As I have traveled all over the world, I’ve met pastors, elders, administrators, missionaries, professors, students, and everyone in between, who are dying to spill their guts in frustration over their churches or The Church, or both. Usually both. They suspect their churches may have grown over programmed and under challenged. They’re annoyed with the music, irritated by the message, embarrassed by the mission. They see wasted resources, lost opportunities, incompetent leadership, and unengaged participants, resulting in little by way of true life change for the people who make it through the door. And they want to be heard and affirmed, because even though they suspect they’re right to be concerned, they’re afraid they’ve grown overly critical.
So they find me, a known cynic, and together we moan and complain and wish and wonder about the future. We share our conflicted feelings, lamenting the way our great love for God’s Church clashes with our disdain for so much of what the Church says and does and is. More often than not, these conversations end on the same familiar note; Our complaints are valid and our disappointment is great, but we feel compelled to stay.
We are the Committed Christian Cynics. And we are legion.
Unfortunately, the Church doesn’t know what to do with us. This is partly because we have strong opinions about things that make some folks nervous, like human sexuality, and personal integrity, and global responsibility, and what Jesus really meant when he urged us to Love one another. And partly because, in our sincere efforts to tell everyone how dumb they are and how they’re doing it wrong, we sometimes come off as arrogant, condescending, know-it-all dickheads. Admittedly, we need to work on our approach. (I’m raising my own hand here, as I often need reminding there’s a world of difference between sharing concerns with gentle skepticism and spitting bitterness like an angry viper.)
The thing is, cynics are easy to write off as negative and pessimistic. The rest of the Church is quick to dismiss us as complainers, but maybe they shouldn’t be so eager to cast us aside, for the Christian cynic has a God-given burden to bear; We are the snarky, sarcastic, opinionated, face-palmers of the Faith. We carry the torch of critique into the Church — And we’re here to set shit on fire. We are pot-stirrers, tradition challengers, purpose analyzers, and push backers, and whether or not they know it, our churches need us.
You know why?
Because when bad things happen to good people, Jesusy platitudes are no match for the cynic’s microscope. In our dictionary, nebulous Christian language has no meaning. By our calculations, sketchy church numbers don’t add up. We cynics see things in a different light, sift things through a different filter, examine things through a different lens, and that’s good for everyone. Does it make people uncomfortable? For sure. But a vocal critic can be great instigator of honest introspection and thoughtful evaluation.
When a stranger quips, “I’ll pray for you”, it’s the cynic who asks, “Really?”
When a person says, “A short-term mission trip changed my life”, the cynic is looking for evidence.
When a pastor teaches “the Bible is clear”, the cynic wonders how they know with such certainty.
When the Church proclaims itself “the Hope of the world” the cynic narrows her eyes, lifts her chin and challenges, “Prove it.”
Our approval of All Things Christian can’t be bought with vague over-spiritualization or authoritarian proclamation. We require more. We ask hard questions and demand real answers, and it’s not because we’re just a bunch of jerks who get off on tearing down other people’s ideology. Sometimes, it’s actually because WE LOVE GOD and WE LOVE PEOPLE, and even though we’re kinda mortified by Churchy bullshit, WE. LOVE. THE CHURCH.
That’s why we stick around.
We stay because we know that, while there are so many things wrong, this is the Church that made us, the same Church that introduced us to Jesus. And we’re still big fans of Jesus. We stay because we weren’t always this cynical; we remember what it was like to feel content with simply showing up to check the boxes of the good Christian life, and we remember how even that changed us. We stay because we honestly believe the Church can do so much better. We want to dismantle broken systems to build a healthier community of Christ followers. So we stay in The Church and (when we can) we stay in our churches because we love them, and because we’ve been cynics long enough now to know how a negative perspective can spark a positive change.
But let’s not pat ourselves on the back quite so vigorously, my cranky friends. Our beloved, broken churches have grown weary of our cynical ways, perhaps rightfully so. The problem is, Committed Christian Cynics might be good for the whole of the Church, but we can be kind of terrible for each other. Like, the worst.
Cynics, pessimists, and opinionated dickheads are naturally drawn to one another. We’re actively looking to make eye contact with someone else who sees what we see, who hates what we hate, who affirms our observations and agrees with our assessments. To the natural optimist, it probably sounds like an awful first date, but when one critical thinker finds another, the ensuing bitch-fest is kind of refreshing. It’s so nice to realize you’re not alone, you’re not crazy, and you’re not just being a huge asshole about everything. We feel validated by each other’s complaints, but in the company of another cynic, a valid complaint against a broken system can quickly spiral into thrilling condemnation of everyone who doesn’t look, think, or act like us. See, we love the Church…but we also kind of love to hate the Church.
This is our downfall.
