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puzzledkidThis past weekend I did something I haven’t done in nearly six years: I attended Sunday morning worship at my family’s church. On Easter, no less. It was an interesting experience.
I came away from that experience with a number of strong impressions, and I’d like to share them with you because I feel something can be learned from them. I certainly know that when I was still a Christian I was always interested in receiving input from those on the outside. My feelings at the time were: How else will I ever learn to reach people on the outside if I don’t understand how they think, or how the things we say strikes them? So in that spirit of openness and inquisitiveness, here are my reactions to what I saw Sunday morning.
The TL;DR version is: You’re just weird. But assuming you need a little more detail than that, here goes a little more feedback.

An Outsider’s Perspective: Three Impressions

First, you need to know that the way you talk about Jesus is super creepy.
And yes, I know that will offend some of you. I remember once speaking about him the way you do, but I’m telling you, it’s overly affective and super weird. You gush about Jesus the way a teenage girl does about her boyfriend, which would be fine if you actually were a teenage girl and if Jesus actually were your boyfriend.
But as it is, you’re speaking about someone who isn’t ostensibly in the room as if he really were (he’s both invisible and presumably in a different plane of existence). You also emote all over the auditorium like someone in the throes of a teenage crush. It’s just really weird, and I don’t think you realize how much that’s the case.
When you surround yourself with hundreds of people already accustomed to these kinds of displays, you don’t think anything of it. In that context, it’s perfectly normal and natural. But you’re also continually inviting people to step into this experience from the outside and I have to tell you that looking back in from the outside, it’s freaky as #$@&!
I’m sure it helps that most people who visit your church have already grown accustomed to these kinds of rituals. Living in the Deep South, it’s fair to assume everyone either grew up going to church or at least has attended enough times for these mannerisms to be familiar. But I’ve been out of it long enough to listen with fresh ears, and I have to say, it’s all just a bizarre spectacle.
I’m pretty sure it’s gotten gushier than it was back when I attended, but that probably owes to a difference of leadership. Or maybe the ongoing culture wars have made churches circle the wagons, so to speak, turning inward to strengthen those who remain out of a sense of desperation. I can see how that would bring out a more passionate display of emotion, mirroring the intensity of the hostile resistance they feel from the surrounding culture.
Whatever the reason, that stuck out to me first, so I thought I’d mention it first.
Second, the video clips of Jesus having his flesh mercilessly shredded were a bit much.
It’s a lot to throw at people so early in the morning on a weekend. When you see that much gore and violence in a movie theater, they are legally required to limit the audience in order to avoid traumatizing the uninitiated. In fact, I’m pretty sure it was Christians who demanded those parental guidance ratings in the first place.
But no one in that auditorium seemed horrified by what they were seeing. They’re so used to it, I doubt it even fazes them at this point. They actually seemed to enjoy it, which was even creepier.
This wasn’t even the first church I was invited to this weekend to witness this ritual. A friend who is a pastor of another church texted me just a few days earlier, inviting me to undergo the same experience at his church:

Do you have any idea how weird this sounds?

Perhaps you feel it’s appropriate to shock people with these images in hopes it will make them more emotionally vulnerable. It’s my observation that this is the end goal for everything that takes place in that auditorium from the sounding of the first note on the organ’s call to worship to the final crescendo of the full orchestra accompanying the robed choir standing hundreds-strong in the perfectly-lit loft. If you doubt me, imagine how much of what occurred on Sunday morning could still be accomplished if the electricity went out.
Every word spoken, every note sung, and every overly-emotive gesture displayed during the service is designed to elicit an emotional response, and I should probably warn you that a significant portion of the population is repulsed by such transparent schemes. We can tell when we’re being emotionally manipulated (just like when we watch Hallmark commercials), and it’s a major turn off for us.
Plus there was the bloody beaten man. I know it’s central to your theology, but that is messed up too, frankly. Which leads me to my last point…
Lastly, your “good news” isn’t actually good because it’s predicated on very bad news that says I deserve to be tortured. Forever.
To an outsider looking in, you seem to harbor some disturbingly negative views about human nature, and it undermines the “goodness” of the good news you that say you have to share with the world.

“GOOD NEWS!  You’re a terrible person who deserves to die and suffer for eternity! But hey, if you’ll only feel very very bad about this guy getting beaten and killed because of you, just you, then God will quit being angry with you and learn to see his bloody beaten son instead of you. You can hide behind his mauled body and that way God will no longer be angry with you. Isn’t that great?”

Does putting it that way ^^ offend you? If it does, I wonder why? Is it because those would be terrible things to say to someone? Or is it because you feel they misrepresent what your message actually is? I don’t think they misrepresent the message at all, and I’ve got a Master’s degree in this stuff–from a conservative seminary no less–so you should at least hear me out.
I simply presented your message without supplying the customary sugary coating with which evangelicals have learned to cover the message. It’s like coating strychnine with sugar, cinnamon, and honey butter. You can certainly make it taste better so that people will swallow it, but in the end it is only going to do damage.
It is an anti-human message, and as long as that’s what you’ve got to sell, I’m not going to be buying it. I’m also going to keep talking about what’s wrong with it, because I see the damage it causes. I can still see its effects in my own life, even today.
The Christian gospel is a fundamentally anti-human message because it is predicated on the notion that humans deserve to be punished just for being what humans are naturally. And I’m not talking about us only at our worst—the ones we have to lock up because they’re a danger even to themselves—because most people are not criminals.
Yet for some reason your message explicitly asserts that all people deserve a punishment worse than the ones we inflict on murderers and child-molesters. An eternity of suffering for about seventy years of mostly “thought crimes.” This is not a normal way of thinking, and I would love for you to regain a sense of that at some point. I think it would do you a world of good.
Related: “Anti-humanism: How Evangelicalism Taught Me the Art of Self-Loathing
I hope at least some of you made it all the way through to the end of this without tuning me out. Speaking personally, it took me being gone for several years for me to return to my home church with ears newly re-sensitized to the strangeness of the Easter Sunday morning worship ritual.
I’ll be honest, I’m always going to love hearing Christ the Lord is Risen Today sung by an auditorium full of people. Music can be a wonderful, moving thing. But some of us are just going to be weirded out by everything else that’s said and done in a typical evangelical worship service.
[Image Source:  Adobe Stock]

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Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals...