Becoming a Positive Influence

A common characterization of the average evangelical church among my not-yet-Christians friends and acquaintances is that it is judgmental and negative. And I’ve got to tell you that I can see why so many think this — because countless are. As Bono said, “Christians are hard to tolerate; I don’t know how Jesus does it.”

Here some of the things I’ve heard or read:

    “All you do is focus on God’s wrath and punishment.”
    “You all hate homosexuals, don’t you.”
    “You condemn all other religions. It is arrogant of you to think you are the only way.”
    “You’re a sexist, male dominated organization.”
    “You’re against the environment and those who work to improve it.”
    “All I ever saw in the church was endless bickering over nonessential doctrine and man-made rules.”
    “Church! Why would I ever go there? I already feel terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.”
    “I rarely go to church, because the church is just there for money.”

Whether you agree or not with these sentiments, it is the perception of the general public which I find amazing since we should be known for the exact opposite — those who glow with the fruit of the Spirit, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control.”

How did this happen? “This unflattering perception of the church and Christians comes from seeing Christians protesting on the streets with large signs telling people they are going to hell,” says Dan Kimball. “It comes from reading about various things Christians protest against, such as the teaching of evolution in the schools, or the removal of the Ten Commandments monument from a courthouse, or homosexual marriage. It comes from seeing Christians on television crediting God for natural disasters to punish sinners, and from being approached by Christians who ask leading questions to witness to them, putting them on the defensive and invading their privacy.”

What I’m not suggesting is that we abandon a call to repentance from sin and wrong living, but that we not make this the starting point for building bridges with the not-yet-Christian. At some point in time we have got to quit focusing all our efforts on what we are against and start being as concerned about what we are for, like the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, the creation and the worth of every individual.

Let me remind you of something Jesus told us, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” The starting point is positive good deeds which then brings about the glorification of God, and I believe openness on the part of not-yet-Christians to hear the gospel message.

If you want to examine the message you or your faith community may be communicating, consider these questions I’ve summarized from Dan Kimball’s book, “They Like Jesus, but Not the Church” (Zondervan, 2007, page 113).

1. If you were to look at the sermons of your church over a period of time, would you say they are more positive or negative in tone and content?

2. What is your congregation’s attitude toward those who hold beliefs different from yours on secondary doctrinal issues? How do you talk about other denominations or Christian groups?

3. How is your church known in your community? How do you think people in your town would describe your church and the people of your church? Do they even know you exist?

4. Are there any ways your church is involved in compassion and social justice projects both locally and globally, demonstrating that the church is a positive agent for change in the world?

5. If you were to ask those you associate with daily, both inside and outside of your home, whether your talk is judgmental and negative or loving and positive, what would they say?

6. You may say that you are loving and accepting, but if someone came in to your church and began following Jesus, can you honestly say that that would be your foremost concern, not what they look like or how they dress or whether they drink or smoke or what language they use?

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22 Responses to “Becoming a Positive Influence”

  1. […] Dan Kimball asks these seven questions in his new book: 1. If you were to look at the sermons of your church over a period of time, would you say they are more positive or negative in tone and content? […]

  2. F. Turk says:

    Rick —

    I have sympathy with the concern that the church spends too much time berating the culture and almost zero time providing the culture with what Tony Evans calls “the Alternative”. I think that’s a true statement and a fact.

    The problem is that the Gospel is, in fact, a bad news/good news thing. That is: the problem is a culture which makes marriage into a lowest-common-demoniator social contract, children a burden to be avoided, truth a myth, and my personal needs a greater issue than any of the above — and unless someone recognizes this, they have no basis for receiving the Gospel.

    How can the church do its job of lifting up Christ by only stressing the positive? Christ doesn’t make sense if the world is already OK.

    I’m asking, and I hope you can provide some feedback on that.

  3. John Smulo says:

    Rick,

    What you raise here has long been my concern as well–people know us by what we’re against, not what we’re for. I don’t see Jesus in this approach at all.

    I’ve recently started reading Kimball’s book while going through another, lots of helpful thoughts, though so far fairly common stereotypes–that are largely accurate–that I’m sure most have heard before. But I think it’s definitely a book that deserves a wide reading and reflection.

  4. Webb Kline says:

    Quote from Rick: [What I’m not suggesting is that we abandon a call to repentance from sin and wrong living, but that we not make this the starting point for building bridges with the not-yet-Christian. At some point in time we have got to quit focusing all our efforts on what we are against and start being as concerned about what we are for, like the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, the creation and the worth of every individual.]

