“Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous to do good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” I Peter 3:13-16
So, when was the last time someone asked you to give them a reason for the hope that you have within you, a hope that should be so visible as to cause someone to ask you about it? It does not seem that there are many people who, upon observing the body of Christ in action, immediately jump to the conclusion that it offers some kind of hope.
No church is perfect. Even in the glimpses we get into the early Christian church that come from the New Testament writers we see churches that are very much prone to the errors of their human flesh. But the character of their community, their fellowship, and the consistency with which they practiced their faith certainly shows, even in the brief descriptions we read of them in both the New Testament, and in the writings of the early church fathers. In providing apostolic guidance to these churches, Paul, Peter and John all emphasize the importance of the testimony of faith being lived out among people who followed pagan religions.
“Who is going to harm you if you are eagar to do good?” says Peter.
“A person who stirs up divisive controversy is warped, sinful and self-condemned,” says Paul.
“By this we shall know,” says John, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”
Those without Christ do not seem to be lining up behind us to discover the secret of our hope. Why should they? What does today’s church preach with its actions that would make them want to do so?
Several years ago, a large Baptist church in Dallas conducted a survey of their “neighbors” in order to understand the perceptions people might have regarding their opinion of Christian faith in general, and their congregation in particular. I remember sadly reading the results published in the Baptist Standard. Christians in general did not come out too well, and Baptists were among those who came out with the worst reputation. If I remember correctly, “mean spirited” and “judgemental” were two of the descriptive words.
This is a comment I once received on this blog:
I’m a recently divorced woman who was married to the Baptist preacher’s son. Brilliant man — met him at [name removed] University. EVERYTHING was Baptist. Including the man he ran off with in the small Baptist church in our neighborhood. My ex was the song leader, his flame the pianist. Of course, nothing is going on, I was just the heathen not Baptist.
Anyway, as if I am not masochist enough, I am now the cook for another Baptist church. I am again in the midst of people who are judgmental (like why can’t you get a full time job at the age of ?) yet see so little correctable in themselves. And accusations laced with viciousness.
So, I ask: what is it with Baptists that they are so mean? Seriously. I’ll probably be fired from there even though I am a superb cook and they know it, but I just don’t get it — the why of how they interact
One look at a pictorial directory shows folks who look like they have been sucking on lemons for a lifetime.
Marrying John [name changed] was my mistake. But I still do not understand the mentality of Baptists and hope that Jesus is nothing like him. [names and other identifiers are deleted]
Yes, I cried when I read that one. My first impulse was to say that neither your former husband’s actions, nor those of the people in the church you now work for are representative of Baptists or of the Christian community in general. But am I really right about that? Frankly, I don’t think this is an isolated instance, and I think that, while the circumstances may be a lot different, the results in a lot of cases like this are the same.
About six months ago, I picked up a copy of David Kinnaman’s and Gabe Lyon’s book Unchristian. This is not like the typical book by the “church growth guru.” These guys did a lot of research to discover the prevailing attitudes in our culture regarding Christianity and the church, and in simple terms, they discovered one thing: Christianity has an image problem. Basically, we do not practice what we preach.
Just about the time you think you have gained some ground in this area, something happens to dishearten you once again. When I read the post above, I really wanted to reach out. My first thoughts were, “this person needs to come to my church.” Of course, we do have a tendency to be blinded to the things that are closest to us, and especially to our own faults. But there are some things that have happened in recent weeks, no big events or explosive situations, just normal, day to day occurrences, that make me wonder whether the “hope we have within” can be seen from the outside. We don’t have a line of people outside our door knocking, asking us for the reason for the hope we have within, either.
I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again. We’ve learned how to “do church” well. We have the music right, it is all well rehearsed, we have pastors who preach sermons with the theatrical flair needed to keep people’s attention. Everything seems to fall in place. But what is missing is the Holy Spirit. Giving people what they think they need from their church experience, or even contrary to that, what they want from it, is not the same thing as letting the Holy Spirit have the freedom to move upon our worship. When the Spirit is presence, and we encounter him, we are transformed. It seems to be fairly obvious that there is not a lot of transformation taking place in our churches these days.