We love to hate. In fact, we’re known for it. We’ve garnered a reputation for who–or what–we hate.
Research shows that today’s church is known more for what it hates–what it stands against–than for what it loves or affirms. The population perceives a church filled with disdain. For example, the top characteristic that the unchurched population attaches to Christians is a posture of being anti-homosexual. A Barna study revealed that 91 percent hold this perception of Christians.
How is this reputation formed? Most of the Christians I know don’t seem like snarling, hateful people. Yet the reputation prevails. How can this be? I suspect this odor of hatred comes through in a couple of ways: topic fixation, and vocabulary.
In workshops I’ll occasionally ask participants to list what the church is known to stand for and against. The “against” list is always longer. It seems we like to talk more frequently, more stridently, and more loudly about the sins and ills of our society–than we do about the spectacular love and grace of the Lord.
When religious leaders have the opportunity to make news, the message often comes off as condemning a social trend, a political proposal, or a ballot initiative. For sure, we face many daunting and destructive elements in our world. But the predominate Christian agenda often accentuates condemnation and fear. Some Christian non-profit organizations have discovered that they can more readily stir up their donor base with fear and loathing than they can with hope and inspiration.
Many church folks hasten to point out that their disdain is not aimed at individuals, but at people’s bad behaviors. “We don’t hate anybody,” they say. That may be true. But the problem comes through in the language, particularly with the use of a certain four-letter word: hate.
Case in point: When it comes to the gay debate, many people love to repeat the popular ditty, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” They seem to think this will be a clarifying and redemptive message. It’s not working out that way. I’ve asked gay and lesbian individuals what they hear when someone says, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” They, unanimously, say they hear hate. Hatred toward them. Hate is the pungent and lingering odor.
Such use of the word “hate” is not having the desired effect. Neither are other odious words in this debate. This includes some people on the other side of the debate. For instance, it’s not helpful to label conservative Christians as “homophobes.” I’ve asked Christian leaders what they hear when someone refers to them with that term. They say they hear hate. Hatred toward them. Disdainful name-calling does not build understanding or heal relationships. It condemns.
The current conversation concentrates so much on hating sin. Little time is left to focus on the One who came to free us from that sin and give us life. We often sum up his essence and eternal purpose in that most familiar verse, John 3:16. And it’s the very next verse that underscores Jesus’ true mission. John 3:17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
He showed us how to love. Not how to hate.