Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Making A Better Impression On Unbelievers

I sometimes read articles and only later realize that I read something of great interest, or something catchy, or some unique perspective.  The problem is that it's often hours or even days after I read the article, and I can't remember who wrote it, or where I found it.  I usually can't quote it verbatim, but there's enough of the gist of it to make me wish I was better at writing down what I was reading, or copying bibliographical information into one my several computer resources created just for that task.  It's frustrating, but I've been doing it for a long time now.  I'm explaining all this simply because this morning one of those blurbs ran through my head and I thought, "Wow, I wish I could remember who wrote that, and exactly what the author said."  You will forgive me if I have to "wing it" just a bit.  The thought is no less significant.

The basic idea dealt with the perception held by non-Christians of those who are Christians.  Somebody did a kind of personal survey or poll.  The question was something like, "What is your opinion of people who claim to be Christians?"  Among the more frequent responses was this (in one form or another):  "They are people who are always telling you that you're wrong about something and trying to correct you."

Now from a Christian's point-of-view, we might think, "Well, that's because the problem with the world is sin, and we're just trying to help people understand what the problem is between themselves and God."  Notice I said, "from a Christian's point-of-view."

But what if we were on the other end of the discussion?  Would we think the Christian's point-of-view is good or positive, or would it turn us off?  As much as I hate to admit it, I think it would be a turn off.  I say that out of my own personal experience, and the experiences of many others who have shared similar thoughts with me.  Here's what I mean.

Most of us have had one religious group or another, sometimes those we might identify as a cult, knock on our door.  Uniformly, all the people I know have responded negatively to such efforts, mainly because the person at the door has always had a message that said (in one way or another), "You are wrong about something, and we're right, so we're here to tell you how to get right."  I know that's a terrible paraphrase, but it's not all that far off.  Do you see what's happening in that little scenario?  In this case, you're the person being told you're wrong about something, at least from the other fellow's perspective.  And we don't like it.

So why would other people like it when we're the one with the, "You're-wrong-and-I'm-right," message?  Yes, we might come across a few people who will listen to what we have to say and eventually agree with us.  But overall, this looms as one of the huge negatives in how outsiders view Christians.  They see us as judgmental spiritual snobs.  I know this disturbs us, and we don't like it, and we resist admitting that any of this is true.  You'll continue to struggle with it unless you understand and accept that I'm referring to the non-Christian's point-of-view, not ours.

Someone is likely to say, "Well, we're right when we tell people they have a sin problem and they need to change their lives in order to please God."  I understand.  But did you understand that I wasn't saying your view is wrong, I said it's not a view that goes over well with outsiders.  I'm talking about how the message is received, not the validity of the message itself.

I believe strongly that the good news message of Jesus Christ is only good in the face of the bad news about sin.  I believe that for anyone to understand the gospel, to understand their problem with God, and to appreciate their need for a Savior then they will have to deal with some things they'd rather not think about.  I even agree that it's our job to somehow penetrate the unbelief and resistance of unbelievers in order to get the good news through to them.  The question is not what we must do but how we should do it.

I'll be the first to admit that I don't have all the answers.  I have far more questions than answers.  But I do think that we've got to do something to alter the negative perspective that non-Christians have of us (as a group).  They need to see more in us than a negative, fault-finding, judgmental, critic.  That view of us is a turn off, and it creates a situation in which it is nigh on to impossible to get the message of Jesus through.

A handful of positives could help tremendously.  Not a one of them is anything new.  Instead, they are thoroughly biblical Christian principles.  We ought to ask ourselves why, if we were actually practicing these things, outsiders do not form their view of us based on these instead of concluding that we're judgmental critics.  These few truly spiritual behaviors could do wonders to change how people see us.

1.  We could do a better job loving one another.  Jesus taught his disciples to love one another, as He loved them.  He went further.  He said that others would know we're his disciples if we have love for one another (Jn. 13:34-35).  The church has known this for 2,000 years but love is still a difficult thing to practice.  Years ago, somebody observed that the church was the only organization that shot it's wounded.  It may not be the only one, but that we shoot our wounded is often too true.  We keep talking about unconditional love, but frankly, that's more rare than a raw steak.  Outsiders see this.  But if we don't do a good job of loving one another, what makes us think we're doing any better at loving those outsiders?  They don't always see a lot of love, and whether we like it or not, people know whether they are being loved.  I certainly do, and so do you.  I can take a lot from people when I know they love me, really love me.  What might otherwise sound negative and judgmental is tempered, softened, and yet no less meaningful when it is delivered in love.  You can change the perspective of people on the receiving end of our message by loving them.  One thing that says is that it might take a little time and shared life together so we can establish a loving relationship.  Prove your love to people, then see if their view of you is more positive than negative.

2.  We could quit pointing our fingers at others like they're the only one with a problem.  Want to know what's true?  We all have a sin problem.  The other guy is not the only one with an issue between himself and God.  One reason a lot of self-help groups are effective is that the whole effort is based on one person with a problem helping another person with a problem.  Perhaps we need to start off our introductions with something like, "Hi, my name is Bill and I'm a sinner. . . ."  It would surely be true, and it might encourage some other sinner to consider listening to what we have to say.  But too many Christians go through life seemingly trying to convince everybody they don't have any sins, and if they did, they were very small ones, and they were present only in the distant past somewhere.  They work hard to leave the impression that don't struggle with the things so common in the lives of unbelievers.  What a pity.  The Bible says that if we say we have no sin then we're just deceiving ourselves and truth has taken a hike (1 Jn. 1:8).  How much better it would be for sinners to know that there really is an answer for sin.  You won't convince them of that if they think you don't relate to their problems or struggle with the things they struggle with.  We would do outsiders a great favor by presenting ourselves as redeemed sinners who know all-to-well the wrongs in their lives.  It would be an encouragement to people with no answer for sin, if they could see in us, not some unstained saint, but one who was as stained as they are, but now cleaned up and made whole.  And even then, to be able to admit to the continuing struggle with temptation and sin, and to know the continuing forgiveness of Jesus is exactly what outsiders need to know because most of them are afraid they'll never be perfect, so why try.

3.  We would do unbelievers a favor if we could manage to magnify Jesus and minimize the church (Gal. 6:14).  Don't misunderstand.  I think the church is very important, but only because it is made up of redeemed sinners following Jesus.  The church is not the Savior, Jesus is.  The church can help and encourage people, but it's not the source of inner strength and faith.  The church can teach, admonish, counsel, correct - lots of things.  But only the blood of Jesus forgives sins, and only Jesus mediates between us and the Father.  Jesus is our great high priest, and it is He who continues to represent us in heaven before God.  Outsiders don't want to know how great you and I are.  They want to know if there is a great God.  We don't need to convince them that we're the best thing since sliced bread.  We need to convince them that we know the One who is truly great, truly good, with the power to help us.  We talk about us too much and we talk about Jesus too little.

Right now there's this question rolling around: "So, you think this is all there is to creating a more positive view of Christians among unbelievers?"  I do.  That's not to say there isn't more we could do, or that you couldn't extend this list by several numbers.  There is, and you could.  But these are three huge things:  Love one another; quit pointing our fingers at others; and magnify Jesus instead of the church.  All three are pointedly biblical.  They are the kind of things that make us what we ought to be as Christians.  If we were more what we ought to be, perhaps the view that others have of us would improve.  After all, their view is based on what they see in us.  If we don't like it, give them something else to look at.