A recent report by Barna Research listed the top reasons people question Christianity. Among those who claim to be Christian, practicing or otherwise, the problem of human suffering (23%) topped the list, followed by hypocrisy of religious people (22%) and conflict in the world (19%).
Among those who claimed no faith, religious hypocrisy was far and away the most cited response, identified by 42% as behind their doubt about Christian beliefs.
Christians have faced the charge of hypocrisy in various times and places. Around a century ago, G. K. Chesterton addressed it, specifically those who boasted of their humility, sought worldly success, and trumpeted it when they got it. Like Chesterton, we should not be surprised when Christians fall short of Jesus' commands.
As one theologian put it, "To be a member of the Church is to carry the mantle of both the worst sin and the finest heroism of the soul ... because the Church always looks exactly as it looked at the original crucifixion, God hung among thieves." Until Christ's return, we will face accusations of hypocrisy. Many times, we will have earned them.
The Barna study results are also cause for optimism. While half of Christians have experienced doubts in the past few years, there is also an unprecedented openness to questions within the general population. Seventy-four percent of U.S. adults say they "want to grow spiritually."
Seventy-seven percent report believing in a higher power. Forty-four percent say that they are "more open to God today than before the pandemic." As Barna CEO Dave Kinnaman summarized, "Though religious affiliation and church attendance continue to decline, spiritual openness and curiosity are on the rise."
To say the least, the American spiritual landscape is complicated. A much-vaunted Pew study found, for example, that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that trust, among both individuals and in institutions, is falling. This affects our most important relationships across the cultural spectrum, in everything from government to employment, from neighbors to political parties, from church to the news media.
In other words, we face a crisis that is also an opportunity. People who are spiritually hungry, relationally isolated, and tired of being suspicious tend to be more open to spiritual things than those who are overly distracted.
Technology that was supposed to solve our deepest problems instead misunderstood what they were, isolating us into echo chambers. The only entity that can offer the worldview depth, relational connections, and moral formation required to rebuild trust is the Church.
The writer Sheldon Vanauken, author of A Severe Mercy, once wrote,
The best argument for Christianity is Christians: their joy, their certainty, their completeness. But the strongest argument against Christianity is also Christians--when they are somber and joyless, when they are self-righteous and smug in complacent consecration, when they are narrow and repressive, then Christianity dies a thousand deaths.
Led to Christ by none other than C.S. Lewis, Vanauken does not suggest here that Christians should retreat from public displays of faith, lest their inevitable public failures lead to additional charges of hypocrisy.
Rather, it is the opposite. What the world needs most right now is more Christianity, not less: more people committed to connecting ultimate meaning with everyday life, more minds sharpened by and formed in the truth, more redeemed people open to discussing what matters with their lost and searching neighbors, more hearts alive to both beauty and suffering whose hope is in King Jesus and His kingdom.
The final answer to the charge of Christian hypocrisy is faithfulness, not perfection. What the world needs most is the Church to be the Church, full of Christians who embrace their faith as personal but not private, and as not so much inviting Jesus into our lives as accepting the invitation into His life.