    That, my friend, sums up missional evangelism 101. That is my secret formula for sharing the Gospel, and it has nearly a 100% success ratio. And the disciples that are made through that kind of evangelism are dyed-in-the-wool missional disciples.

    These are the problems people have with organized religion; they are the questions they need answered. They are also excellent topic points for explaining who Jesus really was, what the church really is supposed to be, and what it means to be a true believer. Why does so much evangelistic material ignore the questions that linger in the hearts of nearly every nonbeliever, yet seem bent on feeding them that which they don’t even understand? The logic escapes me.

    Great topic.

  5. Rick Meigs says:

    F. Thanks so much for commenting. Your perspective is very welcome. I might agree with you if we were talking about the gospel. Instead I’m talking about all those other things that become obstacles to the very ability of the church to share the gospel.

  6. Rick Meigs says:

    JJ, thanks for the comments. Kimball in is town Wednesday and I’m popping over to hear him. Hoping to have him flesh out what is in the book — which as you noted, doesn’t say anything we haven’t already heard. But their are still lots of evangelical where this is all new stuff to them. Never hurts to repeat, repeat, repeat :-).

  7. Rick Meigs says:

    Webb: Logic? :-) I don’t see the logic either behind beating not-yet-Christians with “truth” when you haven’t yet gain the right to be listened too. When they see the love and goodness of Jesus in and through us, then they are more open to hearing our message of a transformed life through Jesus.

  8. […] 6. You may say that you are loving and accepting, but if someone came in to your church and began following Jesus, can you honestly say that that would be your foremost concern, not what they look like or how they dress or whether they drink or smoke or what language they use? (more) […]

  9. molly says:

    It is absolutely *amazing* that Christian means: conservative Republican -prayer-in-schools-answers-everything and gay-marriage will destroy the universe…

    I liked your questions, Rick, and your post. What has gone so drastically wrong?

    I know that in my circles, we view everyone else as the enemy. They’re all “out to get us.” We’re out to get them, too, but generally that means make them see things the way we see them. You know, get them into *our* building instead of over in *their* building, and all that.

    And then we have the gall to think we are being “persecuted” (ie, not liked) for our faith. When in reality, I think that happens FAR less than us simply being avoided because we’re just arrogant (though usually well-intentioned) jerks.

  10. Rick Meigs says:

    Oh Molly, how good it is to hear your voice.

    It is amazing what the term Christian has come to mean for so many people. Portland is a very liberal town, so I hear it all the time. But I can’t always blame them. One of the local mega churches just hosted a Restore America Conference. Their “vision” is “The Restoration and Preservation of America as a nation ‘Under God’.” Just sick stuff that reinforces in the mind of not-yet-Christians that we are a judgmental and negative people.

  11. […] Dan Kimball asks these seven questions in his new book: 1. If you were to look at the sermons of your church over a period of time, would you say they are more positive or negative in tone and content? […]

  12. Adam G. says:

    Here are my answers:

    1. Negative. The preaching and teaching of the church I attend is overwhelmingly negative, usually focused on obeying Christ to avoid hell.

    2. Religious groups outside of Christianity are seen as completely lost with no redeeming value whatsoever. Other Christian groups are seen as in error, and their salvation is seriously doubted.

    3. Nobody outside the circle knows this church exists.

    4. The church gathers up used clothing to send to the needy in Brazil. It is worth mentioning that I attend an ethnically Brazilian church in the United States.

    5. I’d hate to ask, but if it’s negative, it wouldn’t be because I buy into the line of the church I attend.

    6. Yes, but controlling language used and overcoming vices are both a part of discipleship. What do you mean by the question?

  13. Rick Meigs says:

    Adam: What I understand Dan to mean in question #6, as soon as someone become a follower of Jesus, is your (not you, but the generic your) immediate next concern focused on grounding the person in the way of Jesus or immediately attempting to get them to conform to your faith communities idea of what a Jesus follower should look like and act like.

  14. Adam G. says:

    Rick, I think I might be getting it, but I’m not sure. Can you describe to me what you think should happen once someone decides to follow Christ? A description might help me understand better.

