It is true that we do not want to let the views and opinions of those outside the church drive too much of what goes on inside the church. After all, we answer to the Lord Jesus, not to the calls of our culture and context. Faithfulness to Christ is our primary duty, even when those outside will neither understand what we are doing nor like it.
For some, this means throwing caution to the wind. Who cares what the world thinks; we answer to Jesus! But that sort of thinking is surely wrong. Whilst we ultimately answer to Jesus, and faithfulness to him is paramount, what unbelievers and outsiders think of us matters too. Not least because Jesus says so in his Word. Paul tells Timothy clearly enough that elders ‘must be well though of by outsiders’ (1 Timothy 3:7) and says to the Colossians ‘Walk in wisdom toward outsiders’ (Colossians 1:5). Paul’s comments to the Corinthian Church regarding speaking in tongues lands, at least at one point, on what outsiders might think, even implying that their negative reaction ought to be taken into account so far as worship is concerned (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:23).
But how we are perceived by outsiders matters for a number of reasons. That doesn’t mean we kowtow to their every desire for the church, but it does mean we need to pay some attention to what they see, how we come across to them and what they perceive among us. In no particular order, here are some reasons why it matters.
For our witness
We no longer live in a time or place where the church is seen inherently as a good thing. We can no longer presume on people assuming the message of the church is essentially good. What this means is the church is mainly starting from behind. In some contexts, what people assume about the church is actively bad.
As such, what unbelievers think of us matters. If they have a negative view of us without engaging with us, we need to show them – before they engage with us – that their assumptions are wrong. We need to show that the gospel does actually lead us to do things that are good. How unbelievers perceive us within our communities will affect whether we get a hearing at all these days.
If our neighbours find us to be nothing but a nuisance in the community, driving in and driving out, making a loud and irritating noise in between, with little or no concern for the local community, that is not going to be very effective for getting the gospel a hearing. If we are seen to be unkind and difficult, if we are perceived as fundamentally bad neighbours, if we are seen as more of a problem to our community than a help, all of these things will stand in the way of our being heard by our community.
For the sake of the gospel
But even if we are seen as a good thing, we have to be careful how people perceive us so that the gospel will proclaim will be heard rightly. It’s not good saying things, even if they are true, but saying them in such a way that what is heard and perceives is a distortion of the truth. How we are perceived matters if the gospel is to be heard rightly.
So, I may go up to someone, and yell in their face – frothing at the mouth – that they’re a sinner, they’re going to Hell and they need to repent and turn to Jesus. It might be true, but the truth of salvation in Jesus Christ is unlikely to be what is heard. What will be heard is my aggression. What will be taken away is that our is an angry God, who creates angry followers, who are really unpleasant people. There is way we can communicate that truth – which people need to know – that doesn’t convey these things. In my community, we talk about Hell all the time and people respond well to really direct answers about it, but if we answered in the way at the top of the paragraph, it would be received just as badly here and anywhere else.
If we want the truth of the gospel to be heard and properly understood, we have to think carefully how we come across to people. The message of salvation in Christ – though everything we say may be true – might be lost because of how we were (maybe wrongly) perceived. We must do our best to minimise that.
For the sake of Jesus’ reputation
Our fundamental role as people is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Our task as a church is to glorify the Lord Jesus and speak of his excellencies so that others might glorify him too. Which means what people think about the Lord Jesus really matters.
But how will most people who don’t read the Bible or come to church experience anything of the Lord Jesus? Primarily, through contact with Christian people. How we are perceived, how we come across, is how people will perceive Jesus. If we are known as Christians – as ambassadors of Christ – what they think of us will ultimately end up being what they think of Jesus. To put it another way, many who encounter Christians will often look at Christians and say, that is what Jesus is happy with. That is what Jesus endorses.
So, how outsiders perceive us will necessarily impact how they view Jesus. That means how outsiders perceive us matters for Jesus’ sake.