Lord Save Us. From Your Followers

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.

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25 responses to “Lord Save Us. From Your Followers

  1. Thank you, Brett– I really loved this post. Here on the Left Coast, I found it a very timely reminder that we as individual Christians do not personally bear responsibility for dissuading all the non- and anti- Christians who see Christianity as no more than a political machine and therapeutic poultice.
    And it only makes sense that Christians are flawed– it was the tax collectors and prostitutes were first came to grace. And free from the burden of saving ourselves, Christians have no need to put up a dishonest veneer of perfection, unlike works-righteousness, results-based religions. Not me, but only Christ and Him crucified.

  2. Unfortunately it sounds to me like you are a little too conscious of this following you have generated online and are trying to be something of a guiding voice for the Christians of your generation. Stop trying to control a mob or suggest how the “we” of Christians should be thinking. I think that as long as you regard yourself as a part of this “we” of Christians, then you do in fact have a lot of apologizing to do to those who rightly interpret mainline American Christianity as a cult. Stop being cultish as you are doing with this blog and whatever fad book you are generating and get on quietly with your personal journey. Because right now, all you are doing is side-stepping an ugly and dangerous social development that is drunk on God.

  3. i am reminded that there will be many who choose their own selfish ideals over Jesus, not knowing Him or the real relationship they could have – which is better than anything else i have searched.

  4. Not saying that you do, but I think it would be a mistake to categorize all of the present Christian “dissent” as worry about image or “PR.” This is the categorical dismissal increasingly heard whenever someone tries to broach a difficult, serious topic on which Christians desperately need to get real. There is definitely some worry about surface perception out there, and it’s not unwarranted. But a sizable percentage of these discussions have absolutely nothing to do with what “the world” thinks, and everything to do with the crucial issue of what Christians think. And I’m afraid there will be a high price to pay for ignoring it.

  5. David- I definitely agree that it would be a mistake to dismiss all “dissent” as PR worries. But I do think–and this is from years worth of visiting churches, talking to pastors, observing the Christian culture–that there is a disproportionate emphasis in the church on adjusting itself according to external factors (i.e. to be more palatable to the market) rather than internal efforts to more effectively BE the church God wants us to be. I think one of the problems is that increasingly the “what the world thinks” and “what Christians think” are haphazardly blurred. Due to a number of factors (poor biblical literacy, rootless faith, etc), many Christians simply can’t think of the church independently of worldly perception. Indeed, it’s hard for 21st century people in general to think outside of categories of PR/image-control, etc. So while we shouldn’t completely ignore our image/perception, we must be careful that this doesn’t become a driving force of what we do or a dominating determinant of who we are.

  6. I’m so glad Christ is the heart of Christianity, not Christians. Do people really expect Christians to be perfect? What about all those who strive hard to live and love to the best of their abilities. I do not judge people according to the group they belong to, but rather as individuals. Still, the fact is that Christ will be the final judge and He looks at the heart. Why is there not a discussion like this or a movie that exposes the mistakes and shortcomings of muslims, hindus or even the atheists. There could be volumes written on the atrocities done by the atheists alone. The fact is that the world knows that Christians will respond with truth in love. Everyone is scared to address other groups’ issues in fear of persecution or simply not being “cool” enough. =) Let’s face it. Its popular to bash Christians…. everyone is doing it.

  7. Amen, Brett. Sounds like an interesting film.

    We are called to be in the world, not of the world. Levine’s point is totally valid. It’s a mistake to be overly concerned with outside perception or to be more palatable to the market, as you say. (This is why “seeker-friendly churchers” are a ridiculous concept. ) But if we are indistiguishable from the unsaved, then something is wrong because we have been made alive in Christ. We should be characterized by outward demonstrations of the love and grace that we have received from him, as the early Church was.

    What many churches have forgotten (or ignored) is that the message of Christ to the unsaved needs no dressing up or dumbing down. It has been, and will always be, the most life-altering, world-changing message ever heard. All that needs to happen is for Christians to have the “mind of Christ” that Phillipians speaks of and the world will notice.

  8. this is a lovingly ironic [at least to my mind] follow-up to that “Most Hated Christians In America” post you wrote..i am glad God has balanced you [us!] out a little more fully in this regard.

    & yes. i agree with you, &, Lord willing, no hypocrisy will follow me.

  9. Probably the hardest thing a Christian, or anyone, can do is to get over themselves and let God be God. Imagine what Christians could accomplish if we weren’t so worried about the bloody path religion has left behind us. What if Christians ignored the past and focused only on this new faith they have discovered. This new faith that calls us to love one another as we have been loved.
    The world would see a different picture of Christianity, I think.