When the club of Committed Christian Cynics comes together we immediately get to feeling smug and superior. Sometimes we buy into our own hype so hard we start to believe everything we think, and we think everyone who doesn’t agree is an ignorant fucknugget. We feed off each other’s negative energy, waiving the critic’s torch wildly, recklessly, rushing to set fire to anything and everything we deem unworthy, with little concern for the people who might get burned.
I used to think it would be awesome if there was a church just for us, the critics and complainers, the people who see all the problems so clearly and obviously. This church, The Church of all Cynics and Complaints, would have the most thoroughly critiqued worship gathering, programs, and pastors on the planet. Can you even imagine?
The Sunday morning service would boast a respectful variety of cool music, old hymns, and secular one-offs, but, instead of praise hands, we would raise our arms to give the songs we can’t stand the middle finger. Sermons would be laced with trigger warnings – pronouns avoided at all cost – but, just in case, Xanax and self-care rooms would be available to anyone traumatized by ideas, stories, or words they didn’t appreciate. Instead of an offering basket, we would pass an orphan, stuffing cash into his little pockets until an usher came by to scold us for creating dependency and fostering an early childhood attachment disorder.
Newcomers would receive a welcome tote sewn by Malaysian sex workers out of fabric scraps locally sourced from the dump by junkies and hipsters. Inside, they would find a beaded bracelet, handmade by children recently rescued, sunburnt and hungry, off of rafts floating aimlessly in the Wisconsin Dells. They’d get a recycled paper bookmark that firmly declares “WORDS MATTER! Except for bad words, bad words don’t matter at all!”, and a coupon for 20% off the tattoo of their choice*.
(*excluding embarrassing tribal flash**)
(**not that anyone is judging***)
(***yes, we are)
The culture of this carefully curated church would be painstakingly pain free, restrictively liberating, and exclusively inclusive. The Church of all Cynic and Complaints would encourage its members toward a kind of self-obsessed self-awareness so they may grow to be courageously cautious as they follow Jesus. The church motto would be:
In short, it would be uncomfortable and terrible for virtually everyone involved, and nothing good could come of it, because no one could ever do anything right. EVER. Every effort to engage each other would be dissected with the intent to find something wrong. Every fresh attempt at art and music and storytelling would be squashed by the potential to offend. Every act of service, every generous gift, every friendly gesture would be stained by the suspicion of ulterior motive. A Church of all Cynics and Complaints couldn’t help but be critical to the point of paralysis.
Honestly, it could never work, because when too many critics emerge in one space, it creates a toxic environment.
But if we think of the Church as a body, I mean like an actual living organism, then try to think of the cynic as bacteria. Some bacteria are good and necessary in order to keep the body healthy and balanced, right? But when too many bacteria get together, it knocks the whole system off kilter as they breed and fester, eventually poisoning the body against itself. Good bacteria shouldn’t be ruthlessly eliminated and bad bacteria shouldn’t be blatantly encouraged. This is the difficult balance the Christian cynic and the Church must strike with each other.
Remember when Jamie Lee Curtis smiled and sold us probiotic yogurt to help us poo? The Church should embrace the critic with that same kind of enthusiasm. Churches need to learn how to receive criticism well, understanding that sometimes it’s actually helpful and might even be exactly what they need to gain forward momentum. At the same time, it’s up to the Committed Christian Cynic to hold the torch of critique with care and concern for the rest of the body. We have to turn our keen eyes for observation on ourselves, asking ourselves the hard question: Will I be a probiotic or a paralytic to the Church? Am I poop yogurt or bitter poison?
I don’t know about you, but I wanna be poop yogurt.
Through open dialog and thoughtful critique, I hope to shed light on Church fallacies and set fire to ugly Christian facades, but as long as I claim to carry this torch in one hand, I have to carry the burden of responsibility in the other. I have to remember that cynicism is contagious – and it can be dangerous. I have to respect that once someone sees something by the light of the cynic’s torch, it’s nearly impossible to unsee it. This enlightenment might lead people to new insights and greater freedom in their faith, but it can also be painful and traumatic, like watching their childhood home burn to the ground. If I’m the one holding the match, it’s up to me to honor this process with patience and humility.
Especially since sometimes we, the cynics, are just wrong.
We don’t like to admit this out loud, particularly if we’re the arrogant, opinionated dickhead type, but we’re not always right and we most definitely do not have everything figured out. The nature of a cynic is to be better at demolition than construction, and a lot of us are still learning how to dismantle and dispose of outdated church language, tired programs, harmful missions, and rusty old ideas without completely discouraging the optimists and innovators around us.
The Committed Christian Cynic needs to challenge the Church with Truth for today, and the Church needs to meet them at the door with Hope for tomorrow. For as much as the Church and the cynic are frustrated, annoyed, and exasperated by one another, we actually need each other. We make each other better, stronger, healthier, and more productive, but only when there’s room for criticism to sharpen the Church and for the Church to soften the critic.