Depending on who you talk to, the Church doesn’t have a great reputation in America. In public discourse, we’re often the subject of stern criticism. Some have even called for the American government to seriously re-examine tax exemptions for churches.
But how much does the Church’s reputation matter? We’re not a corporation trying to maintain good PR and protocols of political correctness. And we shouldn’t be caught up in wanting to be liked for its own sake.
However, the Church’s reputation is an important facet of effectively carrying out our mission. Our life is our message–it should attract people to Jesus because it accurately represents who he is.
This is what Jesus himself said about representing him in such a way that leads people away from him.
“But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6)
What Jesus is saying is that if we stand in the way of someone putting their trust in him because of the way we act, it would be better if we simply weren’t around.
Those are some stern words, but their apparent harshness highlights the importance of what’s at stake. If we misrepresent Jesus and thereby discourage people from following him, then we’re quite literally doing the work of the devil.
So when it comes to the Church in America, reputation does matter. And while those who follow the teaching of scripture will always be at odds with the current culture on key issues, the question is whether or not we’re also putting unnecessary stumbling blocks between the culture and Jesus.
I believe there are a number of areas where we’re doing just that. Here are 3 things that are hurting that Church’s reputation in America.
1. Choosing the wrong hills to die on.
As we seek to live for Jesus, certain hills are worth dying on. There are places where we should never compromise. Places where if we don’t hold our ground, we stand to lose everything that makes our faith unique. The trouble is when we’re completely committed to dying on a hill that we need not die on.
For example, I often see and hear a call from certain Christian groups to “bring the bible and prayer back to schools.” It sounds noble. But here’s the thing. As someone who went to public schools in Southern California and who only graduated high school eleven years previous to the writing of this post, I can honestly say that I was never persecuted for wanting to pray on school grounds or for having a bible. In fact, groups of students on campus studied the bible and prayed openly.
And while the Church can certainly fight for the bible and prayer to be part of public schools in some official capacity, my sense is that such an act wouldn’t have the effect we’re hoping for. To force non-Christian teachers and administrators leading prayer and bible exposition would be devoid of Holy Spirit power.
However, if we focused our efforts instead on something like providing lunchtime meals to students whose families are living below the poverty line, we might see the Holy Spirit begin to move in powerful ways. And that’s because love expressing itself through service is a fruit of the Spirit.
Likewise, many advocate for the Ten Commandments to be posted in courtrooms or on the outsides of courthouses. Again, we can certainly fight that battle and maybe even win it. But perhaps true transformation would more likely be found in our fighting for equal justice to take place within the walls of those courts.
When we focus our energies on being for the good of others rather than on establishing an adversarial relationship with non-Christian institutions, we win more people over. And that’s because we’re showing the true heart of Jesus.
2. Applying truth inconsistently.
When it comes to being for the good of others, the American Church actually does an incredible amount of work to bring about goodness through truth and justice. However, our reputation is tarnished when we’re not able to apply that truth consistently across the board.
Many evangelicals and evangelical leaders are staunchly anti-abortion. And they should be. I applaud the work of Christians who fight to preserve the lives of unborn children, because they’re engaging in a fight to protect the most vulnerable among us. And that’s something that Jesus calls his people to do. So that is a truth rightly applied.
However, at the same time, many of those same evangelical leaders are very slow to speak up or become meaningfully engaged in addressing systemic racism or economic injustice. In fact, some will even deny that these realities even exist.
Others will refuse to discuss these issues in their churches on account of them being “too political.” However, this is not a trepidation we have when speaking about abortion (which is an equally political issue).
And so, in the case of these particular injustices, we fail to fight to protect those who are most vulnerable among us. The world outside the walls of our churches takes notice of that and rightly calls it out as hypocrisy.
We can’t claim to be pro-life when we’re only willing to fight for it up until the point a life exists outside the womb. And if the world sees that we truly care about the flourishing of all people, regardless of age, geography, race, ethnicity, culture, or gender, then we might begin to win them over to our understanding of preserving the lives of the unborn.
But even if we don’t, at the very least, we’ll still earn the respect of most for at least being consistent in our convictions.
The American Church does an incredible amount of work to bring goodness through truth and justice. However, our reputation is tarnished when we're not able to apply that truth consistently across the board. Click To Tweet
3. Prioritizing tradition over mission.
When Jesus taught, he conveyed timeless truths using the images of his time. He often spoke in agricultural metaphors, because those kinds of images were native to the people in first-century Israel.
The whole point of Jesus’ incarnation is that he came to where the people were in order to reach them. The Church is called to do the same. Whatever stylistic choices churches make ought to be strategic to our mission of introducing unreached people to Jesus–whether it’s our music, service styles, buildings, or church programs and initiatives.
However, whenever leaders within the Church seek to do that in innovative ways, they are often met with suspicion or vile criticism that even calls their faith into question. It’s as though many of us believe that the traditions we were raised with are somehow divinely inspired. But only the message is inspired. The methods are a means to the end of delivering that message in a compelling way.
The truth of the matter is that Jesus didn’t sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” every Sunday, and first century churches didn’t have pews. When we have an unhealthy attachment to these things and make loudly and rudely stated theological justifications for that unhealthy attachment, we make ourselves look bizarrely militant to new believers or those who don’t even know Jesus but are seeking a spiritual experience with him.
The Church should be bizarre, but not for the strange traditions we hold. It should be bizarre how ridiculously generous we are. How incredibly quick we are to forgive. How unreasonably willing we are to love someone we barely even know and who looks nothing like us.
That’s the kind of bizarre we were sent on a mission to display. Settling for old songs and out-of-date fashion choices severely hurts the integrity of that mission, as well as our reputation.
May the only stumbling block we offer be the Cross itself.
There’s absolutely no excuse for making it any more difficult than it already is to put your faith in Jesus. The truth of who Jesus is runs counter to everything we think we know about the world. It’s only when you get close enough to Jesus that you see the power of his good news.
That’s why Paul even goes as far to call the Cross a stumbling block.
“But we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24)
It’s hard enough to wrap your mind around the fact that God became a man who lived among us, died on a cross to pay for our sins, and rose from the grave to bring us new life.
If you think about it, that’s a crazy story to base your life on–unless it’s true. And we have the power and responsibility to be living proof of not only the truth of that story but also its power to transform.