    This weekend I had the rather mind-bending experience of writing a basic format for evangelistic lessons based on what I have learned over the past two years. Rather than focus on a person’s problem with sin and need to repent and follow Jesus, the outline focuses on who Jesus was and is and what He did and does. I’m finding, to my surprise, that the call to personal decision comes through describing Jesus in biblical terms. I need to post on this, once I’ve developed the idea further, and then road-test it in evangelism here in NJ.

  15. Rick Meigs says:

    Here are some example’s that Kimball give:

    * Being told that all secular music is bad.
    * The girl who after becoming a Jesus follower was told by her senior pastor that she shouldn’t wear black because it was depressing.
    * The guy who was told by a church leader that he should not wear his Mickey Mouse watch because Christians don’t support Disneyland.

    Or one of my favorites, being told that I should wear a suit and tie to church because God wants you to dress your best in his house of worship. And how many times have I heard it implied that good Christians don’t vote Democrat or support environmental causes.

    To contrast, what Kimball and myself are not talking about is gentling helping new believers recognize and deal with sin. This is needful as part of the discipling process and from my experience, new believers want to know this stuff. Here is a comment Kimball relates from a young lady named Maya:

    “I actually would want to be told if I am doing something that God wouldn’t like me to. I want to become a better person and be more like Jesus. But that isn’t how it feels coming from Christians and the church. It feels more like they are trying to shame you and control you into their way of thinking and personal opinions about what is right and wrong, rather than it being about becoming more like Jesus and a more loving human being.”

    Hope this helps.

  16. Adam G. says:

    Oh. So you aren’t talking about counseling a man away from his porn addiction or helping a woman stop give up stripping. You are talking about frivolous, nit-picky things.

    I could probably write a book on examples I’ve seen of that.

  17. Rick Meigs says:

    Exactly. Unfortunately, these frivolous things are what many not-yet-Christian think we are all about, instead of what we should be known for.

  18. What I’m not suggesting is that we abandon a call to repentance from sin and wrong living, but that we not make this the starting point for building bridges with the not-yet-Christian

    Thanks for pointing that out, that is usually the biggest hurdle I see in these discussions. People think that by showing love or by just not screaming at people to change they are condoning sin and rejecting the concept of repentance. And while I fully admit to have different views on what exactly sin is (as compared to other Christians I know), I affirm the need for repentance. But I have also seen the harm that repentance as a starting point causes.

  19. Rick Meigs says:

    Julie, you are so right about the reaction of some (lots maybe) to this whole concept. They often jump to the wrong conclusion that we are somehow condoning with sin. I’m reminded of one story about Jesus and the women caught in the act of adultery. Jesus didn’t condemn her or attack her. Instead, he defended her from the hypocritical Jewish leaders – a great act of love and justice towards her. But then he turns to her with compassion and tells her to go and sin no more. He pointed out her sin and instructed her not to do it again. I’m sure she was far more open to receiving this rebuke because of his first act of love and justice.

  20. Marcia says:

    What I’m not suggesting is that we abandon a call to repentance from sin and wrong living, but that we not make this the starting point for building bridges with the not-yet-Christian. At some point in time we have got to quit focusing all our efforts on what we are against and start being as concerned about what we are for, like the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, the creation and the worth of every individual.

    Great quote–balance, balance, balance. Of course repentance needs to be preached–but from a place of love, of service, not false righteousness.

  21. Rick Meigs says:

    Thanks for stopping in and commenting Marcia. Alway love to hear others reactions and insights.

  22. Dave E. F. says:

    Please elaborate more on not being direct with people immediately about the need for repentance. I question this because it seems we put so much emphasis on relational evangelism and in doing so take away from the power of God’s Word to do its job. We are not given a whole lot of examples in the Bible on the behind the scenes dynamics. We are given some powerful examples like Jonah, John the Baptist and Jesus who start right out with the message of repentance. Peter and Paul in their speeches in Acts and letters to the congregations laid out both the urgent need for Christ by turing from errant ways (you killed him on the tree) and the awesome gospel/grace of the cross and empty tomb (it’s all about the resurrection). I agree that some Christians are zealous idiots that don’t see the person in front of them as a person God loves and because of this, they aren’t ready, willing and able to offer them grace as well (like telling them to change their Disney watch – really?). We are so afraid of people rejecting that we stay away from the direct approach when it is they who reject Christ whether we approach them nicely or direct and to the point. Some people however need the 2×4 like the “Christian” that just left his wife and doesn’t think anything of it. Accountability is just about as bad as the word “sin” today. :( 1 John 1:7-9.