Beliefnet
O Me of Little Faith

Christ Covenant Church in Beaumont, Texas, has been making headlines in recent weeks with a new billboard along Interstate 10.

It says “What a bunch of jerks!” then lists the church’s website.

jerks.jpg

According to the pastor, the sign is promoting an October sermon series about the teachings of Jesus that the church often ignores. “How do we tell this community that we want to be different? This is like our mea culpa,” Chris Beard, the church’s lead minister, told the Houston Chronicle. “We know we’ve failed.”

Here’s how Christ Covenant explains it on their website:

The church has failed. That’s right; we’ve messed up, big time. The church was SUPPOSED to be a reflection of the God it claimed to serve. The church was SUPPOSED to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ. But, for the most part, the church has failed.

Our failure has left a bad taste in people’s mouths. Our mistakes have led to a lack of credibility. Our messes have caused people to seek answers for this life elsewhere. And really, who could blame people for giving up on the church? Gandhi had a very good point when he said “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

What a bunch of jerks. Prideful, hypocritical, selfish, judgmental jerks.

The site goes on to say that the first step in turning from this jerkiness is to own up to the behavior and admit the hypocrisy, selfishness, and unforgiveness that has caused the world to view Christians as jerks. Because when a church stops acting like jerks and instead acts like Jesus, “great things can happen.”

From an advertising perspective, I’d say the sign is a success. If it’s goal is to 1) capture your attention and then 2) get you to visit its website to discover what it’s talking about, then consider that accomplished. Had I driven by this billboard you can bet I would have taken notice of the sign and looked it up.

From a cultural critic’s perspective, I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I’m impressed by the blatant honesty of it. It’s rare that churches — of whatever size (and Christ Covenant, at 150 members, is fairly small) — own up to being failures as followers of Jesus, especially in a corporate sense.

But on the other hand, there’s a disingenuous quality to it. Because jerkiness is completely subjective. Back in 1st-century Galilee, the outcasts loved Jesus because he accepted them. The Pharisees, though? They probably thought he was a jerk. So did other Jewish and Roman rulers who, you know, crucified him.

If we truly lived like Jesus today, we’d certainly show a much deeper capacity to care for the poor, forgive sinners, and show radical acceptance of outsiders. But you can be sure that we’d have to be jerks, too — because Jesus definitely made enemies. The problem is that today’s Christians tend to disagree about who should be the object of our jerkiness.

Jesus had some pretty harsh words for the rich and powerful, and more progressive/liberal Christian groups don’t mince words when it comes to calling out people who take advantage of the weak and poor. 

On the other end of the spectrum, most conservative Christians today will admit that they shouldn’t be hypocrites or arrogant blowhards as individuals, but I doubt they’re willing to rethink the church’s entrenched social message in opposition to issues like abortion or homosexuality. You know what? Pro-choice advocates tend to think churches are jerks. A lot of homosexuals think Christians are jerks, too — maybe not as individuals, but as members of an institution that generally opposes them.

The fact is, there are certain types of secularly defined
jerkiness that most churches are unwilling to repent of. (This is
where all those people who are so quick to talk about “the offense of
the Gospel” will get excited.)

Regardless of where you stand on social issues like corporate greed or abortion or homosexuality, I think a church that promises not to be a jerk is setting itself up for failure. Any time you take a moral position, you’re going to offend someone who takes the opposite position. You can’t please everyone. We’ll all end up being jerks at some point or another.

It’s good to confess it. It’s good to own up to it. It’s good, on an individual basis, to be nice to people. But let’s not pretend we can avoid coming across as a jerk in a pluralistic society. It’s impossible.

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What’s your perspective on the ad campaign and billboard? Am I overthinking this? Worse, am I sounding like a grouchy fundamentalist?
 

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