The idea that the church reflects and witnesses for God to the world is something you probably hear in church at least eight times a year.
However, focusing too much on this may not--actually--be the best way to bring people to Christ.
Insert standard disclaimer--please don't automatically jump to the conclusion that I'm advocating the other extreme; that we ought to dissolve our churches and focus only on our own spiritual lives, reject the idea that the communal group identity of a church is at all important to being a Christian.
Of course it is.
Of course it is.
(I say that twice in case you blinked.)
Perhaps for some of you this isn't the case. Maybe in your churches now you're struggling with the opposite challenge, where people are too self-centred and unwilling to reach out, unwilling to love. If so that definitely is a bad witness, leading people to form a wrong idea of the God we profess to worship and live by (unfortunately don't we all misrepresent Him at one time or another?) and in that case you may not need to read this post at all in case you get the wrong idea, and take my thought out of context.
But the basic fact is that faith is a personal thing. It's not something that we can grow in someone, or that can spillover from others, nice as that would be; if that were the case there would be no heartbreak for Christian parents whose children have grown up to reject their parents' beliefs. Faith is something essentially personal, and essentially between God and the soul through Christ. There are no other interceders or parties concerned. If someone's professing faith depends on how kind you are to that person, if you think that you being able to remember everyone's birthdays means they will keep coming to church, if how bonded the youth group is is a direct correlation to how close they are to salvation, stop and think. When did salvation become so heavily dependent on our social interactions? As if the Holy Spirit took a backseat in His all-important work, and we somehow became His substitutes, trying to use niceness to convict and move hearts.
The witness which the love of God shining through a Christian can be to someone who does not believe is surely, in a world like this, truly beautiful, truly a glimpse that there is an ideal we've fallen short of, but an ideal that mercifully still exists in heaven. I have seen that in other lives. I have experienced it myself, and know how it helped me before and after becoming a Christian. And I believe that it is the very high, but inexpressibly beautiful calling of all Christians, to love. All the more beautiful for the contrast that it makes to the headlines we wake up to everyday, to the evil and hatred and incredible selfishness and cruelty we see in ourselves and others.
But when this becomes out focus, when we unconsciously equate 'being nice to people = bringing them closer to professing faith' then we've messed ourselves up. We set traps for ourselves. Thinking we are giving and caring unconditionally as Christ would have us, but actually building up expectations or a sense of entitlement (very naturally! aren't all other human relationships wired like this after all?) which cause us to recoil in hurt and anger when things don't turn out as we thought. When they are never able to believe, to see their need, to repent. When they hurt us. When they leave. When they backslide.
And we get angry. Struggle with resentment and bitterness, confused and bewildered where all those black emotions came from when we thought we'd been busying ourselves doing what was right. It becomes so easy to fling the blame on them, to accuse them of ungratefulness or--worse--hard-heartedness. I tried so hard, I did so much...it must be your fault.
And there it goes. Our nice image of a unified loving church, 'so close' to the vision of the body working in perfect harmony and beauty under its glorious Head in 1 Corinthians. Disillusion and cynicism follow the hurt and bitterness, maybe. Or long festering grudges we know we shouldn't have, but have grown so close to our hearts and egos that we can't bear to cut them out, knowing we have to radically rebuild ourselves if we do.
I heard once of someone who lamented, exactly with this attitude, about longtime visitors who had had 'years of meals with us but they still haven't believed in Christ!' I find this attitude in myself as well when I let myself get consumed by the enslaving assumptions that Christianity=niceness and being nice to people=part of the process of them becoming Christian. If this kind of attitude is present in how you look at or think of someone today, perhaps we need to stop being so unthinkingly 'nice and kind', and instead reconsider why we think it's so important to be 'nice and kind' in the first place.
In 2014 I wrote on this idea, if from a different angle, the idea that Christians = nice people.
It's worth taking a look at again, if I may say so, because it gives additional perspective to the same idea. (Looking back at that article I'm actually rather amazed I wrote it at all, and how I was bold--or thoughtless--enough to think I could discuss such a sensitive and tricky topic without being misunderstood and lashed out at! After all, I very nearly didn't post this, wondering if I really could explain and express myself clearly enough to avoid stumbling anyone.)
I hope I'm expressing my thoughts accurately because again, I recognize it may seem disturbing; yet, if you look back at the Bible, should be based on truth.
Likewise, we don't judge other Christians for not caring in the same way we do, or judge ourselves for not caring the way someone else does. All these petty details matter--if we're talking about people and how they respond. They don't if we're talking about God and His eyes which look not as men see, but at the heart--whether our heart, or the hearts of others.
Salvation by faith, not works.
The just shall live by faith.
Not by being nice.
The focus always ought to be Him--the why always ought to be Him. If our focus becomes 'so that they will believe', then we are no longer loving selflessly. Even though, and I stress this, it is and should doubtless be our desire that they do believe. But it should not be the underlying reason why. If it is, our actions become manipulations, like it or not. If it is, that explains why we don't actually love disinterestedly, unconditionally, but feel personally hurt and betrayed or offended when things don't work out as we assume they should ('after everything I've done.') If it is, then that explains why we're so shocked and dismayed when it becomes obvious that our church isn't perfect after all, that Christians aren't actually all nice, always nice, to each other or unbelievers.
If it is, then that's why we're so paranoid about preserving the appearance of a perfect church, why we feel a (unnecessary) personal pressure and pain when people don't come to faith or behave a certain way.
If it is, then we've subscribed to a cult of niceness that is most definitely not Christianity, even though Christianity is supposed to revolve around love. Because, though we may have gotten confused, the two are not the same thing.
We love because He first loved us. Not--even--because it can make others love Him.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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