One of my least favourite comments I occasionally hear is “you call yourself a Christian”. I find it’s normally thrown at me when I am doing something that I think is reasonable but someone objects to it. I remember it being thrown at me in a public meeting when someone wanted to use a church building for free because “the church should belong to everyone”. When I asked her who then should pay for the upkeep of the buildings and their energy costs all I got a hostile glare and a mutter.
I rarely mention I’m a minister if I get into a cab or sit next to a strange person on a plane because I often get someone’s “unique” take on why my beliefs are wrong and why they are right. I normally get either a long list of reasons why the church is bad or a justification about why they don’t feel they need to go to church to be a spiritual person.
To be honest in those situations I either want to look out the window or eat my fairly inedible gluten free airplane meal in peace. If asked I normally mumble I’m a clerical worker and watch their eyes glaze over as they dismiss me as Mr Boring.
At this juncture in time I admit we have a bit of a reputation problem.
In some ways I get it. People feel judged by us . Most people think that the church is full of people who think that they are better than the average person. That we are a Holy Huddle of purity and look down our noses at other poor mortals.
When you’re part of a 2000 year old institution that spans the globe there’s always going to be things that are not good- because the church is made up of all kinds of people some good, some bad and most of us just poor struggling people trying to work out how to live a good life , sometimes getting it right and sometimes getting it wrong.
But there’s also a lot we also get right. Our buildings for example allow a whole section of the social economy to function. We feed the poor, heal the sick, provide comfort, companionship, and help . In amidst the bad stuff there is also some pretty amazing stuff. Let’s not also forget that. In fact our participation has been valued in 12.4 billion a year.
The church is a mixture of good, bad and indifferent because we are a mixture of good bad and indifferent. So where do we go from here?
Here are two random thoughts…..
One of the intriguing things about the Dutch is that they traditionally don’t have curtains. There seems to be two main reasons for this, the first is that as a good puritan this was an advertisement that there was nothing to hide.The reasoning goes that if there is nothing to hide then there is no reason why people can’t see in. I must admit I do like a few curtains for privacy myself, but I get the point.
The second is reason often given was that it allowed people to see into a merchant’s house and be able to see whether they had sufficient collateral to be in business with. A view of fine furniture and silver were a credit rating system before credit rating systems.
In our Thessalonians reading we get Paul’s advice on reputation. Paul gives us some sound advice on how to mend our reputations. So this is what Paul might say:
a) Talk about the good that we are doing (and always ask is there something else we can do) , seeking always to share why we bother to come to church. Talk in simple ways how what we believe makes us live differently-
b) Recognise that sometimes we are our own worst enemies. Listen to what people are saying and thoughtfully respond whether this be to the church or to its critics.
c) Making sure that we are respectful of others, understanding there is a huge difference between doing something differently and doing it wrong.
d) Remember that we are working for the Kingdom of God, a place of love, mended relationships, fairness, and peace. To do this we must be loving, forgiving, fair and peace seeking.
Adding this to my random Dutch thoughts we should also be transparent in all we do and also talk about what we do.
It is big isn’t it?
But the one thing we have to realise is that we do not do it alone. We do it with each other and we do it with God. And we do it as a part of chain of relationship that stretches from the distant past into the future.
It’s also worth remembering we can’t do everything- but we can do something. As the liberation theologian and martyr Oscar Romero reminds us in the prayer we have beem using this week.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
But today let us do something and do it well. May today be a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest. For we are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.