I'm sure that many of us know this, but it's worth stating: the church has a bit of a PR problem, especially with those who are younger. Researcher George Barna studied 2,660 twenty-somethings and found that those "in their twenties are significantly less likely than any other age group to attend church services, to donate to churches, to be absolutely committed to Christianity, to read the Bible, or to serve as a volunteer or lay leader in churches."
Another author (Colleen Carroll in The New Faithful) writes:
Many churches, parachurch organizations, and religious orders struggle to attract young adults who seem hopelessly unresponsive. The attempts of these organizations to appeal to the next generation by diluting their message or softening their demands seem to backfire, leading many religious leaders to conclude that today's young adults can not commit to Christian communities of any stripe.
The sociological sketch of this generation suggests exactly the opposite. Today's young adults are clamoring for community—but they are repulsed by its counterfeits. Weaned on Madison Avenue marketing, this audience knows when it is being pandered to, and it resists such manipulation violently.
"They have a very high nose for BS," said Christian author Os Guinness, who said young adults are searching for substance. "They want authenticity."
In other words, we need to pass the sniff test – and many churches aren't passing.
Churches have a PR problem, and it's not just with twenty-somethings either. I've mentioned some of the changing views of Canadians towards church. Did you know that four out of ten Canadians disagree with the statement that "religious communities are a force for good in society." One-quarter of Canadians feel that "religious communities tend to contribute to intolerance and distrust." One-third of Canadians have either little or no trust in churches when it comes to charitable work, with churches placing third-last among the types of charities the public trusts.
In other words, many people don't see churches as good or neutral. Many actually see the church as harmful to society.
An urban studies student wrote a survey to examine how churches interact with different people groups in a city. Block after block, she surveyed citizens of her town. More often than not, she found that the interviews produced thought-provoking stories.
She asked one lady, "What do you think churches could do to improve their relationship with the local community?"
"Churches?" she repeated, as if she might have heard wrong.
"I don't see anything that churches could do." She wasn't being mean; just to the point. "We've already got tons of churches. Look around. There's a church on every corner. I bet you could count nine or ten churches within three blocks of here."
"And nothing has changed, has it? Did you know that three or four of these churches have been here since the town was on the map? But some of the social issues just keep getting worse and worse."
"People don't have enough job training or employment opportunities. Drunks wander the streets. The same homeless people have been circling in and out of the shelters for the last fifteen years. Kids don't have anything to do to keep them out of trouble. Meanwhile, the churches keep right on existing, holding their services every Sunday. And it never changes anything. It seems pretty obvious to me that churches are not the answer." (From Sarah Cunningham, Dear Church)
Churches have PR problems. I was listening to the radio this week and heard callers complain about the Christians who handed out evangelical tracts on Hallowe'en night. I'll put it this way: you couldn't hear much love for Christians in the voices of the callers.
Then there's what happened with Ted Haggard this week. Ted Haggard is the megachurch pastor and evangelical leader who this week was caught in a sex and drug scandal. Although he's denied the allegations, he resigned from his church yesterday after an independent board found him guilty of "sexually immoral conduct." There were almost three thousand stories about this on Google News yesterday. One of the saddest articles to me was one in Forbes magazine entitled "A Look at Some Fallen Religious Leaders" listing six leaders American religious figures who lost their positions due to sexual misconduct.
The question for me is: how do we live as Christians when the trust in the church is so low? How do we at Richview live and serve within the community when so many see the church in such a negative light?
I want to take this question to the Scripture, but before we do I'd like to pray this morning for some of the situations we've just talked about:
- For those who have been disillusioned because the church has let them down
- For those who have fallen – for the situation in the States right now
- That God would give us wisdom as we consider how to be the church in this context
I'm going to invite two or three of you to pray about these situations before we continue.
So we're asking how to serve in a climate of mistrust and cynicism toward the church, some of it deserved. To answer this question, I want to take you back to a group that faced cynicism and even hostility, and how the Bible said they should respond.
