The Overprotective Church
The Western church in general has a problem. Well, it has lots of problems, but to me, there is a particular one at the top of the list: we’re afraid of any risk. You may have heard the phrase “helicopter parents” to describe those who hover over everything their children do to make sure they’re on the right track and not going to get hurt. In general, a lot of other things about our society have similarly taken the helicopter approach by trying to shelter ourselves as much as possible in the name of safety.
To put it another way, we’re addicted to comfort. Something that really annoys me about myself as well as a lot of the church in general is that we talk about the importance of doing the things necessary to change the world, but we often don’t actually do it. The reason why is pretty clear: we decide it is too risky. We theoretically value the change that could be made but in practice we value our comforts even more.
Because of this, our churches have often created a culture of comfort. Churches have built up a bubble of this strange thing we call a Christian subculture or an evangelical subculture. Those inside of this bubble listen only to Christian music, watch only Christian movies, have their entire social lives revolve around youth group/the church, and either go to a Christian school or are home-schooled. Of course, there are lots of more subtle ways to bubble ourselves from the world, as well, but it is all to protect those inside of the bubble from what might happen if they get influenced by those outside of it. Twice in the past year I can think of multiple conservative Christian leaders condemning books as heretical and dangerous without even bothering to read them. I don’t think they’re really doing it simply to be in control, at least not consciously. I imagine their reasoning goes like this: “if we can keep that idea from getting to those in our bubble, our sphere of influence, they’ll be safe!” But they don’t seem to realize how much this sheltering attitude is actually hurting those within the bubble denied access to any risk.
What was very interesting to me about this chapter of You Lost Me by David Kinnaman is how he approached the problems with this over-protectiveness. I tend to primarily focus on how it is pretty clearly against the message of Jesus and the early church who took world-changing risks to the point often of their deaths. We are similarly told by Jesus to take up our cross. That’s obviously an important theme and shouldn’t be ignored. But at the same time, we hear it a lot and it doesn’t often sink in. Kinnaman’s focus instead is on how the addiction to comfort and protection has seriously harmful consequences. Let’s run through some of these quickly. If the church doesn’t give the healthy risks of following Jesus, people will seek out alternate thrills because we are designed to be taking risks to some extent. Since we aren’t encouraging the risks of growing up, many of my generation have never been able to mature into adults. Since we are taught that we are to fear anything going wrong as the result of our risk, we become paralyzed with self-doubt – it isn’t a coincidence that the majority of our generation suffers from some kind of mental illness. Finally, without risk, there is little opportunity to be creative. In order to ever grow as individuals and as a church, we need to allow these risks to take place.
Unfortunately the church has gotten very used to operating on fear instead. We use fear to evangelize by talking about Hell. We use fear to keep people in our churches by talking about the consequences of leaving (social, spiritual, etc.). We use fear of judgement to keep people away from the things we don’t like, whether that is different gender norms, different movies, or about serious ethical issues like casual sex. It’s all building a fence between the church and the rest of the world in an effort to protect. Of course the rest of our culture does the same – just try to get through a news show without hearing something you should be afraid of and what you should do to distance yourself from that risk – but shouldn’t we be offering something better than that? If we operate on fear, and perfect love casts out fear as 1 John 4:18 tells us, then we are failing to love. It’s hurting our society, it’s hurting our churches, and we need to move away from our sheltering attitude and toward a risky discipleship.