Are Christians Overselling Transformation?

In the last 20+ years I’ve served in a variety of churches:

  • Foursquare
  • Baptist
  • Free Methodist
  • Reformed
  • Non-denominational/Emergent
  • Nazarene

Despite the differing theologies in these denominations and associations, I have heard one thing over and over: a Christian must “die to self.” Christians are called to voluntarily take up their cross (a torturous device used for execution) and follow Jesus.

This “dying to self” (or as Christ puts it “denying oneself”) is part of the sanctification process that enables us to focus on out greater call of building Christ’s kingdom and less on our own petty demand that things go our way or that people recognize how awesome we are.

It’s not something that the church made up; it’s a distinctly biblical concept:

  • Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” Matt 16:24
  • “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Jn 12:24
  • Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Phil. 2:3–4

But here’s the thing: for all of our talk about “dying to self,” it’s something I’ve seldom seen (in myself or others).

Why are Christians so petty?

Due to the enormous amount of time we spend talking about self denial, you’d think we’d be good at it. We don’t seem to be.

It isn’t the big mistakes and stumbles of our co-laborers and leaders that trouble me; it’s regular, disturbing behavior like grumbling, power grabbing, demanding of rights, and gossip in the church that’s been behind some of my biggest struggles with doubt.

Am I the only one who has noticed how people in the church are often more sensitive and easily offended than the people outside? I’ve seen people upset and and angered over the most inconsequential issues. I’m not talking about individuals who’ve been seriously abused by the church when I say that I’ve seen too many people ditch their community of faith for the one down the street  for the craziest, most self-serving reasons.

For people collectively gathered around a common table, a common savior, and the building of a common kingdom, too many people leave church seething over the slightest perceived slights.

For people collectively gathered around a common table, a common savior, and the building of a common kingdom, too many people leave church seething over the slightest perceived slights. They go to war over carpeting, Sunday school times, musical styles, Bible translations, etc. And it’s often all done through the use of covert conversations and backroom consensus building.

It doesn’t seem to be particular to any denomination, and it’s not something that believers appear to grow out of. I’d feel so much better if I looked around and Christ’s more “seasoned” followers were less petty and demanding—but that’s typically not the case. Quite honestly, I’ve experienced the same behavior from older generation church goers in comments like, “we built this church and we’re not going to let it . . .” or “with the amount of money I’ve given, I expect . . .”

It isn’t just obvious in the way we behave in our churches—spend some time reading the online interaction of many Christians. We’re a quarrelsome and condescending lot. Some of the most egregious and aggressive internet trolls I’ve seen are online fighting for their version of gospel truth.

Are we overselling Christian transformation?

So here’s the big question. Are we expecting too much from Christianity? Are we selling a tonic that doesn’t really work?

I don’t think so.

I think spiritual formation is an important (if not the most important) facet of the Christian faith. We’re not just doing altar calls and leading people in salvation prayers to rescue them from hell. We’re doing it because we believe that people can genuinely be reconciled to God. And this reconciliation has to mean that we’re growing more similar to the object of our affection.

The problem is that we’re not doing a good job communicating the danger in “small sins” like wrath, jealousy, vanity, entitlement, gossip, etc. We focus so much on big behavioral sins and neglect the little tributaries they spring from. We’re not vigilant enough in recognizing these things in ourselves and weeding them out. We see spiritual disciplines as pro forma activities and not as warfare for our spiritual liberation.

Here in the United States, we have so tethered Christianity to the American Dream™ that we don’t even see how mutually exclusive they are. We live in a country where the “pursuit of happiness” is tied to our view of independence that we can’t understand why would deny ourselves any good thing or not indulge our indignation over the slightest provocations.

We spend so much time letting our passions, attitudes, and prerogatives off the leash to play that, when the situation calls for it, we are completely unable to tether them up again.

The way we have done Christianity in the last 60+ years has made salvation the finish line. As soon as I have entered the kingdom, I’ve won.

The Christian life is so much more than reading a devotional during your morning quiet time and church attendance. It is diligence and the regular, systematic crucifixion of the little attitudes and behaviors that undermine community and lead to future personal meltdowns.

No, we’re not overselling transformation. We’ve just forgotten that it’s not a marketing bullet point to sell a product; it’s an expectation for everyone who follows Christ.

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