The Danger of Cynical Christianity: An Urgent Message for Church Leaders

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A cynical Christian looking at a laptop

You’ve probably noticed that cynicism has become millions of people’s default state of mind today.

What’s worse is that cynicism has become the default mindset for too many Christian leaders.

Cynical Christianity is nothing new, but it seems like more and more Christians are increasingly negative, distrustful, and pessimistic – especially when it comes to other Christians.

Even when a movement like the Asbury Revival emerged, the cynics were all over it.

And while I wasn’t cynical about Asbury, it was hard for me not to roll my eyes when I saw other pastors take a shot from the back of their auditorium and announce on social that it was happening at their church too.

I mean if that’s the case—amazing. But there’s a cynic inside me that says, “Why do you feel a need to copycat?”

Sigh.

Look, I get it. There’s a lot to be cynical about.

But think about what’s at stake.

Cynicism makes you contemptuously distrustful of human nature. It leads you to believe that human conduct is motivated primarily by self-interest. And if that’s the case, it becomes increasingly difficult for you to lead.

So let me guess. It’s easy to discount cynicism and argue that you’re not cynical, just realistic.

But scratch the surface of most realists, and you quickly discover that ‘realism’ is a polite word for ‘cynicism.’

Most people just don’t want to admit it.

This leads us to the problem of Christian cynics.

Scratch the surface of most realists, and you quickly discover that 'realism' is a polite word for 'cynicism.' Click To Tweet

Shouldn’t Christian Leaders Be the Least Cynical People in the World?

Of all people on Earth, Christians should be the least cynical. After all, the Gospel gives us the greatest reasons to hope.

We don’t just cling to an intellectual claim or proposition. Our hope isn’t based on an emotion or a feeling. It lives in a person who beat death itself and who loves us deeply enough to literally go through hell to rescue us.

Because hope is anchored in the resurrection, it is resilient. It can withstand a thousand setbacks. It can outmaneuver ten thousand broken hearts.

So amidst the culture wars, the incessant online bashing, the calling out of other people for even minor slips, and the general malaise and despair that describes too much of current discourse, here are 5 reasons Christian leaders abandon a cynical worldview.

Of all people on earth, Christians should be the least cynical. After all, the Gospel gives us the greatest reasons to hope. Click To Tweet

1. Delighting in Someone Else’s Failure is Not a Fruit of the Holy Spirit

There have been a lot of challenges in church leadership over the last decade or two. Leaders who appeared trustworthy simply weren’t; so much hurt and abuse got uncovered.

Shock, sadness, and anger are appropriate emotions (to name a few). But at times it seems like more than a few church leaders have delighted in the failure of certain leaders because it ‘proves their point’ or, honestly, because they just didn’t like them.

Delighting in someone else’s failure is not a fruit of the Holy Spirit.

Delighting in someone else's failure is not a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Click To Tweet

I’m definitely not arguing that we should whitewash or conceal any of the problems in Christian leadership. No, they need to come to light and be dealt with fairly and justly.

What I am saying is that to gloat about or savor someone’s failure is an attitude directly from the Enemy’s playbook.

Sorrow, introspection, repentance, and a desire to see hurt healed is a much better approach.

And so is hope. Hope that despite the setbacks, this isn’t the only story or the end of the story.

The good in Christian leadership outweighs the bad. It’s just that the good never makes the headlines.

The good in Christian leadership outweighs the bad. It's just that the good never makes the headlines. Click To Tweet

2. You’ll Produce the Wrong Kinds of Disciples

When you’re always right because everyone else is wrong, you’re wrong.

Linger in cynicism long enough, and you’ll end up with a dark edge to all your leadership. And that dark edge attracts a certain kind of follower. You’ll teach your uncynical people to grow cynical, and you’ll draw the cynics from the sidelines to the center.

Cynicism roots itself in knowledge. You explain everything away because you ‘know’ why it won’t work, why it’s destined to fail, and why everyone else is missing what’s really going on. That hermeneutic of suspicion creates a self-righteousness that is antithetical to the Gospel.

When you’re always right because everyone else is wrong, you’re wrong.

