My latest for Sojourners
Let’s face it: we are an opinionated society.
We have entire television channels and radio stations dedicated to the propagation of one particular way of thinking. Some people like this channel because they are “more liberal” while others like this channel because they are “more conservative” and the rest of the world falls into the trap that we can be objective (read: ‘fair and balanced’).
We seek out opinions from everything from a new toaster to the new medical center in the area. We want to know people’s experiences about something before we waste our time, money and energy on a futile venture. If a product on Amazon has too many “one-star” reviews I am not going to purchase it. If my friends or family members have a bad experience at a restaurant or store then I will think twice about going there myself.
Sharing our opinions or perceptions is never easy. They can be met with great disdain or hostility. ESPN prides itself on these conflicts. Its marketing plan is to put four talking, opinionated heads in a room and ask a question that none of them can agree on like “Who is the greatest basketball player of all time?” or “Is Tom Brady overrated?”
Some of the greatest conflicts in the world’s history have been over difference of opinion. Governments have been shut down over difference of opinion. Trying to “change” someone’s opinion is hard if not impossible; for some people the “damage” is done and there is no turning back.
The church is not immune to this to this. I believe that the church today finds itself in a bit of an opinion/perception crisis that Christians are ignoring. On one hand, many Christians see the decline of the church around them. They see the decline in the significance of the church in the American society and culture. Churchgoers lament every Sunday about the good ole days and have a laundry list of reasons why people aren’t in church; they blame everything from MTV and passive parenting to the Devil himself.
The problem that is really facing the church is others’ opinions of it. Many people do not have an issue with the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Their opinion is formed and shaped by the experiences they have at a church and/or the actions of fellow Christians.
If my perception of the church is one that is shaped by people who come across as “holier than thou” and want to point out my flaws all in the name of sin eradication, then I’m not going to have a high opinion of the church. If my perception of the church is one in which love is conditional based on a series of postulations from a sweat-slinging preacher, then I’m not going to have a high opinion of that church.
If the church’s perception is centered on the notion that it exists not for outsiders (people who think differently of God), that certain “sins” are worse than others, that perfection is demanded, then why in the world would I want to devote my time to this religion?
The church must come to grips with its perception problem. The church that is being propagated in the world is a one-sided, narrow-visioned, distorted articulation of the church. But again, this is just my opinion.
I get irritated when I am lumped together with Bible-beating Christians who see the Bible more as a law book than a book of faith of how God moved, interacted, and changed the world. It saddens me when people have had a bad experience with a ‘well-intentioned’ Christian that has turned them off to a faith that I hold so dear.
I want them to experience the same Christ that I know, the same grace that I have been afforded, to be welcomed into a community that loves them for who they are and who they were created to be — not by who they chose to spend their life with. I want them to be in a community of faith that shows them the beauty of God, the majesty of Christ and the indwelling of the Spirit in all of creation — all with grace, unconditional love, humility, and respect.
Some churches will hear this as “weakening the gospel” or becoming “soft” when the gospel is something that demands we stand firm, but this is not the case.
I am not advocating that people abandon their faith; rather I am calling on all followers of Christ from all denominations and faith communities to take a step back and see how the message of Christ is being shared and perceived.
Given the rate of the decline of the church I am not sure it can “afford” any more perception problems. We, faithful followers of Christ, need to show the world that the Christianity of TBN or the 700 Club is not the only way of understanding God. No one denomination, TV minister, or church has a monopoly on God.
Some people will make their way back to faith in spite of their experiences. But this will only be a small percentage. It is up to followers of Christ like you and me to open the doors and show them an understanding of faith that will reshape their perceptions of the church.
It’s worth a shot.