A Question of Appearances... (August 7, 2019)
Dear VICC family,
It has been quite some time since I have written one of these! I hope everyone is well, and that the summer has been a good one for you. Thank you all for the love and grace you have shown my family over these last months. Also, I want to publicly thank all the staff and volunteers who have kept this church rolling in my absence (and partial absence) all summer. One of my pastoral heroes, Eugene Peterson, co-wrote a book entitled The Unnecessary Pastor, and he meant “unnecessary” in a good way! It is a deep encouragement to me to see the church being the church whether the pastor is around or not, and I believe it pleases God, too.
I don’t know about you, but one of the biggest challenges I face emotionally as a Christian (and as a pastor) is the tension between integrity and appearance. As human beings it is natural to be concerned about how other people feel about us. Some people claim not to care what people think of them, but it usually doesn’t take much digging to discover that these people aren’t being truthful. We are social creatures made in the image of the triune God. Interpersonal relationships define our existence. Even the lonely hermit on the mountaintop gains his identity from his relationships (though in his case it’s his lack of relationships that defines him). Try as we might, we humans simply cannot stop thinking about what other people think of us. To make matters worse, we are also constantly making evaluations of one another. If you don’t believe me, observe yourself for a week. Get inside your feelings and see what happens to your impressions of people as you interact with or observe them on a daily basis. Watch how your estimation of this person goes up and that person goes down based on little cues. Someone in front of you at the store buys something you consider decadent - what happens to your impression of them in that moment, even if you don’t know them? You see a “like,” a “share,” or a comment on Facebook. You see who did it. Before you know it, you’ve redefined and recategorized that person. You’ve tightened up your definition of that person in your head. They are now on the good list or the bad list. They are now smart or stupid. They are now virtuous or filled with vice. You’ve decided all these things in a fraction of a second, but these decisions have become lenses through which you will judge that person for the rest of their life. And really, this is almost unavoidable. Our brains are designed to judge, evaluate, and draw conclusions. We do it in a million different ways every day, and it is how we get things done. It’s how we make friends, find a spouse, and figure out who to vote for. And it’s at least partly a good thing. But then we realize that the people observing us are doing the same thing that we have been doing to them.
When I was doing youth ministry back in the 2000’s (and when I was a sometimes recipient of youth ministry as a teenager in the 1990’s), the standard biblical text for ministry was from the apostle Paul, “I have become all things to all people, so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22b, NIV). At it’s best, our use of this text aligned with missionary Paul’s concern to “put no stumbling block in anyone’s path” toward the gospel (2 Corinthians 9:3). It meant avoiding the impression that becoming a Christian meant you had dress a certain way, vote a certain way, or be part of a certain clique or social group. The gospel message is for everybody, and the gospel invitation is “whosoever will may come.” We understood that any “us/them” dichotomies only served to insulate churched kids (who were not necessarily believers, just religiously enculturated), and to shut out unchurched kids (who for a thousand reasons already felt like outsiders to anything labeled “Christian”). Our motivation, and most of our reasoning, was sound. But at its worst, our use of this text created an obsession with appearance, with how our church and our faith seemed. Were we attractive? Were we cool? Did we seem smart, kind, and open-minded? Of course, there is nothing wrong with being those things, but there is a lot wrong with worrying about whether you seem that way. Some Christians are “cool,” I suppose, but most of us aren’t. Some Christians are attractive, but most of us aren’t (no offense). And the Bible itself says that most of us aren’t that smart (1 Corinthians 1: 16). So, in actual practice, the concern about appearances led to a lot of shallow behavior and shallow thinking. It also led to a lot of conflicted feelings toward the older generations in the churches, who always seemed very deeply embroiled in the culture wars and who seemed to care very little what anybody thought of how the gospel appeared to a watching world.
Now, as I get older, I find my resolve to avoid political discussions breaking down. My concern to keep the faith attractive ebbs and flows. As time goes on, I can see myself slowly becoming a member of that nefarious “older generation”! And it scares me a little. I do believe the missionary effectiveness of the church is about generationaleffectiveness. We need to be able to pass the faith on to another generation, and that generation is a mostly unchurched one. So when I feel I am losing touch, I also feel I am losing my effectiveness with outsiders (not with insiders, who I am becoming more like). But the flip side of all this is that I am becoming increasingly less self-conscious about my faith. While I am far from a spiritual dynamo, my walk with Christ is more natural. I worry less about it, and other people’s opinions are less likely to throw me. There’s a real benefit to getting older! The intensity (and insecurities) of a brand-new marriage to Christ have given way to the familiarity and staying-power of a decades-long relationship. My attitude is becoming more like Paul in Galatians 1:10, “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God?...If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” I am getting a little older in Christ and am worrying a bit less what people outside (and inside!) the church think of me. But I also know I should not stop caring entirely – not for my sake, but for theirs.
At this point in my journey, I think the solution to this tension can be found in Jesus’ teaching regarding the Old Testament Law. When asked what the most important of God’s commandments was, Jesus replied that the most important commandment is to love God with your whole being, and the second is to love your neighbor as much as you love yourself (Matthew 22:36-39). Jesus then went on to say that the whole message of the Old Testament can be boiled down to “these two commandments” (verse 40). This tells us that loving God and loving people are to be the filters by which we test our attitudes and behaviors. When it comes to our walk with God in Christ, what matters above all is what God thinks of us, not other people. Wise Christians can speak into our lives, and even non-Christians have the right to point out our hypocrisies. But concerns about what other people think of us should never be the determining factor in our faithfulness to God. Like Paul in Galatians 1:10, we should aim only to “win the approval of…God.” But when it comes to our public faith, our relationships with friends and neighbors, a little bit of empathy is going to go a long way. What would someone who did not understand the gospel think of the way I am behaving right now? How would what I just said be heard by someone who thinks evangelical (i.e. gospel) Christianity is all about hate? The possibility of being misunderstood should never tempt us to be unfaithful to either God or his Word. But our love of neighbor should inspire us, again with Paul, to never put a stumbling block in anyone’s path.
Your partner on the journey,