The church has a PR problem and there’s (almost) nothing you can do about it

First, a confession: I know almost nothing about the QAnon community. I know it’s a conspiratorial group that, among other things, appropriates Jesus within its organizational ethos, but that’s about all I know. Will I take the time to learn more about it? Probably not. Why? Three reasons: (1) there are already too many religio-political groups in our world to be familiar with; (2) they are fringy and most communities of this kind eventually, to borrow from the wisdom of Def Leppard, “burn out or fade away”; (3) most importantly, even if I were to become overly informed about QAnon, it would only increase my ability to critique them but not to change them.

You have to pick your battles.

Second, another confession: Groups and movements like these are embarrassing. As a pastor, it’s hard to watch people take the name of Jesus captive for motives beyond the intentions of the Incarnation.

I picture that scene where Jesus weeps over Jerusalem.

Third, yet another confession: The American church can also be embarrassing. The stories of toxic spirituality and abusive leadership are almost too much to bear. (I say “can” because the church has the potential for both embarrassment and beauty. More on this below.)

I find that pastors can end up quite overwhelmed with changing the perceptions people have of the American church. Many have made it their entire goal is shatter such perceptions. They take up the fight to shame and disavow every negative and harmful iteration of Christianity that’s out there. We have all said things like, “That’s not who we are”, to delineate ourselves from the fringes.

It’s a noble task, but the important question remains: “Does it work?”

Three things to consider:

Honesty and humility will lead us to ourselves, and to our own mishaps with leadership and church governance. We, too, are complicit in the failures of the church, and we must own this truth. We are human and when humans assume leadership (think: power), the potential for damage and fallout goes way up. Remember that story Jesus told about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector praying in the Temple, and how the Pharisee told God that he was glad he wasn’t like the Tax Collector? The story feels like a trap. As listeners we hear it and think, “Well, thank God I’m not like that Pharisee!” We all fall victim to the same human instinct to rise morally above the rest. It can be hard to swallow, but we have to see the ways we have also participated in the worsening of the church’s image. Though I have tried my hardest to never be the type of pastor who upset or hurt people, I recognize and lament those time when I did. There is healing in the pain of recognition. We cannot change what we do not name, so it is healthy for us to reflect on our own failures, name them, and then begin to chart a different course going forward.

We cannot change what other churches do. If we are embarrassed and ashamed by the ways other churches or Christian communities behave, it’s healthy for us to realize that we have little to no influence over such annoyances. I wish my words and ideas and retorts and mic drop social media posts carried more influence for change, but they don’t.

Finally, and this comes from a lesson I learned in elementary school when the teacher would say something like: “Worry about yourself.” Such advice was usually given when I was too concerned with the behavior of others. No one likes a tattletale, especially teachers. But there’s a wisdom to those words, too. Think: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:5) We have enough on our own plates to repair and heal. In the end, as a pastor, all I can really hope to manage are my own ministry environments, not someone else’s. The best any of us can do is ensure that our own congregations are the healthiest they can be, and that our own reputations as churches in our communities are defined by grace and mercy and patience and beauty. Beyond these are impossible notions of ability and influence.

May you find peace in the work that is ever before you.

Grace and peace,

-Derek

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