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When Christians Get It Wrong (Revised)

When Christians Get It Wrong (Revised)

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by Adam Hamilton

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More and more young adults have opted out of Christianity and the church. The reason? Christians.

When young adults talk about the problems they have with Christianity and the church, they often name certain attitudes and behaviors they believe are practiced too often by Christians: judging others, condemning people of other faiths,


More and more young adults have opted out of Christianity and the church. The reason? Christians.

When young adults talk about the problems they have with Christianity and the church, they often name certain attitudes and behaviors they believe are practiced too often by Christians: judging others, condemning people of other faiths, rejecting science, injecting politics into faith, and being anti-homosexual. With his familiar style, Adam Hamilton tackles these issues and addresses the how’s and why’s of Christians getting it right when it comes to being Christ in the world.

Those who read When Christians Get It Wrong will gain a different way of understanding the issues that keep people away from Christianity and keep Christians from living a more compelling faith. Because, honestly, if we don’t start getting it right, we may lose an entire generation.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Why are growing numbers of American young people choosing not to affiliate with churches? Head of the Leawood, Kans., Church of the Resurrection, Hamilton (Confronting the Controversies: A Christian Looks at the Tough Issues) views this well-documented phenomenon from a pastoral perspective. Threading his reflections with anecdotes and conversations with younger adults both inside and outside church walls, the author takes a look at some of the hot button issues younger adults report as divisive. These include Christians and judgmentalism; science and Christian practice; how believers relate to those of other faiths; how to understand God's role when tragedy strikes; and what happens when the church focuses on such issues as homosexuality. “When Christians get it right they love and give, they work for justice and demonstrate kindness,” asserts the author. He makes the argument throughout this slender volume that when nonbelievers see the faithful “knocking holes in the darkness” by deeds done in Jesus’ name, they see evidence for Christian faith that attracts rather than repels. (Aug.)

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Read an Excerpt

When Christians Get It Wrong

By Adam Hamilton

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-7523-9



John was twenty-four years old and had just returned from six years as an Army Airborne Ranger deployed first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. It was John's dad, Tom, who suggested we meet. I am Tom's pastor. Tom told me that John had very strong negative feelings about the Christian faith. He felt that both John and I would benefit from a conversation together. We met in my office, and in our ninety-minute conversation John was thoughtful, articulate, and respectful, but at times almost angry as he described for me the reasons he had rejected Christianity. His subtle undertone of anger was not directed toward me, but at the views, attitudes, and actions of Christians he had known— views that seemed out of sync with the God of love that Christianity preached. John was describing for me the ways in which he believed Christians get it wrong.

John's feelings about Christians were not new to me. I had heard them many times before, though seldom as thoughtfully or comprehensively presented as John presented them. I had felt some of these same things myself in dealing with some of my fellow Christians. Several years after meeting John, our church set up a Web site to invite young adults (those under thirty-five) to tell us where they believe Christians get it wrong. About that same time we began sitting down to talk with people who had opted out of church. There were so many common responses between the two groups. Generally we found that young people rejected Christianity because of the beliefs, attitudes, and actions of Christians they knew.

Their criticism of Christianity usually included one or more of five key themes: (1) the unchristian ways some Christians act, (2) the anti-intellectual, anti-science stance of some Christians, (3) Christianity's views of other world religions, (4) questions related to the role of God in human suffering, and (5) the way Christians view homosexuality. Each of these themes will be considered in a chapter in this book.

My hope in writing this book is to speak for young adults who have been turned off, frustrated, or even hurt by Christians and to suggest what Christianity might look like when Christians get it right. Let's begin with the unchristian ways some Christians act.


In their 2007 book, unChristian (Baker Books), David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons outlined the research of the Barna Group with hundreds of young adults who, like John in our opening story, were outside the Christian faith. They found that more young adults today are turning away from Christianity than in years past. Their research did not explore the theological issues that have turned people away from the Christian faith; instead they focused on understanding the perceptions non-Christian young adults have of Christians. Among their findings:

• 91% of those adults surveyed who were outside the Christian faith felt Christians were "anti-homosexual."

• 87% felt Christians were judgmental.

• 85% felt Christians were hypocritical.

• 75% felt Christians were too political.

• 70% thought Christians were insensitive.

My conversations with young adults substantiate these findings. If these words accurately describe how young adults have experienced Christians, then is it any surprise that they are turning away from the Christian faith in droves?

When I ask non-Christians what they think Jesus stood for, most say, "Love." And they are correct; this is one of the defining elements of Jesus' teaching. He told his followers that God's will for humanity could be summarized with two commands: love God and love your neighbor. He went on to say that our neighbor is any-one who needs our help. The love we are to show is not a feeling but a way of acting—a love of kindness and compassion and a desire to bless and seek good for others. Jesus told his disciples they were to love not only their neighbors and friends but their enemies as well. He told them that the world would know that they are his disciples by their love. Non-Christians know that Jesus stood for love. Which is why, when those who claim to follow Jesus act in unloving ways, it feels particularly unpleasant.