Here's the situation. The churches we're going to look at were experiencing cynicism and even hostility because they were Christians. It was said that these Christians practiced murder, incest, and cannibalism in their secret meetings. This sounds completely off the wall, but you can understand where some of this came from. They called some of their meetings "love feasts." They talked about loving their brothers and sisters, and eating the body and drinking the blood of their Lord. The most serious charge was that they disturbed the peace and good order of the Empire.
The situation got so bad that eventually the emperor of that day, the most powerful man in the world, used Christians as human torches at sporting events. The charges against them included disloyalty to the emperor; propagating unlawful customs, defaming the gods, and defying authority.
Peter writes to these churches. One of his main goals is to tell them how to react to the situation they're facing. They were facing even more hostility and cynicism than we are facing. Up until this point, he's told them about the difference that the Gospel has made in their lives. Now, Peter transitions and begins to describe how they can live as Christians in a hostile world. This is a pivotal passage; the next couple of chapters are going to unpack what he says in these two verses. Up until now he's been primarily theological. Here, he begins to
How do we live as Christians in a hostile and cynical world?
1 Peter 2:11-12 says:
Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
We're going to explore how this applies to different situations over the next few weeks. We want to talk about some of the practical issues of our life, like how this works out in our relationships with friends who aren't Christians, to be a Christian at the workplace when we're outnumbered, and even how this works in our marriages. Today, though, I want to spend just a few minutes thinking about what these verses could mean for those of us at Richview.
What Peter Didn't Say
If I were one of the people getting this letter from Peter, I need to be honest: I would feel a little disappointed at first. Given the accusations and the hardships that I was facing, I would hope that Peter would do one of two things.
No Withdrawal – First, I could settle for a bit of withdrawal. I'm not usually one to argue that Christians should withdraw from society and live in their own conclaves, but if I was facing this type of persecution, I think that a conclave might look a little more attractive. If I was going to work and experiencing abuse, I'd like to hear that it's time for another job. If my friends didn't understand my commitment to Christ, then I might look for new friends. I might have hoped that Peter said, "Protect yourself from abuse by huddling with other Christians."
But Peter says, essentially, that these Christians are "foreigners and exiles," or as another translation puts it, "resident aliens." They're different from the surrounding culture, but they're not called to abandon the surrounding culture. Instead, they're to engage with culture, as we're about to see, with a robust faith. No withdrawal, even when culture is hostile.
If we're honest, withdrawal is a temptation that many of us face. We have Christian bookstores, Christian schools, Christian friends. You can even get a Christian yellow pages so that you can only use Christian plumbers and Christian auto mechanics. There is nothing wrong with any of these things in themselves, but there's a danger that over time we become less and less connected with the world out there and more insulated, more out of touch with those who see the world differently from us.
A pastor friend of mine started a church in Portland. They only ever grew to about forty or fifty people for the first few years, all of them Christian. One day the pastor, Rick, realized that he only hung around people who were like him, who shared the same views, held the same belief. He read every how-to book on how to reach people, and began to realize that the problem wasn't really a how-to problem. It was a want-to problem. He didn't want to reach out to those who were unlike him. He really didn't care.
He decided to call for a weekly meeting, every Wednesday night, to repent – something, he says, that was pretty hard to market. They began to meet and to repent of the fact that they didn't care, that some of them hated their neighbors. They continued to pray this way for nine months. The story continues today with a church in one of the least Christian cities in America, and the people of that city like that church, because they realize that the Christians in the church like those who aren't like them.
So how do you respond in a culture that's hostile to Christianity? According to Peter, and seen in places like in my friend's church in Portland, you don't withdraw. You stay connected with those who aren't like you.
No strategy that focuses on them – The other thing that I wouldn't have minded if I got this letter back then would have been a strategy for changing these people. I mean, they are clearly in the wrong, aren't they? They have such a negative and hostile view of Christianity. I would like a plan to change them. I would like it to be all about them.
