We live in the age of the "nones" and the "dones." The nones are those who claim no religious affiliation and the dones are those who are fed up and done with the church. Believers rightly decry the secularization of society and the shrinking church but they don't understand that they have directly contributed to both.
In the early days of the church as recorded in Acts 4:32-35, we see a remarkable picture of healthy relationships among believers. "All the believers were of one heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put them at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need."
It was the quality of relationships among believers in the early church that attracted the attention of unbelievers. Today, it is the lack of quality in relationships among believers that repel people from the church. As such, believers have become one of the major barriers to people responding the the Gospel.
This is nowhere more evident than in the public space of social media where as a group, those who call themselves believers display a lack of any Christian love or Fruit of the Spirit in their responses to others they disagree with. Many are despicable in their attitude and content, even demonizing those they disagree with. The interesting thing is that almost no one calls out the disparity between what we profess to believe and how we relate and act.
In local congregations, it is often no different. After our recent Easter service in the church I serve, a parishioner sent in a comment to staff with profanity around a small issue they didn't like. I responded by telling him that I was very sorry that our staff needed to see his words and that they were not the words of Jesus. If you have been to those hallmarks of the American church, congregational meetings, you know how harsh, unkind and selfish many of the remarks are. And the thing is, all this vile stuff comes from the heart, according to Jesus. What is inside us will inevitable come out of us. So it begs the question of how much of Jesus is in our hearts!
Why would an unbeliever want to join a group (evangelicals) that is often angry, lacks basic relational decency, is candidly selfish (what's in it for me), participates regularly in gossip, evaluates you by your politics and lacks the love that is supposed to characterize believers who have the Holy Spirit living within them? Many of the dones would say, "I love Jesus but I don't like a lot of Christians. They are mean and churches can be mean." No façade of welcome teams or "great worship" can hide the underlying meanness of many congregations.
As one who has worked with hundreds of church boards I can attest to the same kinds of behaviors at the board level, and these are people who represent Jesus as leaders of the church: Ouch! In many cases, if parishioners knew what happened within the confines of the board room, they too would become dones.
If this sounds pessimistic, recent studies show that many in our country just don't like Christians. They don't find Christians to be kind and accepting but harsh, unkind and judgmental. In other words, they don't see Christians as reflecting Jesus. We can be like kids throwing sand in one another's faces in the sandbox and then inviting the kids outside the sandbox to join us. Why would they do that?
All of this points to a failure of discipleship. How we treat one another matters a lot. When we violate not only basic standards of decency in our words and attitudes to say nothing of the much high level we are called to in displaying the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5), we push people away from Christ and we fail to see that our own lives are not reflective of the teaching of Scripture, the example of Christ and the needed transformation of our own minds. As a result, rather than attracting others to our loving family as in Acts 4, we give people every reason not to join our families because they are often not loving at all.
One of the most powerful evangelism strategies any church can enter into is that of developing a church and relational culture that looks like Jesus and reflects His character. Is that easy? No. Culture change is always difficult. Can it be done? Yes, but it involves some hard teaching and a willingness to declare some behaviors illegal in the church because they are not pleasing to God. If we look like Jesus we will attract those who need His love and grace. If we look like something else we won't.
For each of us, it starts with us. Let's evaluate our own relational interactions. Our own words and attitudes and compare them to what we see in Jesus in the Gospels. If we want others to see Jesus in us, we need to become like Jesus.
My fear is that a large segment of the evangelical world today have become Pharisees rather than disciples of Jesus. And the Pharisees didn't attract others but alienated them. Let's develop congregations where the goodness of God is evident. People will respond.