This disparity between the love Christians are meant to display and what young adults often experience is most pronounced when Christians speak with judgment or in disparaging ways toward others.

One young man described an experience when he was invited to attend a special youth group event at a big church in his town. He noted that the kids at school rarely spoke to him until it was "bring a friend day" at youth group. They invited him to join their group at the local water park. Here's his description of how the day went:

It didn't start off badly; the rides at the park were fun, and I even enjoyed hanging out with some of them. But during the long ride back to the church, they started talking about people. They discussed who was having sex, who was smoking weed, who was gay. The more they talked the worse things they said. Many of the people they were talking about were my friends, and they knew it! To make things worse, some of the ones talking loudest were doing the very things they were gossiping about. Finally, they got on to the subject of who was going to hell. It seems that if you didn't go to their brand of church, you didn't stand a chance of getting into heaven. That, of course, meant me, and it didn't seem to matter to them at all that I was sitting right there, soaking all this up.

The judgmental, hypocritical, and unloving spirit these Christians displayed left this young man determined not to go back to church.

Another young woman echoed these same sentiments when she said:

I'm thinking of the Christians in my school that I see every day. They judge everyone constantly. It's annoying, and a lot of people don't really like it or like them because of it. I have a really good friend who claims to be a really hard-core Christian but he smokes weed all the time and drinks and does all these things and lies, and he's just not a Christian at all.

These were both teens who turned away from the Christian faith because of the actions of Christians they knew. But this phenomenon is not unique to young adults. No doubt you can think of examples of Christians you have known who were judgmental, hypocritical, and unloving.

Some of the most insensitive, critical, judgmental, and mean-spirited people I've known were persons who claimed to be committed Christians.

I was officiating at the graveside funeral for a young man who had taken his own life. The parents were still in shock and experiencing intense grief. In the eulogy and message I sought to help them and all who had gathered to make sense of this terrible tragedy while finding comfort and hope in God. As a part of the service we remembered the unique and special qualities of their son. Following the service, a husband and wife—sister and brother-in-law of one of the boy's parents—came to me and asked, "Why didn't you tell them that their son is in hell today?" I was taken aback and asked, "How do you know the boy is in hell today? Do you know what was in the boy's heart? Are you so certain you know the mind of God?" They looked at me and walked away. What kind of people are so certain of another's eternal fate that they can stand before grieving parents and callously tell them their son is in hell?

I could fill this book with stories like these from my own personal experience of Christians, including a few pastors I know, who are free with their condemnation of everyone who doesn't conform to their very narrow view of the world, of the Bible, and of truth.


Of course Jesus confronted the same kinds of things in his day. If you read the Gospels carefully, Jesus never got angry with prostitutes, adulterers, or ordinary "sinners." Nor did his actions turn such people away. In fact, Jesus drew "sinners" to himself by the thousands. He made such people feel at ease. The only people Jesus had words of judgment for in the Gospels were the religious folks. What angered him the most about these people, particularly the religious leaders, was their judgmental-ism, their hypocrisy, and their failure to love. They believed God was primarily interested in people following the rules. Jesus taught that God's primary rule was love, and that God's interest wasn't in condemning "sinners" but in drawing them to God.

Though Jesus was opposed by various people in the Gospels, his primary opposition was from a group of religious people called Pharisees (the word likely comes from a Hebrew word that means "set apart" or "separated"). They believed that holiness and a life pleasing to God came from separating yourself from sin and in obeying the commands of God. This all makes sense but, like many modern-day Christians, they had missed the point. They failed to see that God's primary concern is not rules, but people. They should have been celebrating the fact that thousands of people who had turned away from organized religion were drawn to hear Jesus teach about the kingdom of God. Instead they were repulsed by Jesus' willingness to associate with people "like that." In response, Jesus spoke some pretty harsh words to the Pharisees and the other religious leaders of his time. The word he used most frequently to describe them in the Gospels is the Greek word hupokrisis from which we have the word hypocrisy. The Greek word was used to refer to an actor in a play— a pretender.

The truth is, we are all in danger of being "pretenders" when it comes to our highest values and aspirations. This is particularly true for religious people, which is why Jesus often warned his disciples about hypocrisy, warnings that covered four different expressions of hypocrisy: wrong motives, judging others, "majoring in the minors," and being two-faced. Let's briefly consider what Jesus warned against in each of these areas.


Once when Jesus was talking to his followers, he warned them about the dangers of praying, fasting, and helping out the poor. Why would he do that? Aren't all of those good things? Yes they are, unless you do them for the wrong reasons. If you pray and fast out of a genuine desire to get closer to God, you do well. The same is true if you give money to the poor because you sincerely wish to lessen their burdens.