There is a place for strategy. Paul and some of the early missionaries were master strategists. They knew exactly what they were doing. Peter does in fact have a strategy, but it's not so much a strategy about them. The minute we focus on them, we've lost sight of the real challenge. The real challenge is us.
What Peter Says: Passing the Sniff Test
Remember what I said earlier? I quoted from an author who said that people have a nose for what's fake. They're looking for authenticity. In essence, we have to pass the sniff test.
There's a new friend of mine who's been through unbelievable tragedies over the past year. I hope one day you'll get to meet her and hear her story. Early on, when we first met, I remember her saying, "I need to know if Christianity is real. I need to know if it's just a game you play on Sundays, or if it's the real thing. I desperately want God, but I don't want to waste my time if it's all a game." She wanted to see if we passed the sniff test, if it's real.
So Peter says not to withdraw, and not to come up with a strategy for changing them out there. Instead, Peter says that our real challenge if we want to reach them is to make sure that we're real, that we pass the sniff test. He says to live holy lives so that those who are cynical and hostile become persuaded because our lives speak so loudly.
Two areas he mentions in particular.
The first is how we handle our sinful desires. The word is a little bit stronger than it seems. It's talking about our passionate longings, the things that we know are wrong but that we really want to do. These passionate and sinful desires, Peter says, are at war against our souls. You know what I'm talking about. All of us experience this in different areas of our lives. It's an ongoing battle, one that will never fully be over.
This is especially an issue when we're under pressure. I am a much nicer person when I'm not under pressure. You ever take those psychological tests that tell you what you are normally like, and then how you react under pressure? Peter is writing to people who are under pressure, and the danger is that they will react with a desire to protect themselves, to act in ways that are self-absorbed and focused on their own well-being. That's not even to mention all the other temptations they face.
So Peter says, "Abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul." Those who are hostile and cynical toward Christianity are watching your life. They see how you live. The best way to overcome their cynicism is to pass the sniff test in the area of temptation.
So that's the first area: how we handful our sinful desires. The second area Peter mentions is how well we measure up to society's standards. He's already told us to be holy, but that's not what I think he's talking about here. These people are working as slaves, or they're in marriages with unbelievers. Peter's not just telling them to be holy; he's telling them to be the best slaves possible, the best wife possible, because that will help them pass the sniff test. He says, "Live such good lives among the pagans" (1 Peter 2:12).
The result, he says, is that "though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us." That phrase, "on the day that he visits us," sometimes refers to God's judgment. Here, though, I think it's talking about another type of divine visitation. He's talking about these hostile and cynical unbelievers being won over to the faith because of the good behavior of those who are Christians.
Imagine if we turned our focus as a church on one area only: on becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ who took our discipleship so seriously that we passed the sniff test of a cynical and hostile world. Imagine that people could see that, because of the Gospel, we were prevailing in our own war against sin, and that Christians were known to be the best employees, the best neighbors, the best students that you could ask for. Imagine if our lives spoke the Gospel.
So how do we encounter a cynical and hostile world? Not by withdrawing, and not by trying to change them. The focus isn't on them; it's on us, on our passing the sniff test so that we have something real to offer.
Some have suggested that we don't need to make outreach our primary goal. Instead, our real challenge is inreach – to turn those of us within the church into lights that can shine in a darkened world. Our challenge, really, is to become disciples in every area of our lives so that our lives pass the sniff test. We'll continue to look at this in coming weeks as it applies to different areas of our lives. This morning, I'll leave you with a question:
Are we attractive Christians? Do we give people the impression that the most marvelous thing in the world is to be a Christian and to have the Spirit of God within us? This is the thing to which we are called and the way to do that is positively to avoid grieving the Spirit, and to walk in him, to dwell in him as he dwells in us, and to be led by him in all things. (Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones)
There's no way we can make this happen ourselves. I would like to invite you to pray that living this type of life would be our burning desire, and that as we yield to the Spirit we will begin to smell more and more like the fragrance of Christ, which will help us pass any sniff test out there.