With the rise of social media has come some interesting dynamics in the church. We’ve seen a greater number of mega pastors who now have access to a larger audience due to Twitter, Facebook, and all of the other digital avenues open to them, but we’ve also seen greater opportunities for people who have been marginalized in the past to band together and find a common voice, many times in opposition to those who have traditional held the “power” in the church. I’ve seen social media decried a lot, but I will tip my hand and admit, I think it’s a great opportunity and the benefits outweigh the costs. It’s popular to put down Facebook, but, in my usage of it, it has mostly been a positive place for growth and meaningful discussing (buried within cat pictures, of course!)
One increasingly prominent conversation among Christians is the “image” of the church. Many will denounce critical posts and blogs saying that they are unloving and not representative of Christ. “The world is watching,” we will be reminded. Verses like Philippians 4:8 will be quoted: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Such thoughts are used to silence any critics of public ministry so the world can see the church is good.
The problem is that this is disingenuous. If ministries are misbehaving and sinning, the world is going to find out about it. We don’t need to hide it, or avoid talking about it. And when they do, our inactivity speaks volumes. God works in the light, he does not need us to shroud the truth in darkness. What is more, when leaders are sinful and harming others, it is the job of the Christian to stand up for the weak and vulnerable. If we do not, the results are catastrophic. These folks, and the watching world, will associate Jesus with an abusive faith that is dangerous. Many will leave the faith and never come back.
Ironically, by refraining from legitimate criticism in order to protect reputations, we are doing the opposite of the work of the Gospel. If we seek to preach a truth that hinges on humans being sinful and redeemable, presenting ourselves as perfect and without conflict does nothing to further that message. It might be attractive to those looking for perfection, but it is not the story of a broken people redeemed in grace.
As a Christian, my “image” should be the most robust there is, because it does not hinge on me being perfect; it hinges on my accepting my brokenness and turning toward God. On repenting when people reveal my sin. On cooperating daily with the Holy Spirit in the process of growing and becoming a better follower of Jesus. If that’s what people see in me, then they see Christianity, warts and all. If they simply saw the perfect glass house of never stumbling, that wouldn’t be realistic or truthful.
My last blog post was about Matt Chandler and The Village Church. They sinned grievously against a woman, Karen, whom they “disciplined” for her quick annulment to a pedophile. They sinned against the families in their church, whom they did not immediately alert to the pedophile in their midst, a potential danger to their children. This sin was exposed very publicly and discussed vigorously on the internet. Many rose to defend them, or to criticize those of us who wanted to bring it to light. Some accused those of us who wanted to talk about it as being slanderous or painting the church in bad light. And yes, the church HAS looked very bad for this. But it was a bad name that was well deserved, because TVC is only one of many churches to have done this.
But then something happened. Unlike many other ministries who have ridden out the accusations of sin and dug in their heals, Matt Chandler stood up and apologized. He said his church was wrong and had hurt Karen and others. He offered to meet with Karen (and others) on their terms, and Karen took him up on it. They met, they sought to understood, and they they apologized to her publicly, admitting that they were wrong. They said her annulment was Biblical and justified, and they were wrong to discipline her. They said they are going to take steps and review their polices so this doesn’t happen in the future.
I know some people are skeptical, and I know only the future will tell if they will address the systemic issues, but I know Karen was satisfied, and that speaks volumes to me. But even more, the point is driven home is that this is the Gospel to a watching world. Not a perfectly shiny house that everyone wants to be in, but a house where people blow it big time, repent, and seek reconciliation. Where we can, and must, be honest, and stand up for what is good and true.
I know Matt Chandler and the elders at TVC probably feel horrible for the way they treated Karen. They are probably blessed by her forgiveness. But more than anything, I’m certain they are thankful for a Savior who is sanctifying them even through a very difficult and public accountability for their sin. If Karen hadn’t stood up, and if social media hadn’t brought her words to light, they would still be harming women like her walking through their church. Now they have the opportunity and awareness to do better.
As a Christian, I want to be different. I don’t want my Facebook page to show a pristine faith that has all the answers. There are many questions I don’t know, and I get things wrong sometimes. I hurt people. And when I do, I want to know about it. And when I see other people hurting, I want to bring it to light. Because one of my callings as a Christian is to be a person of justice, elevating the weak and oppressed. I believe there is no better image we can have to a watching world.