A Sad Tale of Judgemental Christian Culture

As regular readers know, I’ve been reflecting a lot over the past year or two on grace and judgement. I thought it would be a good time to share a story of a campus ministry at my alma mater Queen’s University. My main goal is not to attack the particular organization I’m discussing so I will simply refer to them as CM (Campus Ministry). This post will be somewhat rambling, even more than most of my rambling posts, as I tell the story of how I was involved as well as what I’ve heard from others.

Early Involvement

CM was very good at getting frosh’s (first years’) attention. They really went all-out throughout Frosh Week. I still applaud their great effort and passion. It was a mix of evangelism (of the “say a prayer, go to Heaven” type, rarely with any attempts of friendship tacked on) and recruitment to join their club. I came to university already wanting to get involved with a Christian group, and an old camp friend had even recommended this one to me after he went to it at a different school, so I was glad they made it so easy to find them and get involved.

So that year I was involved, although somewhat on the fringe. I went to my small group about every other week and barely spoke when I was there; there were often only 4 or 5 of us, including the leaders, and the curriculum was very surface level and not engaging at all. I got the sense that nobody really wanted to be there. I went to the Friday night worship gatherings about as often, although I tended to enjoy them much more. The speakers were usually pretty surface level, like the small group curriculum, and mostly talked about two things with slight variations: the importance of evangelism and being filled with the Holy Spirit. But I loved, like I still do today, worshipping alongside anywhere from 60 to 100 other people. That was the main thing that kept me from dropping it entirely in favour of focusing more on the church where I was having much more substantial positive experiences and really growing. At the end of the year I even took a risk and decided to live with some guys I had met there – great guys, even if I wasn’t really connecting in the group where I met them.

The Rift Opens

I started seeing the cracks in their ministry in my second year. This year would turn out to be a big one for CM. There were two big issues that created a rift between CM and pretty much every other ministry on campus and with one more radical group in particular.

The first was a series from The Meeting House on the Bible, which was being listened to at this “rival” campus ministry that met in a pub on campus. Bruxy was essentially laying out an Anabaptist approach to Scripture and he didn’t hold back many punches against either liberals (Bible = good stories but that’s about it) or conservatives (every word must be literally true and the Bible is the real object of our faith). I think CM interpreted Bruxy as saying precisely the liberal case that he was also arguing against. They went into slippery-slope fear mode; it didn’t even matter that the rival ministry never explicitly endorsed that Anabaptist view or had any kind of statement of faith.

The second was a speaker on a DVD – it became known simply as “the DVD” – whose name I don’t even remember suggesting that the “Four Spiritual Laws” or “Roman Road” approach to faith was not good enough. The main reason against that approach was something I say here often: it waters down faith to a transaction for the afterlife. Even at the time and an evangelical by most definitions I found this statement to be completely reasonable; I would have said that transaction was the centre but of course we need more. There may have also been some challenging of the idea of penal substitution or at least that PSA was the same thing as the Gospel, something that goes pretty obviously alongside the prior point.

Understandably, these two things freaked out CM. Their main mission, after all, was to do hit and runs with those Four Spiritual Laws tracts and an overly simplistic understanding of the Bible was behind it. I even remember my ex-girlfriend telling me of how one evangelist from CM approached her. He asked if she knew Jesus. She said yes. He said “good” and walked away. Mission accomplished, I guess, since all that mattered was getting her soul into Heaven. They also held a special event that year to emphasize the doctrine of how much God can’t handle relating to you because you are a sinner, something that I did believe at the time. They even passed on supporting large ecumenical initiatives like a week of 24/7 prayer involving every other campus group because they did not want to be associated with heretics, although a few individuals from CM still asked the very good question of “why are we protesting prayer?” after hearing about it and still went anyway.

My Departure

Most of the above story I knew little about until after the fact. I had stopped attending my small group early on in my second year, finding it only slightly more deep than the previous year and again having trouble connecting with the people there. At the same time I was finding amazing growth and friendships at my local church so I stopped feeling like I had to go to CM. I generally kept going to the Friday worship, though, for the music. And I still met with a CM mentor, a great guy who I still respect. Yeah, maybe in hindsight he didn’t push me as far as I would have liked and tended to stick to the party line of “go do random evangelism and keep up your spiritual disciplines,” but I did appreciate those times.

Nearing the end of the year and still determined to fit in somehow or another, I thought that the answer to my lack of fulfillment with CM might be solved by getting involved in a summer mission, and this particular summer mission involved tech work so it was a double win for me. A few leaders of CM even said things like this to me: “you’ll feel like you fit in better if you just try harder and commit to more.” I believed them, signed up for the mission, and was accepted.

As the summer approached, I got more and more uneasy about the mission and CM overall. I started feeling like maybe there was something problematic about their approach, particularly the over-emphasis on hit-and-run evangelism, and that my lack of fulfillment might be more than that I wasn’t involved enough in the right ways. This may have been the first time in my life that I seriously questioned an evangelical ministry. I raised the concerns with my mentor; he listened and gave the party line answers, in a generally very loving way, but there was a point quickly where he couldn’t deal with the objections I was raising.

