Hypocrisy! It’s perhaps the single biggest reason people say they don’t go to church. In fact, according to UnChristian, a book based on surveys done by the Barna Research Group, among people with no religious affiliation in the 16- to 29-year-old bracket, 85% say one reason they don’t go to church is because Christians are hypocritical. And it’s such an easy dodge. One word: hypocrisy. Someone has suggested the best response might be, “There’s always room for one more.” There’s a kind of truth to what they’re claiming. If you’re looking for a group of people who always live up to their highest values and who never say one thing and do another, you’ll need to look somewhere other than the church, though I doubt you’ll find a group totally free of inconsistency anywhere.
It can be a healthy thing to acknowledge the contradictions between our profession of faith and our daily actions, but it’s also useful to qualify our confession a bit. In the New Testament, the only time Jesus hurled the charge of hypocrisy was when people were doing something deliberately to appear outwardly different from what they were inwardly. For example, he spoke about people who gave to charity “so that they may be praised by others” (Matthew 6:2). Likewise, he spoke against those who “love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others” (v. 5). He also chided the scribes and Pharisees for putting on appearances, saying, “For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth” (Matthew 23:27). Jesus called all of those people hypocrites, and the Greek word that’s translated “hypocrite” actually means “actor” or “stage player.”
How many church attendees do you suppose get up on Sunday morning and think, “I’m going to go to church so I can pretend to be righteous and appear to be holy”? No, when we church people admit to being hypocrites, we aren’t usually confessing to playacting. More often, we mean that we failed to follow through on our good intentions or that we can still see the gap between the people we are called to be and the people we actually are. But we aren’t trying to deceive anybody; we’re seeing where we still need to work to bring our behavior up to the level of what we really believe.
It appears, then, that when somebody is outside the church and has no intention of coming in, it’s easy for him or her to say it’s because of hypocrisy in the church. And there are some gaps between our best intentions and our follow-through. But church insiders are more likely to see those gaps differently. In other words, if you really get involved with members of a congregation, you are less likely to see problems in the church in terms of hypocrisy and more in terms of human failure. And when you’re talking about human failure, it’s easier to include yourself in that category. In fact, many people stay in the church because, though they recognize imperfections among both fellow attendees and themselves, they also see it’s a place where we’re called higher. And if you pay attention in church, you’ll often see people who are working very hard to follow Jesus faithfully.
Thus, one good reason to come to church is because it puts us in company with other people who also see that gap between their profession and practice, and care enough to want to narrow it. In church, we find people who aren’t that different from ourselves and who are on faith journeys similar to ours. And there is always room for one more!