What the world thinks about the church does and doesn’t matter

Whenever questions of evangelism, mission and that slippery term once beloved of church plants and revitalisations – relevance – get mentioned, there inevitably follows some discussion about how the world views what goes on inside the church. In the red corner are those who insist that if we do not speak into the concerns of the world, and if we do not present ourselves in ways that the world can understand, we will be doomed to irrelevance. In the blue corner are those who insist what the world thinks of the church is irrelevant; we are called to be faithful and so the world’s view of the church should just be ignored, they say. After all, they hated Jesus first so why even bother? So, who is right?

Well, both.

The fact is, what the world thinks about the church does matter. The Bible clearly tells us it is so. Elders in local churches are called to be ‘well thought of by outsiders’ (1 Timothy 3:7). That is quite clearly taking account of what the world thinks about those who lead the church. Similarly, ‘above reproach’ (1 Timothy 3:2) necessarily involves a view of church leaders from outside. We don’t have to get into endless caveats or too bogged down in exactly what those things mean in practice to get the essential point – how church leaders are perceived by the world matters on some level.

But it goes beyond just church leaders and touches on what churches do as churches too. Paul famously sought to accommodate himself to the customs and cultures of whomever he was reaching so that ‘by all means I might save some’. How Paul was perceived as a believer, among people in the world, really mattered for the sake of his evangelistic endeavours, his ongoing mission and the churches he planted. He took this so seriously that he made sure – when rumours were doing the round about his view of Jewish laws and customs – to undertake a Nazarite vow and paid for a bunch of lads doing the same because of how it looked to Jewish people he was trying to reach. Similarly, he made Timothy, who had a Jewish mother and Gentile father, get circumcised in order to effectively reach Jewish people. He did it because what those people in that culture thought of the church mattered.

Indeed, in both Acts 2:41-47, Luke is at pains to point out that the church in Jerusalem had favour with all the people. And it is notable that here, and in Acts 4, the favour they had with the world had an evangelistic impact locally. People were attracted to the church because of their perception of the church from the outside.

When Paul went to Athens, he didn’t just stand up and give a three point sermon centred on penal substitutionary atonement. He started to speak with the people there beginning with what they were interested in. He saw the statues to the gods all around the city and spoke into what the people cared about. When Paul went into the synagogues, he started by opening the Jewish scriptures. He began speaking about what the people were interested in. When Philip spoke to the Ethiopian eunuch, he began with the very passage of scripture the eunuch was reading. He started with what he was interested in and then preached Christ. It is clearly true that unless we begin to speak about what the world is interested in, we are unlikely to get a hearing. It is clearly the case that what the world thinks about the church has some relevance and significance for what we do as a church.

At the same time, it is true that the world should not dictate what we do as a church. Only the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles can do that. Though what the world thinks about the church is relevant and important, its views of the church are not ultimate.

So, when people come to our churches and find communion a bit weird – because who else goes on about broken bodies and shed blood and then insists that we’re going to eat and drink it together – we’re not going to stop doing that simply because some people don’t quite get it. Jesus has given us this meal as an ordinance, an instruction for his church. Whilst people may find it odd, and some may even find it a bit off-putting, we have a higher allegiance to what Jesus commands than we do to what people may think about what we’re doing.

Similarly, plunging people into a big old pool of water inside your church building looks a bit mental if you have never seen it done before. Outsiders can well be forgiven for wondering what on earth we are doing, standing indoors, in our clothes, in a pool of water into which we plunge somebody backwards. It’s legitimately not a normal thing to be doing. But we do it because Jesus has commanded us to go into all the world and make disciples, baptising them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Though outsiders might find it a bit whacko, we do it because it is what Jesus has asked us to do.

And I’m sure we can spend all day finding example after example. If Jesus has commanded us to do something, we can’t be held hostage to how it might look to outsiders. Our conscience – like Luther’s – ought to be captive to the Word of God. We do what he says regardless of how well it might be perceived by outsiders. In that sense, what the world thinks about the church doesn’t really matter at all.

The issue comes in the grey areas (as it almost always does). There are, of course, things that the Lord commands that are not so specific. So, for example, we are commanded to sing. That much is clear and if the world decide singing together in general is weird – though chunks of what happen at football matches and live gigs suggest they don’t – we would carry on singing at any rate. However, there is no biblical command to sing unintelligible hymns to the tune of, oh I don’t know, the German national anthem. If the world decide that’s a bit weird – and, when you stop and think about it, no matter how much you like that hymn it definitely is – does what they think matter then? If we could sing other things that were less weird and off-putting, can’t we still obey Jesus and not do the thing that the world finds, at best, twee and, at worst, specifically unhelpful? If we can, shouldn’t we?

I have quoted (what I have been told was attributed to) Dick Lucas before: don’t be weirder than you have to be. Being a Christian – functioning as a church – will have inherently weird things about it. We are going to be distinct in some ways and there are bits of weirdness that we simply have to embrace. They are weird, and the world don’t do them, because they are not following Jesus and Christians – it is generally accepted – at least want to make a decent fist of seeking to obey him. We will do things, say things, look, speak and function in ways that are odd as far as the world views it and there is no getting around that. But recognising that, we do well not to make ourselves any weirder than we have to be. There is no virtue in oddness and peculiarity for its own sake.

The reality is that what the world thinks about the church does, and doesn’t, matter. There are things we do that will make us seem odd to the world, and because Jesus commands them, we have to suck them up and get on with them anyway. At the same time, there are things that Jesus doesn’t command that we simply do not have to do that make us seem weird, if not deeply unhelpful and obnoxious. If that is how we are perceived by the world when there is no need to be, we aren’t really being faithful to everything Jesus has to say, because he does have things to say about how we are viewed by the world. We first have an eye on what Jesus commands and we do it. We then have an eye on what the world finds weird and objectionable and – if Jesus doesn’t demand it – we can do ourselves and the gospel we proclaim a favour and not insist upon it. What the world thinks both matters and doesn’t matter. We do well to realise when.