In my last post, I pointed out that the conservative evangelical church has a listening problem. Instead of paying heed to the chorus of voices stating concerns and asking to be heard, evangelical leaders invent their own reasons for why Millennials are leaving the church (among other things) and trumpet them as fact. Loudly and ad nauseum.
As I thought it over, I realized that this antipathy to listening is built into the far right evangelical worldview. The trigger word in evangelicalism is “compromise,” and the faithfulness of every believer is judged by how much he or she is “compromising” with the world. Listening to secular music? Compromise. Kissing while dating? Compromise. Attending a secular college? Compromise.
The eager young evangelical is conditioned to avoid compromise at any cost. After all, you wouldn’t want anyone thinking that you approved of smoking by seeing you in the company of your smoking friends, right? But worse than that, compromising will lead you straight down the slippery slope to sin. One moment you’re reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance for a homework assignment, and the next you’re running off to join an atheist commune in socialist Europe.
The belief is not merely that secular ideas are seductive; to conservative evangelicals, they’re aggressively penetrating. You can’t read Full Frontal Feminism or listen to a Neil deGrasse Tyson lecture and remain spiritually or theologically pure; you now have that knowledge in your brain corrupting everything you think and affecting how you respond to people.
And that’s why you can’t listen. You can’t listen to those who don’t believe like you do. Because when you start listening, your mind becomes open to ideas and feelings that lead you away from your mission and from God. Your mission, of course, is to convert the unsaved. Lead them into your way of thinking. You can’t convert someone to your way of thinking if you let them fill your head with conflicting information. Why would you do that, anyway? You have all the correct answers, after all – straight from the mouth of God to the pages of scripture. Best to not let them speak at all. Their eternal soul – and yours – is at stake.
To wit, I have been on the receiving end of a lecture like the following by my evangelical caretakers. Let me know if any of this sounds familiar:
“I see you’ve become friends with Sarah. That’s great! Sarah isn’t a Christian, and I know God has put you in her life to be a witness to her. Be sure to invite her to come to church with you. However, it’s important that you don’t spend too much time alone with Sarah, especially at her house. I heard that she’s gay, and I don’t want you thinking that’s ok. God’s not ok with it. If you want to hang out with Sarah, do it in a group with your Christian friends.
“I know Sarah will tell you that she was born that way and that she’s tried to be straight. She’ll tell you very sad stories of people not accepting her for ‘who she is,’ and it will be very convincing. That’s what she believes, and you’ll want to feel sorry for her. You’ll be tempted to tell her that it’s ok, that God accepts her, and that you’ll support her dating another girl. You may even be tempted to think that endorsing gay marriage is a loving thing to do for people like Sarah who are searching for acceptance. But it is the opposite of loving. If Sarah doesn’t change, she will go to hell. And if you tell her that God accepts her in her sin, you will be responsible. So don’t listen.”
Evangelicals know that empathetic listening produces compassion, and compassion is a slippery slope to all kinds of compromise with the world. If you listen to the homeless, you might start advocating for big government social welfare programs. If you listen to the feminists denouncing the evils of patriarchy, you might start supporting divorce in cases of domestic violence. If you listen to those who have been hurt by abusive doctrines in the church, you might decide that church isn’t a place you want to be.
That’s a risk evangelicals can’t afford to take. Compromise is the enemy. Compromise means we’re no different from them. And if there’s no difference between us and them, then we share the same fate: destruction. So the conversation must remain one way. If people won’t accept the answers you give them, preach louder. Shut them out until they decide to change. In light of hell, that’s compassion.
But as my fellow blogger Rebecca Trotter once pointed out, you can either have love or theological purity. You can’t have both. Love is just too messy to toe the rigid line of legalism. If you love someone and want to show it, you’re going to have to compromise at some point. You’re going to have to get in the gutter with them.
You’re going to have to listen.