Some conversations I have had lately, along with some listening I have been doing to the Mars Hill Bible Church podcast (the cool Mars Hill with Rob Bell, not the other one) whilst driving around, mainly to Exeter, over the past week or so has got me thinking again about a perennial problem for both ministers and the Church in general. Well, not necessarily a perennial problem, perhaps more of an ongoing issue.
What do people think of us?
I have an image problem, by which I mean I worry too much over what people think about me. I am one of those aware enough of my own insecurities to know that I like to be liked. I worry that people might not like me, or that I might offend people. There are good reasons and bad for this - the good reasons are that I don't want to be a barrier to people finding out about faith, or that I might skew perceptions of the Church by the way I present myself and share the Gospel. The bad reasons are all tied up with when I feel insecure in myself and simple want people to like me and make me feel loved! If I step back, I know that I am loved and whether or not everyone likes me is simply irrelevant/
But as a minister, a full time 'professional' Christian, my activity, my presentation has perhaps undue influence on people's perception of the Church. It means I do think about how I act, it means that sometimes I have to bite my tongue, or not rise to the bait that is offered to me to say or do something that will re-inforce people's prejudices about Christians. It does mean I struggle with speaking out or shutting up, but more about that in a mo.
At the same time the Church has an image problem, that we are middle-class, middle-age, uptight, legalistic, moralising busybodies. There are accusations of hypocrisy, of double standards, a perception of the priesthood being filled with at best doddering idiots and at worse child abusers, philanderers, thieves and the wilfully malign. There is often a perception that the church is divorced from the real world, more concerned with keeping up standards (particularly what are seen as outdated moral standards) or with internal squabbles such as the ordination of women or of homosexuality. Many of these accusations have some foundation in reality, though the image has been skewed by the way that many of these things are reported both by conventional media sources and by the world of mouth methods of blogs, websites, pub conversations etc etc. Rob Bell says that it's not institutions that can take the blame for wronging people, but the individuals within institutions. And part of the problem is that more than in most institutions the individuals who make up the Church are identified with the whole body. This should be a good thing; when one suffers all suffer, when one is joyful all are joyful, all have a place in the church and we together are the body of Christ - unfortunately the converse is true also; when one abuses, all are seen as abusers, when one is corrupt all are seen to be so etc etc.
In Acts Chapter 2 there is a wonderful record of how people saw the Church - that believers shared all in common, that no one was in need, that they were joyful, that they served one another and ministered to the needy and that they worshipped God. I don't hear a lot of that around the villages I serve, though the irony is that this group of parishes I serve, as I said in my musings for this month published previously, is packed with Christians who live their lives of faith everyday. Loving, prayerful, joyful, warm, gracious people who are great adverts for the Church but few on the outside make the connection that it is Christian Faith that inspires many of these wonderful people to do and be what they are.
We need to build up those connections again between people seeing 'good Christians' and realising they are part of the body of Christ and that this body is seeking to live out values of the kingdom of God. I hear a lot of 'you're not like I expect a Vicar to be' to which I normally respond 'I've not met a Vicar who is!' likewise if we live faith, live the values of God's reign and follow Jesus with all that we are, in every part of life, then those who look from the outside will see the people of God, the Church, the Body of Christ as a place that is life-giving, life-affirming and life-filled - and might even want to be a part of that.
But there is another side, and it's a part of being a minister, and being a Christian that should challenge me and should challenge all of us. We are not in the business of being liked! We are in the business of being faithful - and sometimes that may mean speaking out against injustice, sexism, racism, bigotry, prejudice and wrongdoing. It's then we need the courage of our convictions, the strength and inspiration of the Holy Spirit not to worry about whether people like us but to speak the truth in love, standing up for the values of God's kingdom; values which could change the world if only we would let them.
It's not about stomping over other people with our religious boots on, nor is about allowing the truth to be stamped on by other people's prejudice. We need to find that balance between simply being there and loving and affirming, and being willing to speak out when need arises. I need to find that balance, I need the courage to live a life worthy of the calling to which I have been called. Pray for me, and I will pray for you!