There’s an amusing scene in the sitcom Seinfield where a woman sits in a diner and attempts to break up with George, the series’ misanthropic, perennially stingy character. In an attempt to comfort him and shoulder the blame for the breakup, she says, “It’s not you, it’s me.”
George loses his ever-loving mind. “You’re giving me the ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ routine? I invented ‘it’s not you, it’s me’! Nobody tells me it’s them, not me. If it’s anybody, it’s me.”
George’s stubborn desire to take the blame is comedic in the scene because people most often go out of their way to avoid blame. Nobody wants it to be “them,” or to shoulder fault or responsibility; we’re eager to point out a mitigating factor or cause to take the responsibility out of our own hands. But here we have George, demanding all the blame, indignant that he’s being denied any of it.
I think there’s a kernel of wisdom in that attitude that Christians ought to consider. Because sometimes, it’s not “them”.
The other day, I read – as part of research for another project- a series of depressing statistics about Christians leaving the church and, sometimes, the faith. Accompanying articles authored by Christians offered a series of explanations as to why this could be. Some articles blamed Millennials. Others blamed spiritual laziness in younger generations. A few blamed politics, some blamed the loss of “Christian values,” and others blamed the alluring secular world.
All of those factors may be accurate to one degree or another. But if we’re honest, the church bears some blame, too. And we don’t like to think about it.
That’s because most of us have an instinctive defensiveness when it comes to the church. We’re inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt. And, when we feel that we’re being attacked, it’s easy to drop into a defensive crouch. Without even realizing it, I think many of us feel the need to “protect” Jesus and His children from bad PR. But that doesn’t benefit us. In fact, it only keeps us blind to issues that desperately need to be addressed.
In Christianity Today, the former gymnast Rachel Denhollander discusses the journey that began for her when she was the first to publicly accuse now-disgraced sports physician and convicted child abuser Larry Nassar of sexual abuse. In her interview, she touches on why it can be particularly difficult for Christian communities to confront or acknowledge sexual abuse and abusers within their own ranks:
“One of the dynamics that you see in a Christian church that is particularly devastating is poor theology. […] You have that dynamic with evangelical churches where you have the reputation on the line and the perceived reputation of the gospel of Christ. But often, if not always, people are motivated by poor theology and a poor understanding of grace and repentance and that causes them to handle sexual assault in a way where that a lot of predators go unchecked, often for decades.”
As the interview continues Denhollander explains that because Christians are sometimes (incorrectly) theologically motivated to “protect” Jesus, the Gospel, and their churches from outside scrutiny, negative publicity, and image problems, there is an incentive for churches and believers to cover up, gloss over, or otherwise ignore systemic issues of abuse that occur. For her, in these cases, the willingness of a church to take responsibility for the problems within it – rather than wish them away or paper over them with a hasty forgiveness-‘n’-repentance sermon – can make a world of difference.
“Let us examine our ways and test them,” Lamentations 3:40 implores. As believers and as a church, it is imperative that we not forget this dictate. That doesn’t mean that the church should constantly beat itself up or blame itself for every single bad thing that happens. Nor does it mean the church must shoulder the singular, staggering burden of blame for a problem when there might be multiple contributing factors at play.
What it does mean is that the church ought to always be willing and able to ask itself honestly: what is the real problem, how might the church be contributing to that problem, and what can be examined, improved, or transformed to make a difference?
I am astonished by the number of churches who complain about congregants leaving in droves without ever considering or examining their own practices, recent decisions, or attitudes. I have watched believers throw their hands up when their young don’t return without ever asking if there’s anything that they could do (or perhaps not do) to facilitate it. In the news and on television I’ve seen megachurches slowly implode over time and eventually collapse, with congregants denying all the while that there is anything at all amiss within the congregation or the community.
The problems that churches face range from large to small. Some of us have declining attendance across the board. Some of us are losing young people the minute they hit college. Others are losing workers. Some churches are riven by accusations of sexual or physical abuse within the congregation. In my area there are congregations being decimated by the opioid crisis. In all of these cases, a willingness to look inward can make a world of difference in solving the problem.
More importantly, it keeps us humble. The mere act of self-examination reminds us that we are creatures prone to sin and stray, that we are not above flaw or reproach, that there might always potentially exist in us something to change or to grow. To engage in it is a godly act. The more we become willing to hold ourselves accountable, the more we’re open to being used of God for His great purposes here. It won’t solve all the problems that the church faces, and it won’t mitigate the other factors outside the church that cause conflict and struggle, but it’s a start. And a worthy one.