It’s safe to say that Michael Cheshire is not a happy man. At least not when he’s talking about how evangelical Christian churches treat their own, especially when their own have stumbled.
Anyone who publishes a book with the title “Why We Eat Our Own” (First Punch Press, June 2013) probably isn’t always a Pollyanna. That he wrote an earlier article for Leadership Journal called “Going to Hell with Ted Haggard,” about befriending the disgraced former president of the National Association of Evangelicals after he was caught in a drug-and-sex scandal, also indicates the cast of Mr. Cheshire’s thinking.
“Our faith is supposed to make us kind to each other, loving and very forgiving,” Mr. Cheshire explained in a telephone interview from Conifer, Colo. (population: 9,000), That’s where his Journey Community Church hosts some 800 worshippers a week, not all of whom fit the Ozzie-and-Harriet stereotype many have of today’s evangelicals. Last year, he said, cars in the church parking lot sported as many Obama bumper stickers as those for Mitt Romney.
What Mr. Cheshire wants is for people to be authentic and accepting: “I’d rather sell shoes at Dillard’s than have to be fake,” he said.
The 41-year-old pastor laments that too many Christians “don’t practice loyalty.”
“I have people who I became friends with who are not Christians who’ve been friends for 20 years now. We’ve lost the ability to restore disagreements and friendships, and everything becomes like a Christian jihad against each other,” he added.
Some evangelicals are “evolving into really bad people,” he continued, noting what Jesus said about the sign of his true followers: “‘Someday, people are going to know you’re my disciples not by the way you love me, but by the way you love each other.’ We treat each other pretty horribly, within churches and communities. I think the world is taking notice. I don’t want to be part of that club.”
The evangelical world’s response to Mr. Haggard’s downfall was a good example, Mr. Cheshire said. The Colorado Springs congregation that Mr. Haggard founded and grew “sent him into exile,” Mr. Cheshire noted. “Instead of hospitals” for sinners, Mr. Cheshire said, churches that expel errant members are “now crematoriums.”
He said, “I’m angry at the right thing: I’m ticked off that [Christians] treat each other less than people who meet each other in bars [do].”
Mr. Cheshire drew a distinction between the “accountability” practiced in many churches — where members and leaders are accountable to another person or to a group — and that of firefighters and emergency medical workers, of which he was one during his time as a pastoral intern.
The services, he said, “taught accountability. My job is to make sure my partner gets home to wife and kids. Even if he makes a mistake, it doesn’t matter; my job is to get him home safely. I may chew him out at the station, but my responsibility doesn’t change.”
Mr. Cheshire’s goal?
“As a whole, I would like churches to start showing more love and kindness outside of their walls, and maybe get out of the political arguments, and just have conversations about life,” he said. “I want people to see us as more loving, not just with words, but [also with our] actions.”
For believers, he said, the church needs to be a “safe place” where shortcomings can be discussed without fear of banishment.
“If you talk about it, we’re not throwing you away” is the message that needs to be sent, Mr. Cheshire said, adding there needs to be “a reformation of radical grace and love for each other.”
He noted he constantly hears from people who claim to embrace the Christian faith, but are burned out on the church: “It’s not that they don’t want to follow Jesus, they don’t want to follow us, because we’re all jerks,” he said. “Until somebody says it, we’re going to have this problem.”
• Mark A. Kellner can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.