They are lingering around the margins of our ministries. Some of them have been shoved from the pews to the periphery, but most of them have withdrawn on their own.
Disillusioned with the people of God and often with God himself, these jaded souls are licking their ecclesial wounds while lobbing criticisms from a safe distance. Haunting the fringes and taunting those in the center, their audacity in asking the hard questions threatens to spread skepticism. It would be easier if the cynics would just step back into line and slip back into the pew. It would be easier if they would just repent of the gloomy naysaying and try some cheery optimism. Maybe it would be even easier if they just fled the fringes and left the church altogether.
But we need them. Desperately.
The church is in dire need of the disillusioned. Pop-theology and idealistic slogans are rife among God’s people today. But as a society committed to truth, the church can harbor no illusory notions about God or itself. Dis-illusionment is the dispersal of illusions. Those whose rose-colored glasses have been crushed under the foot of grim realities are powerful resources in an age of spin and empty promises. Cynics have powerful insights the church needs.
What we do not need, of course, is their cynicism.
So how do we embrace the cynics and not their disposition? How do we disciple the disillusioned? Reports abound that disenfranchised young people are leaving the church en masse. The future of the church hinges on whether or not we can engage and minister to the cynics hovering dangerously close to the edges of the church. Here are some suggestions.
The dispersal of illusions is often painful. Truth hurts. The caricature of cynics above may capture our perspective toward them, but it fails to comprehend that a great deal of jarring pain may have landed cynics on the church fringes in the first place. Legions of us are harboring deep wounds from severe disappointments in regard to our faith. The pastor had an affair. The church split. The small group leaked our confession. Even more painful are the wounds that seem to be inflicted by God himself. The miracle never came. He refused to heal our loved one. He seemed content to permit tragedy. He hid himself in our grief. Some cynics delight in being ornery irritants in the church. But so many of them—so many of us—have had our hopes brutally dashed and we are simply wounded souls. When the spiritual wounds begin to fester, the brokenness turns to bitterness.
For healing to come, cynics need compassion more than they need ostracism that reinforces their assumptions about church-folk. Not the drippy sort of compassion that looks more like self-righteous pity—cynics can smell this from a long way off. The sort of compassion required is a sincere concern seeped in the sobering awareness of another’s pain.
The reason many of us are disillusioned is because we espouse happy ideals about our faith which are simply incompatible with ex-Eden reality. We make all sorts of promises and platitudes that are not only unsustainable in a fallen world but contrary to the worldview found in Scripture. Powerful hopes are certainly found in those holy pages, astonishing hopes that seem too good to be true. But there is an eschatological sensibility to the bold promises of the Bible. God is certainly working wonders in the here and now. He rips open seas for the deliverance of his people. He heals and restores to life. But the prophets, Evangelists and apostles encourage us to orient our hopes toward the future. That future has been displaced a bit, parts of it taking place in the present through the work of Christ (see below), but the grim realities of a sin-wrecked realm still abound. To ignore those realities is to promote a faith on sand which will eventually shift and sink.
Worship befitting a holy people amidst a sinful world includes lament. Injured souls cannot sing in a major key. So when we ask with a big smile that the congregation stand to sing some cheerful tune, we instantly marginalize the hurting among us. When the worship selections are upbeat and full of merry optimism, the inadvertent messages are that the church cannot accommodate pain, that the church is the last place you turn if you have problems. Even worse—when worship is always happy, the messages are that God himself wants nothing to do with our suffering, that God is the last person we turn to in distress.
Lament poetry makes up roughly a third of the Psalter. Right in the middle of our Bibles are the gut-wrenching pleas, the bellowing cries, and the haunting groans of the disillusioned. These laments make up the largest genre of psalms in the worship book of Israel.
Weeping can be worship.
The lament songs give voice to the jaded and disenchanted, conveying that God is indeed the one to whom we turn when our souls are shredded to pieces. The wounds of a cynic cannot heal on the margins. But the cynic will not march back into the pews to a soundtrack of perky praise music. When we recover the worship of lament, we will offer downcast souls biblically sanctioned language suitable for addressing God in their frustration and misery.
Preach a God of Biblical Proportions
“God will never give you more than you can handle.” This theological sentiment has almost become sloganized. But say it to Job while you pat him on the back and see what he says in response. Tell it to Paul and his companions while they endured that mysterious affliction in Asia and felt “so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” (2 Cor 1:8).
Cynics have been failed by shallow, sentimentalized pop-theology. When God does not live up to our expectations, we feel betrayed. But maybe the betrayal is sourced in the church’s proclamation of false expectations.
An idealized God is an idolized god.
But when we are presented with the mystifying God of Scripture, all the theological categories are rocked. The theological boxes are exploded. In a theology of biblical proportions we encounter a God dense enough and high enough to mystify and astound, but also to comfort and console. Such a theology presents a King both lowly and exalted, a Deity both tender and terrifying, a cosmic Lord in whom nails were found. No other vision of God will do for those who have faced harsh realities for which their limited theology failed to suffice.
Rather than idealism or cynicism, our call is to “hopeful realism.” This is a perspective that acknowledges and grieves ex-Eden miseries while recognizing and awaiting Eden’s restoration. As we have noted, God will make all things new and restore paradise (Rev 21-22). But the Resurrection of Jesus signifies that new creation has already begun. When Jesus climbed out of his tomb, a cosmic interruption took place. New life from the Age to Come leapt into the present sphere. And that Resurrection power infuses our own existence (Rom 6:4). The empty tomb of Jesus is a hole in the system, the system of Death, the system of all that makes us cynical. Hopeful realism groans in the suffering of this present age, but rejoices in the inevitable collapse of sin’s power. Resurrection makes cynicism obsolete.
Truth hurts…but it also heals. Disillusionment is actually a gift that leads to new life. Can our churches and ministries accommodate the dispersal of illusions and the resulting new life? Can we welcome redeemed cynics into our midst and gladly heed their insights? The future of the church in the Western world may indeed depend on whether or not we can answer such questions in the affirmative. An exodus is underway, and it is leading in the wrong direction…
This article is adapted from Andrew Byers’s book, Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint.
After a decade of pastoral ministry, Andrew Byers is working on a PhD in New Testament at Durham University (England). He is the author of Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint (IVP) and his blog is Hopeful Realism.