  10. “Due to a number of factors (poor biblical literacy, rootless faith, etc), many Christians simply can’t think of the church independently of worldly perception. ”

    Or maybe, they just follow after the thread of theological thought which accepts that our interaction with God is necessarily mediated by the limits of worldly perception–and it’s naive and arrogant to believe otherwise.

  11. k- To clarify: I wasn’t speaking of “worldly perception” in the sense of the limitations of material/physical perception (humans) vs. metaphysical realities (God). Of course I agree that our understanding and interaction with God is framed within certain human constraints. But this isn’t what I was saying with the line about how “many Christians simply can’t think of the church independently of worldly perception.” I was just trying to point out that a lot of Christians today seem to derive a large part of their conception of the church not from the church itself (which, though indeed manifested and mediated in very human contexts, is nevertheless a work of the Holy Spirit that transcends humanity and existed prior to creation) but from “the world” outside of the church that has its own idea and agenda about what it would like the church to be.

  12. I have a problem with the disjunction here:

    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?

    The answer is, it doesn’t matter. Loving better, befriending drag queens, and washing homeless people’s feet is something that needs to be done regardless of the consequences, because that’s explicitly what Jesus asks us to do.

  13. I mean, evangelicals love to talk about how we should be ‘set apart’ from the world. Why does this always seem to mean that we shouldn’t drink or swear or watch certain movies? We are never informed that the world will recognize us as followers of Christ by our teetotaling or our decorous language. Our disctinction is supposed to be love, that we love everyone we can get our grubby mitts on. If you want to stop approaching Christianity as having a PR problem, stop approaching evangelism as a marketing strategy and simply love people with no end.

  14. Yes – what Tim Coe said – exactly!

  15. I think the understanding of ‘set apart’ is a bit misguided here. God’s holiness is two parts: majestic holiness and moral perfection. Christians are the “called out ones.” Paul says to imitate him as he imitates Christ. “Be holy as I am holy”. So how do we pursue this? Should we? Sanctification–the process of becoming holy is a life long endeavor. It’s not about taboos per se, it’s about pursuing and knowing Christ. As we do, we see our vices fall away. It’s a natural thing; the closer to Christ we get the less like the world we become. If that means we stop smoking and swearing like sailors then so be it. But the point is the pursuit.

    Also, yes, washing the feet of the homeless and loving our neighbors is what we are to do as Christians. It’s a common good; all people will agree with this. But this is only part of our commission. To separate Christ’s cultural interaction from the Peter and Paul’s doctrine is to interpret the bible in fragments. Christ’s actions unfold; Paul extrapolates a Christian theology through his epistles. He brings a balance to an understanding of the Christian life. It is both knowing God, and loving others. Loving others without a love for God is ultimately empty.

    The culture wars are interesting … there will always be a disconnect. Mars Hill discourse showed Paul obliterating the cultural worldview in favor of the Christian worldview; at the end some wanted to hear more of the resurrection while others scoffed–the idea of a resurrected body in the hellenistic culture was laughable. To some degree we will always defend the culture. As God is the ‘holy other’ (Kierkegaard) … so we too will be viewed as other … and should be.

    cheers,
    tim

  16. Tim (no Coe), I agree with much of what you wrote. Tim (Coe), I cannot agree with you completely. As the Lord himself said, the command to Love Your Neighbor is second in importance only to the commandment to Love God with all of our hearts. As Tim (no Coe) said, “Loving others without a love for God is ultimately empty”. Ideally, we are able to manifest our love for God in our love of others, but there is a specific order for a reason.

    Paul reminds us (via Timothy) to “be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (1Tim 4:12). I don’t believe he wrote pure to insure puritanical teetotalatry, but so that we would avoid compromising our ministry by conduct unbecoming Ambassadors of Heaven. Since we are exorted to live up to what “we have already attained”. I believe this is different for each individual and each person’s personal ministry. For some this might mean abstaining from alcohol or swearing. For others this might mean something different.

    Tim (Coe), what Brett was saying when he asked whether these actions would gain any converts couldn’t be more integral to this topic. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if drag-queens have Christian friends or if homeless people have had their feet washed. What matters in the end is whether or not we have offered them the Gospel of Jesus Christ and whether or not they have trusted Christ as their Savior. We can show them physical evidence of our love and concern (washing feet, making friends) but I would posit that this is secondary to showing them the ultimate love: the love of Our Lord for his lost sheep. I think what Brett was saying is that we are not here primarily to make friends, we are here to testify to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

  17. Sounds like a bunch of Pharisee talk to me – as long as you understand each others’ finer points and this somehow produces a formula for you to “feel” like you are doing the will of God. Have a great day!

