From Super Bowl ads to Kentucky revivals, stop the Christian cannibalism
(RNS) — When Chick-fil-A introduced a new cauliflower sandwich option this month, it immediately faced a maelstrom of mockery and contempt — as if it were proposing to do away with its trademark chicken sandwiches. Of course, the restaurant was doing nothing of the sort — just trying to bring more people in the door.
What struck me about the criticism was how much of it came from Chick-fil-A’s own customer base, including Christians who otherwise feel a special connection to the chain. The controversy may not have been important in any deeply meaningful way, but it was a reminder for me of a trend that is both important and worrisome: American Christians reflexively attacking each other in the public square.
It seems everything Christians do these days — whether it’s a campus revival in Kentucky or a national ad campaign about Jesus — faces an immediate host of unconstructive and ungracious criticism, nitpicking and mockery not only from the world (which should be expected) but also from fellow Christians. It’s easy to attack someone who believes in turning the other cheek, and Christians are seizing the opportunity as much as anyone.
We need to stop this Christian cannibalism.
Some of the reactions from Christians to the two Super Bowl ads run by He Gets Us are illustrative. The ads featured a number of images leading to simple punchlines: “Jesus didn’t want us to act like adults” and “Jesus loved the people we hate.” The reminders to have childlike faith and to love your enemies were designed to make viewers stop and think, with messages tailored to a skeptical secular audience that is accustomed to writing him off.
My communications firm represents He Gets Us, so I had a close-up view of many of the criticisms that rolled in from Christians. Some alleged that the ads offered an incomplete picture of Jesus or the Gospel, to which I would respond: Of course they do. They’re 30-second ads. Solitary Bible verses on billboards and Instagram bios have this same shortcoming, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad. Faith is a journey, never completed all at once. Still other Christian critics alleged that the ads pandered to progressives. One wonders if Paul was ever accused of pandering to Gentiles.
But alongside the criticisms, I’ve had a front-row seat to see some of the impact He Gets Us is having, including millions of visits to the He Gets Us website and almost 70,000 connections with people asking questions, requesting prayer and being put in touch with one of the 20,000 local churches that have partnered with He Gets Us.
I can also understand how some people see unusual events like the spontaneous two-week worship service at Asbury University as a vulnerable entry point for false doctrines and false teachers. But the most salient thing I saw was thousands of young people gathering in the name of Jesus to worship, and possibly millions of non-Christian onlookers having their curiosity piqued by an inexplicable movement of the Holy Spirit.
I don’t expect every Christian to love the He Gets Us campaign or to blindly endorse what happened at Asbury as a true “revival.” In fact, I know that there are and always will be vastly different opinions on style, strategy and more — and those opinions are welcome. I do hope, however, that Christians can learn to stop being our own harshest critics. This requires a few things.
First, it requires us to stop reflexively attacking things that aren’t heresies. Fighting heresy is important, but a difference in approach, language or even non-fundamental theology does not constitute a false gospel worthy of attacking.
Second, Christians should recognize that taking no stance is an option — oftentimes a good option. When the disciples report to Jesus about an unknown individual casting out demons in Jesus’ name, he says, “Do not stop him” — in other words, step aside. The disciples don’t have to understand exactly who the man is and what he’s doing; they need only know that he’s not against Jesus and is therefore for him.
Lastly, Christians should look for ways to build up when the temptation is to tear down. We’re called to be co-creators with God, to water seeds that others have planted. If a fellow Christian’s message to the world is incomplete, don’t erase it. Complete it.
There’s certainly a place for critique and lively discussions about the finer points of theology or their application. But this habit of attacking “our own” on peripheral topics — especially in public — is obstructive to the spread of the gospel. The world certainly won’t know us by our love for one another if they read some of our tweets and blog posts. Christians are going down a road together that demands (scripturally and practically) that we link arms with our brothers and sisters in faith even if our doctrinal statements don’t align down to the last jot and tittle. If we believe that “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb,” I sure hope that the reformed can get along with the charismatic.
And for the organizations that are wondering how to deal with flanking attacks from fellow Christians: stay the course. The church is divided, and the people who demand “my way or the highway” the loudest are the ones least worth listening to.
(Christian Pinkston is the founder of Pinkston, a strategic communications firm headquartered in Northern Virginia. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)