I have never seen a dirty car on a used-car lot. We all know, of course, that shiny cars eventually collect streaks of rain, globs of mud, and bird droppings. Yet American marketing wisdom insists that every car for sale, no matter how old and battered, be presented at its shiny best. Lift the hood and you'll probably find that even the engine has been scrubbed clean of grease and dirt.
Realism only kicks in after you buy the car and begin to drive it. A few weeks later, the door to the glove compartment sticks, the valves rattle during acceleration, and a cloud of blue smoke puffs out the tailpipe. Somehow the car dealer found a way to mask those symptoms until you signed the contract.
It occurs to me that the church reverses this tried and true marketing wisdom. In certain ways, unwittingly or otherwise, we present our very worst image to the outside world, and then ask insiders to swallow a heavy dose of unreality. For some time now, I have been asking people I meet in airports or waiting rooms (those on the outside) what comes to mind when I say the word Christian. Often the response includes the prefix anti: anti-homosexual, anti-abortion, anti-pornography. The watching world sees Christians as strident people who try to impose their morality on others. In addition, we live with the church's historical reputation, for good and ill. Unbelievers cannot make sense of all the denominations, and they know about the shameful moments in church history, such as the Crusades, the Inquisition, the burning of witches. At least in the modern West, the least attractive side of the church gets most of the publicity.
Inside the church, the scene shifts. I have interviewed dozens of Christians, and heard from hundreds more, who tell me that their church presents a glowingly unrealistic picture of life with God. From sermons, Christian education, and praise choruses—but not from the Bible—they are led to expect a steady spiritual ascent that includes diminished temptation, a fulfilling prayer life, and an increasing sense of God's presence. Alas, life with God often turns out to involve far more struggle and ambiguity than is sometimes advertised.
"Sitting in the pew, I have the feeling that there's something wrong with me, like I'm the only person who doesn't get it," one confused worshiper told me. I have heard similar words so often that I've concluded most people in the pews sit there wondering if they are the only ones who don't get it.
I do not find this pattern of reversal in the New Testament. In John 17, Jesus prays for unity "so that the world may believe." The apostle Paul argues against lawsuits because of the harmful image they might convey. In Titus, he gives advice on how each diverse group in the church can provide a good example "so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us." Peter adds that a humble response to persecution can attract others to the faith.
Yet in his letters to churches, Paul is brutally honest about the problems Christians face in relating to God and to each other. In 2 Corinthians and Romans, he shines the spotlight on his own weakness and failures. He calls himself a "jar of clay" in order to deflect all credit to the treasure inside, not to himself, a humble depository of baked dirt.
Likewise, the letters to seven churches in Revelation give a realistic picture of the vaunted "New Testament church," which on close inspection looks more and more like churches two millennia later. Surely the Christians in places like Laodicea and Sardis had no illusions about the struggles they would face in living out the kingdom of God on earth.
Nevertheless, somehow Christians in those places managed to change the world. Living under a hostile Roman empire, they dispatched wet nurses to care for abandoned infants, organized relief projects for the poor, opposed gladiator games, and stayed behind to minister to plague victims when everyone else fled. The watching world sat up and paid attention.
In the modern United States, of course, the church faces a very different situation. Ninety percent of citizens identify themselves as Christians, and nearly half attend church on Sunday. I cannot help thinking, though, that the best way to counter our image problem is to follow the path of the early church: to avoid behavior that betrays disunity and contentiousness, and to devote ourselves to care for the weak and underprivileged. And to be brutally honest about the church's own failings.
Such an approach may get more people inside the door—where, no doubt, they'll soon discover the church is no utopia. They may, however, discover how best to prepare for that promised utopia: by striving to fulfill Jesus' prayer that "thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Read yesterday's Philip Yancey reflection: "Where was God on 9/11?"
Yancey's Where is God When it Hurts, Special Edition and Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church are available on Christianbook.com
Recent Yancey columns for Christianity Today include:
Compassion Confusion | We should serve the needy even when it has bad political consequences. (August 28, 2001)
Fixing Our Weakest Link | Evangelicals should be more "needful of the minds of others." (July 13, 2001)
Replenishing the Inner Pastor | Churches should take greater interest in their shepherds' spiritual health. (May 14, 2001)
Beyond Flesh and Blood | I used to disdain biblical talk of "invisible spirits." No more. (Mar. 27, 2001)
God at Large | A look around the globe reveals a God as big as we want him to be. (Jan. 31, 2001)
Humility's Many Faces | Everyone I've looked up to has shared one trait. (Dec. 4, 2000)
Getting a Life | The most fully alive persons are those who give their lives away. (Oct. 16, 2000)
To Rise, It Stoops | How parenting mirrors the character of God. (Aug. 29, 2000)
Lessons From Rock Bottom | The church can learn about grace from the recovery movement. (July 11, 2000)
Chess Master | God brings victory even from our bad moves. (May 15, 2000)
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