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?