When Bad Christians Happen to Good People

When Bad Christians Happen to Good People: Where we have failed each other and how to reverse the damage
by Dave Burchett

This title strikes a deep, hollow, minor chord in me. As a pastor, I find those people that are most resistant to Jesus are those who have been injured by those who bear Christ’s name. The deepest wounds come from those we trust, and we are supposed to be able to trust our brothers and sisters in Christ. There is a need for a book like this: a book for surviving hurts that have been given by those who are supposed to love their neighbors as they love themselves. The concept of the book is right there in the title and sub-title. Does it deliver?

Burchett delivers up some very fine points. The first chapter points out that bad Christians are just that: bad Christians, not non-Christians. We are still sinners, and sin gets in the way. He does not jump on the holiness rollercoaster that says the person who hurt you is not a Christian if he or she hurt you in such a way; the person who caused the hurt is a Christian who sinned.

The first chapter has some great quotes, and I want to simply lay out a few here so you can get a taste of Burchett’s prose style:

Many of the unchurched folks I talk to base their rejection of Christ on a bad experience with a Christian. In reality, that can be a lame excuse that disguises the real issues at hand: who is Jesus Christ and what does that mean?

On the other hand, I believe a disturbingly high percentage of Christians leave the church and even the faith because of a bad experience with an individual Christian, a Christian leader, or a group of Christians… This Christianity thing would be amazing if Christians would just stop getting in the way.

After laying the groundwork in the first chapter that Burchett is not claiming that bad Christians have given up their ticket to heaven and targeting his audience (Christians who are frustrated with other Christians), he moves on to target some of the specific causes of Christians harming other Christians. First up in his crosshairs is legalism. The chapter focusing on the silly laws we lay out for each other includes a great insight into Burchett’s sense of humor. He claims that Christians should throw a Festivus pot luck, which would include (of course) an airing of grievances and feats of strength. (If you have no idea what Festivus is, watch this video:)

In this chapter, he suggests that churches should be welcoming to sinners, and yes, this will create problems. Sinner-sensitive churches will offend the sensibilities of many – just as Christ offended when he reached out to tax collectors and prostitutes. The chapter ends with an indicting paragraph: “Christians, like physicians, should vow to do no harm. But forgive us, Lord, because too often we do inflict harm.”

The next chapter looks at how Christians like dividing out over the silliest things. Burchett again reminds us that the church is made up of sinners: “The church is dysfunctional because it can’t be anything else. Seriously. Just look at who attends.” This chapter makes some good points about being forgiving over sin, but I feel that he leaned a little bit too far and started saying that we shouldn’t divide over false doctrine. He never states that outright, but some of his statements lean that way. He does ask an important question, though: If you are tempted to leave the church, is it an issue of pride? Many of his points in this chapter are helpful, but again, I think he may be leaning too far into saying, “Don’t leave your church, even if it’s false doctrine.” (I will admit, again, this may be me reading too much into a few specific sentences.)

The next chapter really caused me to pause and consider. It asks WJSHTOT, which I should probably cross-stitch on my whoopee-cushion. It stands for “Would Jesus Spend His Time On This?” He talks about Christians getting involved in crusades and causes that simply aren’t worth the congregation’s time. He targets the issue of praying in public schools, and I found myself cheering him on in his stance, though I suspect he didn’t win too many brownie points from most evangelicals.

He then returns to legalism in a slightly different form, labeling it “fear-based Christianity.” He nails several targets handily.

Finally, he looks at how stupid it was of God to leave the “marketing” of Christianity to sinful, all too often selfish Christians. He doesn’t call God stupid, mind you – he simply points out that he would never have done the marketing this way!

Having looked at the many ways that Christians hurt Christians, he turns and looks at how Christians have lost the world as an audience. He targets several areas in the next few chapters, including how so often Christians act no differently than the unbelieving world. If our Christianity doesn’t change us in day-to-day ways, why would anyone examine what we believe? He offers a great CSL class (Christianity as a Second Language). Burchett does a great job showing just how strange our Christian way of talking is to someone who didn’t grow up in the church. Then he focuses on “Christian products” as completely unnecessary in most cases. He takes a look at militant Christians that go to war with the world.

Finally, Burchett starts examining ways to teach the church to do better. He begins by saying that so many Christians don’t know what they believe. They can’t explain grace. They can’t talk about Jesus in any real way. They have dumbed down Jesus to an acceptable, safe level. Burchett recommends that the church gets back into the Bible and simply read it and see what it says. I found the advice refreshing. He talks about how the simple “sinner’s prayer” is too easy – not that grace isn’t free for the sinner, not that you have to earn forgiveness, but so often new Christians aren’t led to see the depth of God’s amazing love. (I will note that as with many books, this one proclaims decision theology without any kind of shame over it. He does not see how “making a decision” in and of itself is works righteousness, something that Burchett soundly denounces in the rest of the book.)

A chapter focuses on how “All God’s children got souls, even the annoying ones.” And it’s true. It’s hard to remember that sometimes, but even these annoying Christians are in fact my brothers and sisters. That means that ministry (and faith in general) is messy. It’s hands-on. He also points out that Christians are meant to mature; why should we be surprised when a brother or sister sins? They’re still sinners! Why should we be surprised when a young Christian sins? Why should we be surprised when someone who grew up in the church doesn’t know the basics when they haven’t done much more than sit in the pew for the last forty years?

He suggests that Christians need to show themselves to be different as an opening to explain why they’re different – instead of claiming to be different but never having actions to back up their words. Let the world notice our light, and then let them see the oil that powers our flame. Don’t try to splash them with oil and then light them on fire. That doesn’t work so well.

Finally, Burchett turns to grace. He shows that what we have is so very different from the rest of the world. We have forgiveness. We don’t have to become anything… because we’ve already been transformed. We don’t have to change… because God has changed us. We do mature into what we already are, but we currently are new creations. We need to remind Christians of who they are – not force them to be something they’re not through law and fear. I greatly appreciated this focus, but it really could have been infused into the entire book instead of just the last chapter.

Overall, Burchett has a lot of smart things to say. He targets some problems and his conversational style is easy to read. This might be a good read for a layman or even a council study if a church is looking to discover how it can do better. His answers are spot on: Know who you are in Christ. Show love. Know better and better what God tells you in his Word. I do wish he had spent more time on solutions than pinpointing problems, but he does explain that the first version of this book was cathartic – it was more him explaining why he had problems in his congregation. Now he’s aiming to be part of the solution.

This volume is a second edition; entire chapters have been added. Based on his notes on how this edition is different than the first, I would strongly recommend that if you’re going to read this book, get this new (2011) edition. Don’t bother with the first.

So, there you go. This is a great conversation-starter. Grab it and consider what he says. Does it reflect you? I found myself indicted several times. It’s a good thing that I already know the solution: I am forgiven in Christ. He has made me a new creation. Time to get back to who I really am.

Legal nuts and bolts: I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.


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