When you're always right because everyone else is wrong, you're wrong. Click To Tweet

3. You’ll be Unable to Cast A Compelling Vision for the Future

Left unchecked, cynicism is mostly about what isn’t, not what could be.

Because cynicism is rooted in what you know and what’s wrong with everyone who is not quite like you, it’s more of a critique of the present and the past than it is a springboard into the future.

Contrast that with a passionate vision. A passionate vision is about what could be. Sure, it critiques the present, but then it casts a clear and compelling hope for what could be.

Cynicism is about probability (mostly, why whatever you’re looking at probably won’t work). Vision is about possibility. It’s about what might work, and what could work. And that’s far more inspiring.

Cynicism is about probability (mostly, why something probably won't work). Vision is about possibility. It's about what might work, and what could work. And that's far more inspiring. Click To Tweet

4. You’ll (Likely) Reach Fewer Unchurched People

Let me go out on a limb and argue that cynical pastors will have a harder time reaching unchurched people than optimists do.

Sure, as a cynic, you’ll attract your fair share of cynics; maybe some of them won’t have a church background.

Many unchurched people aren’t looking for an echo of the culture. They’re looking for an alternative to it. And the culture is already cynical enough.

In a world starved for hope, non-Christians are looking for something other than more pessimism and gloom. They’re longing for possibility. For love. For forgiveness. For grace. For a true alternative.

And that’s exactly what the Gospel is.

Many unchurched people aren't looking for an echo of the culture. They're looking for an alternative to it. And the culture is already cynical enough. Click To Tweet

5. Cynicism Doesn’t Really Help Anybody Anyway

Ask yourself, when was the last time a cynic helped you?

Maybe they warned you about a phishing scam that you would have otherwise clicked on or made you realize someone you thought was legitimate has a shadow side.

But an optimist could point out the identical pitfalls. Optimists aren’t inherently naive. Many are quite wise.

And cynics usually offer a steady diet of why whatever you’re thinking about won’t work, doesn’t work, or will never work. Because they know.

Knowledge may be something both the optimists and cynics share, but the optimists are the ones who can turn that knowledge into something truly helpful because they offer insight with direction—they’re going somewhere.

Wisdom is a much better teacher than cynicism because it doesn’t preclude hope or the possibility of change.

Cynicism doesn’t really help anybody. Optimism fuels true transformation.

Cynicism doesn't really help anybody. Optimism fuels true transformation. Click To Tweet

So, Where Do We Go From Here?

Most cynics are former optimists.

A little empathy before we wrap up.

Cynicism begins not because you don’t care but because you do care.

It starts because you poured your heart into something and got little in return. Or maybe you got something in return, but it was the opposite of what you desired. You threw your heart into your mission, only to have it go down in flames. You were completely there for your elder board, only to have them let you go in the end.

Most cynics are former optimists.

Most cynics are former optimists. Click To Tweet

You’d never know it now, but there was a time when they were hopeful, enthusiastic, and even cheerful.

But at some point, they knew too much. They experienced heartbreak, betrayals, and backstabbing. They finally understand that people let them down. They realized that some people can’t be trusted—that people are fickle and selfish.

And the challenge is that the longer you live, the more you know.

What I finally had to understand in my own journey is that cynicism is actually a choice. Cynics aren’t born; they’re made.

Life doesn’t make you a cynic; you make yourself a cynic.

But here’s where I landed as someone who wants to keep hoping, who wants to keep believing the best. I imagined myself at eighty.

Then I asked, “What might happen to me in the decades between today and then?” Will my heart grow? Will it harden? Is my mind flourishing, or have I shut it down? Am I alive and filled with wonder? Or will my passion have died decades ago?

That’s what’s at stake. For me. For you. And for the future of the church and Christian leadership.

So here’s my plea: Hope again. Believe again. Trust again.

And be curious. Cultivate curiosity long enough, and hope will flourish.

And when hope flourishes, cynicism doesn’t stand a chance.

When hope flourishes, cynicism doesn’t stand a chance. Click To Tweet

Lead With Confidence and Clarity. Grow Your Church.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.