But that's not why everyone does these things. Jesus talked about people who would pray on street corners, blow a loud trumpet when they were about to give to a needy person, and make sure everyone who saw them knew they were fasting. Why? So that other people (people like them) would know how "religious" they were, and praise them for it. They were using God and their religion to further their careers, or their stature in the community, or to meet their needs for affirmation from others (see Matthew 6:1-8, 16-18).


One of the strangest things Jesus ever said had to do with lumber (makes sense coming from a carpenter, doesn't it?). He asked some religious leaders how they could criticize people who had a speck of sawdust in their eye, while the leaders didn't notice the two-by-four lodged in their own eyes (Matthew 7:1-5). What did he mean? He was referring to religious people who readily point out the sins of others while failing to see their own shortcomings. They demonstrate a kind of superiority and spiritual or moral pride, but they fail to see that their pride is actually a more sinister and deadly sin than the sins of those they are denouncing. Jesus then called his hearers to remove the "log" from their own eye before seeking to remove the speck from another's eye. In essence he was saying, "Stop pointing out the sins of others; you've got enough issues of your own!"


If you grew up where and when Jesus did, you were encouraged to tithe, that is, contribute a tenth of your income to support the Temple and other religious causes. Some of Jesus' religious contemporaries had this figured out in great detail. You know those herbs you grow on your windowsill, the little ones? Well these folks would even take the clippings from those plants, separate out a tenth of them, and contribute even that. No one was going to accuse them of not living up to their obligations!

Jesus did, however. Calling them "blind guides," he reminded them that while tithing is good, they were missing the more important matters like living a life of justice and mercy toward their neighbors (Matthew 23:23-24).

I've known people who called themselves Christians, who were convinced that they alone were right, and who were willing to fight over the tiniest, least consequential of things. We Christians argue over forms of baptism, our interpretation of minor points of Scripture, even the forms of music we play in church. Christians have fought entire wars over our sectarian differences, all the while forgetting that Jesus said that the defining characteristic of a Christian's life is meant to be love.


You probably know people who appear to be one thing when you first meet them, but upon getting to know them better you find they are something else entirely. Jesus knew people like this, too. He once suggested that such people are like a person who washes the outside of a dirty cup but fails to wash the inside, so the drink that remains inside the cup spoils—I picture the glasses of milk or soda I used to find in my teenage daughter's room that had been sitting there for weeks—curdled, moldy, and with the rankest of smells (Luke 11:39)!

Jesus was speaking of a superficial faith, which is seen in the outward appearance of religious behavior but has not sunk down into the heart. Like those who focus on the minutiae, these people have missed the bigger point of faith. Their religion is skin deep and hasn't addressed the really serious issues in their hearts or the truly important issues of society. Not all Pharisees were hypocrites, but many seemed to miss the point in this way.

This description also applies to too many Christians I know. They understand how to do religious things but fail to let their religion change their values, their hearts, and ultimately their daily lives. Their religion is window dressing.

In a prophetic warning to his disciples, Jesus says in Luke 12:1, "Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy." Why did Jesus warn the disciples against becoming hypocrites? Because he knew that his own followers would not be immune to this common temptation for religious people.


Today's Pharisees are religious people who struggle with wrong motives, with being critical and judgmental of others, with missing the point, and with being two-faced. Unfortunately, I've got to confess, I am a recovering Pharisee—one who often falls off the wagon. Everyone I know, religious people and atheists alike, struggle with these four tendencies.

It is so easy to do the right things for all the wrong reasons. It is so easy to point out the sins of others while ignoring our own. Most of us are experts at "majoring in the minors" while failing to do the really important things God demands of us. And which of us has never put on a face and pretended to be something we're not? It is only in recognizing our tendency to be Pharisees that we have any hope of remaining in recovery.

My experience with non-religious people is that they do not expect Christians to be perfect. In fact, one young adult said, "I don't mind that you Christians don't live up to your ideals. I don't live up to all of my ideals either. In the end, I guess we're all hypocrites. It's just that I and my friends recognize that we're hypocrites. It seems that many Christians haven't figured this out yet." Again, the hypocrisy of Christians is most troubling to new Christians when we point out the sins of others.


Every Christian gets it wrong sometimes. The critique from John in our opening story and from the countless others who share with him a frustration with Christian hypocrisy is an important wake-up call—a warning to Christians who are becoming the very Pharisees Jesus preached against.


Excerpted from When Christians Get It Wrong by Adam Hamilton. Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Adam Hamilton is senior pastor of The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, one of the fastest growing, most highly visible churches in the country. The Church Report named Hamilton’s congregation the most influential mainline church in America, and he preached at the National Prayer Service as part of the presidential inauguration festivities in 2013 and was appointed to the President's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Hamilton is the best-selling and award-winning author of The Call, The Journey, The Way, 24 Hours That Changed the World, John, Revival, Not a Silent Night, Enough, When Christians Get It Wrong, and Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White, all published by Abingdon Press. Learn more about Adam Hamilton at AdamHamilton.org.

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