Last night I attended a screening of Dan Merchant’s new Michael Moore-esque documentary, Lord Save Us From Your Followers. It's a film about how Christians have a huge PR problem and how “the culture wars” are exactly the opposite of what Christians should be battling in this world. The real war concerns things like poverty, injustice, and loving the unlovable, suggests Merchant. If Christians just loved better, befriended drag queens, and washed homeless people’s feet, our image crisis would go away.
But would it gain any new converts? That is the question (one of the questions) I kept asking myself.
After the film, there was a discussion involving four participants: Merchant, Everett Piper (President of Oklahoma Wesleyan University), Bill Lobdell (author of Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America and Found Unexpected Peace) and Michael Levine (CEO of Levine Communications and proudly secular).
Levine was the most vocal in the discussion, cynically asking the audience from the outset to “raise your hand high if you’re a Christian… Now raise your hand high if you think I am going to hell because I’m an atheist.” He then explained that a conversation is completely impossible when one of the parties believes in their heart that the other is hell-bound.
As unfair as that is, Levine did make a few interesting points. "Why would I believe in a religion or a God whose followers have no noticeable differences in their lifestyle?” asked Levine, making the point that he has a lot of close Christian friends but none of them live substantially better, more peaceful, more loving lives. And then he used this illustration:
"Imagine there is a gym and you have two groups. One group goes to the gym every day and one group never steps foot in the gym. But the group that goes to the gym is just as fat as the group that stays home. So what does that say about the gym? Why would I want to believe in that gym?"
Point well taken. It is very problematic that so many “Christians” look and act the exact same as anyone else.
But I think Piper made a good point in response when he said that one shouldn’t look first to Christians but rather to Christ in order to evaluate the appeal of the Gospel. He said something like, “Imagine you want to know what a fish is like. You go to a beach and what you see are a lot of dead, smelly, decaying fish. Should you then surmise from this that ALL fish are like this, or that this is how the "ideal" fish should be? Of course not! It’s dishonest to judge the truth of something by looking at the ways in which broken humans have distorted it.”
Yes, there are broken, corrupt, annoyingly off-base representations of Christianity. We are all very aware of that. But that doesn't change the truth of the God Christians worship. I’m so tired of Christians falling all over themselves with apologies for the oppressive scourge that Christianity supposedly is. Sure, we should acknowledge and own up to the bad things we’ve done. The Crusades and the Inquisition DID happen. All sorts of other sordid things have been perpetrated by Christians throughout history. Guilty! We humans are broken, flawed, selfish, confused people who make mistakes. Even Christians.
But it’s not about us!
We won’t win ANY followers to Christ by focusing our case primarily around how great or loving or happy Christians are. We must focus our case around Christ himself; The gospel; What God has done, is doing, and will do for the world, regardless of how helpful or unhelpful we Christians are along the way. God will do what he will do. He invites us to participate in his work but none of it hinges on our abilities or fortitude (thanks be to God!) outside the power of the Holy Spirit.
We need to stop worrying so much about having a favorable image or being liked! The success of God’s work in the world is not dependent on how people in 2009 perceive Christians. If we believe God is sovereign we need to have confidence that he can overcome all the loudmouth bigots who go around saying idiotic things in the name of Christ (not that we shouldn’t chastise and discipline those loudmouth bigots among us).
We need to quit worrying about how the worst among us are ruining our reputation and instead focus on living Christ-like lives in accordance to scripture and God’s will. We need to worry about our own transformation first and foremost. Are we new creations?
We should love others and ease the suffering in the world not because it will be better for our PR, but because the Bible tells us to and because the Spirit inside us spurs us to outward action. We should exude charity and patience and peace in our dealings with others not because it will win us admirers but because it is the Christian thing to do.
We need to be humble, yes, but not tepid. We should have confidence in the God we serve, the gospel we believe, and the church that we are.
In the first chapter of Ephesians, Paul describes the “immeasurable greatness” (v. 19) of Christ and his “rule and authority and power and dominion” (v. 21) over all creation, but then he adds that God gives Christ—and Christ’s subsequent authority over all things—to the church (v. 22), which is Christ’s body, “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (v. 23). At Christ’s feet, the world cowers and all creation converges. And as the church—as the body of Christ—we share in this unique, cornerstone-of-creation destiny.
In light of this reality, how could any Christian lack the confidence to be the church in the world—a body constantly spreading itself outward and expanding the reach of the Gospel? How could we ever worry that the fate of Christianity rests on this generation and these immediate challenges, when we know that we are part of something that will outlast time? I like what C.S. Lewis says in his essay, “Membership”:
The structural position in the church which the humblest Christian occupies is eternal and even cosmic. The church will outlive the universe; in it the individual person will outlive the universe. Everything that is joined to the immortal Head will share his immortality… As mere biological entities, each with its separate will to live and to expand, we are apparently of no account; we are cross-fodder. But as organs in the Body of Christ, as stones and pillars in the temple, we are assured of our eternal self-identity and shall live to remember the galaxies as an old tale.
What an amazing thing! Christians need to wake up to the wonder and privilege and shocking power of what they believe and who they worship. We need to stop looking nervously to the world to define who we are and start looking to the Bible and praying for God’s wisdom. We should spend less time apologizing for all the ways we have failed and spend more time rejoicing and sharing with others the ways that Christ is victorious (chiefly: the resurrection!). And rather than pleading with the Lord to “save us from your followers,” we should simply pray, “Lord, save us.”
Because that’s what he does. And that’s why we should care.