I then raised them with my mission leader, who dismissed them out of hand by doing two things: saying that maybe I just shouldn’t be a part of CM, and warning me about the cult on campus who were teaching the heretical things mentioned above. Yes, Jesus being higher than the Bible and God loving you despite your sin qualifies you as a cult. I really didn’t know if I sided more with CM or with the other group in terms of theology, probably somewhere in between at that point, but I knew I couldn’t side with the attitude that CM was demonstrating to me more and more. That pretty effectively cut me off from wanting to do the mission and I withdrew, instead choosing to do yardwork for an older couple from my church back home for those two months. To this day I still think that was a far greater act of love than CM’s soul-saving expedition.

I was stubborn, though, as I often am, and still didn’t want to give up on CM entirely. I learned that a former leader of CM had also left in frustration, among many who left that year. He, another friend, and I requested to meet with the new leader coming in for the next year about our concerns. We really thought that we could offer some help, especially with a past leader who could share about the mistakes that he had made and what it had cost. Initially the new leader said yes, but before the meeting happened we got an email from the current leader – who I lived with – telling us not to try to bring it up again. Needless to say, I was not on great terms with that housemate the remaining two weeks of the year.

The Cost of Always Fighting

All of those examples to say this: they were in full battle mode to make sure that “the truth” was known. Everything came to that battle to show that they were right and the heretics were wrong. Even when they were dealing with people who hadn’t even encountered non-conservative theology, they still took those steps of aggression to make sure we didn’t dare question just in case we ever did encounter something else.

By the end of that year, CM had dropped from peak attendance of 100 members to about 30.

That’s the irony, of course. I can speak from personal experience: I would quite possibly still be far more conservative if not for their attitude of judgement. It was so incredibly ugly and it scared me away, along with dozens of others.

Losing CM and Finding Jesus

That same summer, the second half after I was supposed to be on CM’s mission, I read through the Gospels start to finish and I realized something astounding: Jesus wasn’t ugly like that. In fact, Jesus was the most beautiful person I’d never encountered. The cognitive dissonance was way too much for me to ever just follow along with the party line of CM or others like them.

I began to question just how much CM was missing the mark. At first I thought they had the attitude wrong but still were right on some of the points they were defending; I never liked random evangelism but I did completely buy into the more conservative approach to Scripture and into PSA. But their judgement got me to question my own theology and I ended up finding that it was not just lacking but also in many ways contributing to those negative un-Christ-like attitudes (ie if your theology starts with saying God hates sinners and heretics, then you’ll probably end up hating who you deem to be sinners and heretics). Years later, after a lot of deconstructing of things I’d heard from CM and elsewhere, I have found myself with a much more vibrant and powerful faith.

The Moral of the Story

The topic recently came up with a friend who I actually met first in CM but then got to know much better in the “rival” group – where many of us went after fleeing CM – after my wife told her that CM is now disbanded (not sure if that is still true or if they have started up again). Her response? She wasn’t surprised because you can’t last for too long fighting enemies that aren’t there. In other words, the more you tighten your grip trying to control people, the more people that you will lose. And yet this is the default tactic of liberals and conservatives alike: if somebody doesn’t agree with you, then you ridicule, dismiss, belittle, ostracize, etc. to make sure that they know the truth.

I’ll just round my estimates and say that about 70% of CM left in that one year because of the extreme reactionary tactics. It isn’t far off from Phyllis Tickle’s estimate in The Great Emergence that in times of change about 15% of the original group become even more ensconced in their views, a bunch leave for something better, and a bunch more (say 15% in this case) stay even though they have some misgivings. Eventually a lot of that 30% also fades away, although it isn’t unusual for some to hang out.

This sad tale should be a potent example. Don’t be like CM. CM had amazing people. I’m still friends with some, many who left as I did as well as a few who stuck around. These people could have been doing amazing things but they threw it all away to play judge on Christians and non-Christians alike. They felt it was more important to declare the absolute truth – as they saw it, of course – to anybody who disagreed than it was to love people. If your ministry becomes about accusations, then Satan, the Accuser, wins. I take no pleasure in CM’s decline, especially since I imagine many of those people did not get adequately connected to another community afterward, having become convinced that all Christians operate on those terms.

I wish ministries were never judgemental and were able to continue the Kingdom work of loving God and loving neighbour. I wish that we didn’t all have to go through that fighting and division, even though it did lead me to what I consider a much deeper and healthier understanding of God. But it did, and I hope that you can learn from this and carry out your ministry much more like the grace of Jesus than the judgement of CM.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • toddgrotenhuis

    This story has so many similarities with my experience with the “CM” at my university. Glad we made it through the other side stronger for it!

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