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Mark Naylor M.Th.

The perception of a loving church depends on where you stand

In the book UnChristian (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), which deals with research from the Barna group, David Kinnaman refers to a survey which asked the participants to agree or disagree with the statement, “Christian churches accept and love people unconditionally, regardless of how people look or what they do” (p. 185). 20% of non church goers (outsiders) agreed strongly, just over 40 % of church goers agreed strongly, but 76% of pastors strongly agreed that this statement described Christian churches.

The discrepancy is intriguing. Do the pastors have a good sense of reality based on personal experience, or is this an expression of their desire for this statement to be true? Have the outsiders been biased by unfair reports, or have they had negative experiences that contradict the statement?

I suspect that part of the discrepancy has to do with the difference between standing inside looking out verses standing outside and looking in. For example, I have a love / hate relationship with hospitals. I think they are wonderful but I am happiest if I don’t have to be inside one. When visiting I feel quite out of place and uncertain about what I am permitted to do and am always relieved to leave. On the other hand, my daughter, Becky, has just completed her nurse’s training. She enjoys the environment, loves to be busy and experiences significance as she helps the patients. The hospital is the same, it is our separate and distinct relationships with and experience of the hospital that is different. It is a matter of perspective.

those of us who are church goers need to learn to speak another language of love

This illustration may parallel the contrasting perspectives between pastors and the outsiders described by Kinnaman. What looks like love to the pastors is seen through another lens by the outsiders and experienced as uncomfortable, judgmental or cold. Most likely the relationships and environment of church speak differently to outsiders. Perhaps their language of love is different from what is normally expressed in church. If this is so, then those of us who are church goers need to learn to speak another language of love, one that is understood by those outside of the church.

This missional stance – becoming like others, as opposed to inviting others to become like us – has even greater urgency when relating cross-culturally. What is considered comfortable, familiar and accepting varies from culture to culture. Cross-cultural experiences tend to be stressful due to the many unfamiliar cues which bombard the person who is not used to the setting, cues that need to be interpreted. In that context even expressions intended to communicate love and acceptance can be misunderstood or judged negatively. On the other hand, when God’s people learn how to make people from another culture feel comfortable and accepted by speaking that people group’s language of love, rather than waiting for others to conform to the church’s way of relating, then the experience of the outsider will correspond to the perspective of the insider.

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