L ast week I was privileged to speak at a conference for Nigerian churches in Europe. I led a seminar about reverse mission, encouraging them to share the Gospel with their white British neighbours. But, well, you know me: somehow, the topic of shame came up.
Some of the younger delegates were excited to reach out to their British friends, but were worried about what would happen if they actually brought them to church; in many churches, there are strong expectations about how a Christian ought to look, to dress, and to behave. (That goes for many British churches as well as many Nigerian ones!) The unspoken message is, “behave, believe, and then maybe we’ll let you belong.”
One second-generation Nigerian in the UK told me, “we have to be careful sharing our testimonies in the church, because we’re afraid of what our pastors would think if they found out some things about us. We might not be allowed to minister or take part in the services.”
What’s going on here?
It’s about the church creating an image that it wants to project to the world, and then judging people if they don’t fit that image – in other words, shaming them. This kind of social control is often hard to see unless you’re looking for it, because it’s the way we’ve always given a group its identity. But there’s a big problem when it happens in our churches.
Imagine someone has come to Jesus to find a way out of their shame, only to come into a church which doesn’t accept them unless they conform to certain expectations. The whole thing falls apart. This is why Paul got so upset about shaming behaviour in the Corinthian church, in 1 Corinthians chapter 6. (In that case, the shaming was done through public lawsuits.) It’s also why James warned the churches he wrote to about judging on appearances:
Suppose someone comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor person in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the one wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the one who is poor, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?James 2:2-4
I think one of the underlying reasons why churches use shame to police the appearance and the behaviour of others – rather than trusting the Holy Spirit to convict and change people as they grow in knowledge of God – is that the churches themselves have an image that they’re trying to maintain. In that sense, they’re not free from shame corporately: they want to appear better than they are, bigger than they are, more holy than they are and so on. As I write:
We’ve seen all along that the root of shameprone insecurity is a failure to reflect the image of God and to prefer the images that we create for ourselves. When churches fail to be transparent and authentic, when they prefer to live in the cover-up than to live in the truth, what they’re really demonstrating is a lack of faith. They feel the world would respect the Christian message more if it were expressed through a curated identity – a fake identity – rather than through their true identity. They believe that Jesus needs the church to handle his public relations. But ... we’re only going to see openness and authenticity in our churches when we model openness and authenticity as churches.
Only an undefended church, a church which is secure its own identity in God, is in a position to minister the healing of shame to others.
Have you seen churches with a “behave, believe, belong” culture? How do we move to a place of “openness and authenticity”?