Say the words “church” today and, depending on your hearers, one of several images will enter their minds. This is because the church is diverse. Fifty states, diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, diverse cultural backgrounds, diverse theological emphasis. Many people view this diversity as evidence that the church is not unified, and therefore its foundational claims are false. This is a non-sequitur, and while some disunity is negative, the diversity in the American church today can be viewed from the positive end of things as well: in gospel centered Christianity, we are united on essentials and (on our good days) gracious when it comes to non-essentials. The current generation of churches, in fact, have moved in a decidedly “non-denominational” direction, in part because of the bad taste of unneccessary division in decades past. But I digress…
The ugly version of the church that is so beloved by the American media is a straw-man. Not that the church is without its problems, but when public perception of the church is fed by news stories of only the worst actors in the church (think pedophiles, gay-bashers, con-men and the like), and the good stories are ignored, the result is a skewed understanding of who the church really is.
The ugliness is there, don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen it and, to my shame, contributed in some ways. There are evil men in church leadership. There are prideful wolves with dubious motives, heads full of knowledge and hearts full of greed. There are those who have an overdeveloped “us vs. them” mentality. There are those hypocrites who are content to have cute religious gatherings with music and give not a care to the broken world of poverty and pain outside the walls of the church. There are all of these things and more, including the unholy alliance of “evangelicals” to unsavory political characters. But those things aren’t new, nor are they the end of the story.
There are also redeemed souls who, while not perfect, are the essence of Christ. They are humble, kind, and forgiving, because they have been forgiven. There are salt-of-the-earth men and women who faithfully and selflessly serve their congregations and communities for DECADES with little thanks and no expectation of earthly reward. I know them. Norm, Jerry, Suzy, and dozens of others who simply follow Jesus because they have been transformed by the power of his life in us.
There are young people, too. Not enough, but they are there: bright and full of potential, signing away their culturally perceived rights to earn a comfortable lifestyle in exchange for serving Jesus in the third world. I know a young man who has funded several of his own trips to Lesvos to assist refugees fleeing from ISIS. I know a young mother who had it made as a real estate agent, and left her home and extended family to establish an eco-farm in rural Cambodia. I know a young couple who left their familiar surroundings to learn Mandarin and share the love of Jesus in Taiwan, and a Woman who spent close to twenty years ministering to poor people in central China.
The dramatic stories of overseas missionary sacrifice sometimes eclipse the ordinary, stateside brilliance of Jesus-followers together, but they are there as well. Families who host soup kitchens, week after week, year after year. Couples who foster and adopt. People who give generously, no, scandalously because they have been freed from greed and believe sincerely that nothing belongs to them. Pastors who labor in small churches for years with no expectation of increased pay: many need to work second and third jobs to make ends meet.
There are more than anecdotes: there is statistical support to show that Christians and churches generally make a positive impact on their community. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2011/03/31/what-do-churches-contribute-to-the-community/
Once upon a time, this was common knowledge. That’s one reason why churches have always been tax-free in the United States. Is it any wonder that when public opinion turns against the church, the voices calling for the end of church exemption get louder and louder?
Let’s not be naive. The church has always enjoyed unpredictable popularity. We have rightfully earned the skepticism of those outside. A group of people associated with the Spanish inquisition (however loosely) should be. So what if the majority of us are decent, hard-working people who give back to the community? Even on our best days, Jesus promised that the world would hate us…(John 15:18). Why wouldn’t the stigma of our past and present shame hang over us?
We can’t be too concerned about public opinion. I have encountered people who would craft the strategy of their outreach based on the perception of the community. This, I believe is a mistake. We are to serve Christ first and let him take care of our reputation. What if we are misrepresented? “Blessed are you when others revile you, and persecute you, and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”