Thursday, July 02, 2009

How do people see us?

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the church is divorced from the real world, more concerned with keeping up standards (particularly what are seen as outdated moral standards) or with internal squabbles such as the ordination of women or of homosexuality.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!


quilly said...

You want to be liked? Don't post 6 hugr posts while I am away on vacation! I just skimmed them all and now they are jumbled together in my mind however:

I try very hard to live my faith. I don't always succeed, but I trust that Jesus is helping some with how people perceive me. Your life and choices undergo extra scrutiny because of that collar around your neck -- so I am certain you have also been gifted with extra grace. You can't always say and do the right thing -- too often it is impossible to even know what the right thing is. God's grace goes a long way in easing such things.

Andrew said...

So not a fan of Mark Driscoll and the Real Mars Hill Church? ;-)

I think perception is a big problem for the church and Christians. Either people think you are boring and that church is boring because of their experiences with traditional churches either as children or at weddings and funerals. Or they think you are 'one of those nutters' if you mention guitars and clapping.

However in my experience once people actually meet genuine loving believers those misconseptions rapidly vanish. When actions back up what you believe.

Also we will increasingly have to stand on Gods truth rather than be liked as the country becomes much more hostile to Christianty and Christians who hold firmly to biblical requirements for morality and behaviour. Then how we love poeple is the real test!

Dr.John said...

I could have written that. I guess a lot of pastors could. Thank you for writing it.

Steven Carr said...

The church does speak out against sexism, and in the last 20 years has had women priests.

The church leads the way, while society looks to the church for leadership on these issues.

Alastair said...

Thanks for your comments all, especially Steven - unfortunately I can't answer for what some areas of the Church have done, or are doing, but only from my perspective of following Jesus and >gasp< even I fail at that...

Melli said...

DEAL! I'll pray for you - you pray for me! Because don't we ALL have these issues? Alastair - I can't even get it worked out in my own FAMILY - how in the world do I think I stand a chance with OTHERS???

Actually... OTHER people DO see Christ in me... when I am able to pull that off! But my family does not see it... not ever. They just see me being a nuisance since I went back to church!

lamarkii said...


I'm commenting as a member of your 'new' flock, and want to add a couple of points which haven't come up above.

First, you have had to go through an inevitable settling-in or 'honeymoon' period as people get to know you and you know them. That in itself is stressful. Expectations are always unreasonably high, but in fact I think you're coming out of it pretty well, from all I hear! For what it's worth, people can detect that admin isn't your strongest suit, but they think that's worth trading for your pastoral skills, your humour, and your inclusive style, not to mention your palpable deep faith.

Secondly, have you checked recently whether you like yourself well enough? I'm sure you know of a few things that you'd like to change, but all-in-all, surely you can find quite a bit to love. God will help you with the other stuff. Yours is a tough calling, and I don't see how you can do it without a healthy dose of self-regard!