro-life, they’re just pro-birth.
Christians are sometimes accused of being pro-birth more than pro-life. They pretend to be passionate about the lives of the unborn as a political weapon, the argument goes, but they don’t really care about children once they’re born. But the data tells a different story.
In addition to establishing almost every Pregnancy Resource Center you’ve ever seen to care for vulnerable women, as well as countless child-sponsorship programs, the adoption rate among practicing Christians more than doubles that of the average U.S. household. Christian groups have a proven track record of providing safe alternatives to abortion.
Cultural narrative #2: Christians are sexually repressive and anti-sex, creating a toxic purity culture.
“Purity culture” has become a boogeyman—a catchall phrase big enough to hang every cultural qualm about the Christian sexual ethic on. Rather than liberated, “sex positive” people who can enjoy their sexuality, those who internalize the church’s repressive purity culture will be anti-sex. At least that’s the claim. But again, the stats disagree.
Churchgoing, conservative Christians are in the category with the most fulfilling sex lives in America. Putting a premium on covenant marriage, it turns out, creates a relational dynamic filled with the kind of passion the world wants us to think is produced only by liberation from Scripture’s “outdated” sexual mores.
Cultural narrative #3: Christianity is emotionally repressive and bad for your mental health.
Surely the church has a negative impact on its adherents’ mental health, right? Again to the contrary, the data shows church attendance correlated with
- less depression;
- less suicide;
- less emotional-pain medicators, such as smoking and substance abuse;
- greater social support;
- greater meaning in life;
- greater life satisfaction;
- more volunteering;
- greater civic engagement; and
- children more likely to grow up happy.
Shockingly, according to the Washington Times, regular churchgoers were the only segment of the population whose mental health actually improved in a pandemic-wracked 2020.
Cultural narrative #4: Christians don’t care about the poor—only political power.
In some circles, Christians are cast as being anti-poor. Their “truth claims” are just power plays, a voting bloc protecting its power and privilege at the expense of the powerless and underprivileged. The reality, though, is people who pray daily and regularly attend church significantly outpace their irreligious neighbors in generosity to the poor, both with their time and money.
Cultural narrative #5: Christianity is gender-oppressive, a tool of the abusive patriarchy, and creates toxic relationships for women.
In the #MeToo era, it’s critical for us to admit that churches have not always been exempt from the category of the many institutions that have failed to protect women. #ChurchToo is real and shouldn’t be explained away. What I want to argue, though, is that our failures in this area are failures to live up to our theology, not failures inherent in our theology.
Further, as a whole the data shows that church attendance yields the most enjoyable and least abusive relationships for women.
Contrary to the narrative, theologically conservative, gender-traditional, church-attending women are in the category of the happiest relationships with the least abuse in the country.
Christianity Changes People
We could go on and on. The more one attends church, the less likely that person is to commit a major crime. Children raised in churchgoing households are less likely to be depressed, use drugs, or engage in sexual activity outside marriage. Christian marriages are 35 percent less likely to end in divorce. One study even suggests church attendance can add up to seven years to your life!
There’s a massive gap between the perception of Christianity in the world and on social media, and the reality of who Christians are and what they do.
Here’s the point: there’s a massive gap between the perception of Christianity in the world and on social media, and the reality of who Christians are and what they do. I have no interest in minimizing our faults or dismissing personal pain. (In fact, because the gospel is true, we can be honest about them.) But I want to paint a clearer picture of the glorious beauty at work amid the mess.
Christian, don’t be discouraged when the church is thrown under the bus for this, that, and the other. Your brothers and sisters are doing more good than you can imagine. And non-Christian, please don’t use our faults as an excuse to avoid looking at the genuine transformation the gospel works on the human heart. Jesus changes people. And he can change you, too.
Josh Howerton is senior pastor of Lakepointe Church in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Josh is married to Jana, whom he met on a blind date, and together they have three children: Eliana, Felicity Hope, and Hudson. Josh’s life passion is to make disciples, train church leaders, and plant churches. You can follow him on Twitter.