  18. I think what Brett was saying is that we are not here primarily to make friends, we are here to testify to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    I’d agree with this, but why is testifying necessarily verbal? Frankly, I think the evangelism of a Mother Theresa is infinitely more compelling than the evangelism of the guy who hands out tracts on the subway. Loving the undesirable, washing their feet, spending time with those who can’t get a friend, much less a meal, is actual evangelism. The rest, as Fred at Slacktivist says in his response to Chapter 11 of Left Behind, is salesmanship, which is the opposite of evangelism. I agree that we must love God, and that love of others without love for God is meaningless, but it’s quite explicit in the Gospels that the converse is true as well: Love for God without love for others is meaningless. In Jesus’ mini-apocalypse, he describes two categories of people: Those who cared for the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the naked, and those who didn’t. Those who did got into heaven, and those who didn’t– God claims he never knew them.

  19. Sorry, forgot to close my tags. That wasn’t a quote from Slactivist, just sloppy HTML.

  20. Tim, you’re venturing pretty close to advocating a works-based salvation message: Those who did [cared for the poor, etc] got into heaven, and those who didn’t. I think Jesus and Paul are clear about how people get into Heaven and it’s not through good works. Certainly when a believer demonstrates the love of Christ through his actions, this is a blessing to the community and to the individual who is the recipient of those actions, but the believer’s salvation doesn’t rest on this basis.

    Testimony doesn’t neccessarily have to be verbal, but communication of the Gospel of Jesus Christ requires verbal or written communication of some sort. And I guess that gets back to my point. The Gospel is what matters. Period. Anything else should serve to bolster your communication of the grace of God, right? Acts of service certainly can be a powerful and effective testimony to the unsaved, augmenting our sharing of the Good News, but I believe we need to be careful to retain the proper hierarchy in our minds. Communication of the Gospel is the end, kind deeds simply a means to that end. An important means certainly, but not more important than verbal or written communication of God’s grace to the sinner.

  21. Good points Luke. I will also add this in response to Tim’s (Coe) comment. The gospels do detail Christ’s ministry and his ministry to the sick and poor and generally afflicted. But we have to view Christ’s life and movements in the context of the whole NT. Social interaction is great and we should all be part of aiding those in need, whoever and wherever they are. But centering evangelism on this mindset is dangerously close to the “Red-letter Christian” ideals to only emulate Christ’s ministry in a social context.

    I have these discussions often with my friends. I always come back to my father, an “old school” pastor. He is compassionate, involved in the community and cares for the sick and dying–that’s his main job. But if you ask him what matters most he will tell you that the proclamation of the gospel is first and foremost. I used to bristle at this. But his witness is so beautiful, I can’t argue it. He is socially minded, is faith being expressed through love and he is eternally minded; he has a desire for everyone to know the saving grace of Jesus.

    This is what separates the Christian from the socially minded citizen who desires that only the common good. We have the truth of the holy Other, the One who is Uncommon; and this we should proclaim with our actions and our mouths. A great book to check out on Evangelism in the early church is Michael Green’s “Evangelism of the Early Church”. Check it. Great discussion ya’ll.

    Cheers,
    Tim

  22. Tim, you’re venturing pretty close to advocating a works-based salvation message: Those who did [cared for the poor, etc] got into heaven, and those who didn’t.

    I’m really only recounting a parable of Christ. I’m certainly not advocating a works-based salvation, but it seems to me that Evangelicals far too often are so afraid of coming across as emphasizing works that they advocate a works-free salvation. I think Jesus is pretty clear on the importance of caring for the needy, and James reminds us that our salvation without deeds cannot save us; he also tells us that the only religion pleasing to God is to care for orphans and widows.

  23. Mr. McCracken,

    This post is a good one and a worthwhile to us all, so I thank you for that. Christians have been struggling from the start with the tension caused by that infamous call to be in the world but not of it. Is culture something we embrace, attack, reform, legislate? We have often answered these questions wrongly. Today, our answer has most often been to retreat into a cushy Christian ghetto where we have all the world’s accoutrements with convenient “Christian” labels slapped on them. From this position, we hurl our complaints about the loss of say, family values onto society as our own fall apart. We are of the world but not in it. All this has come from a gnostic understanding of sin and creation from which the assumptions that the world is inherently evil and that common grace doesn’t exist coincide with an externalized and shallow view of sin. Consequently, you are indeed correct in asserting that changing our image to being more “Christ-like” will not save people. If people could be saved from our example and witness, we would need a Christ to be like in the first place. The Gospel in all its monergistic glory, is the key.

    Thanks again

    Caleb
    http://www.discoverorthodoxy.wordpress.com

  24. Pingback: A great discussion: Lord Save Us. From Your Followers « The Search | Homelessness in Savannah, Stories for Learning

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