Where Do People Get Their Ideas of Church? Section B

(Family Faith : Church)
Meaning of the Church, Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

Part 4 of series: What is a Church? Biblical Basics for Christian Community 

Yesterday I began considering the sources of people's ideas about church. To review, here is my first point:

1. People get their ideas of church from their past experience of church.

Today I'll explore three other common sources.

2. People get their ideas of church from pop culture.

Even folks who've never stepped into a church might have seen the television show 7th Heaven (about a minister and his family) or The Simpsons, which frequently portrays The First Church of Springfield with its lovingly hypocritical pastor, the Rev. Timothy Lovejoy. Countless millions of people have seen the church through the lens of The Da Vinci Code, with its deluded believers and diabolical bishops. On a happier note, millions of others have read about the exploits of Father Tim, the beloved, Episcopal priest in Jan Karon's Mitford Series. Here there are no sinister plots in church, only a bunch of ordinary, small-town folk sharing life together in a traditional, small-town church. One of my favorite series of novels,The Starbridge Series by Susan Howatch, explores the psychological, theological, and spiritual struggles of religious leaders in the Anglican church. Of course there are dozens of other images of the church in pop culture. These often shape the expectations of Christians and non-Christians alike.

3. People get their ideas of church from the news.

Much of the time, I'm sad to say, what people get from the news isn't all that positive. Church scandals tend to make headlines, deservedly so. Churches that are faithfully living out the Christian life usually fly under the media radar, however. There are exceptions to this rule, however. A couple of days ago the Los Angeles Times ran a fine piece on the recognition of World Communion Sunday in many churches. (As you may have noticed, recently I came down pretty hard on the Times for its reporting of the All Saints vs. IRS battle. But the Times often does refreshingly excellent work reporting on local churches, synagogues, and mosques. Here's another recent example.)

4. People get their ideas of church from a projection of their personal needs and preferences.

Some years ago a man started attending Irvine Presbyterian Church faithfully. He and I had lunch together, and during that lunch he laid out his vision for how our church could get involved in his personal mission. His was a valid mission to be sure, involving the expansion of ethics education in schools. I explained to him that our church would be glad to support him in this mission, but that it wasn't going to be our primary focus. He proceeded to lecture me on what the church ought to be, and how our church was falling short of this calling. In a nutshell, we needed to join him in his ethics crusade as our number #1 priority. For a while he tried to reshape our church according to his vision. When this didn't happen, eventually he left in anger and disappointment, believing that we weren't what a real church should be. (Ironically, this man didn't even profess to be a believing Christian!)

I've seen this sort of thing happen in people time and again. They have a need and figure the church is the sort of place that should meet this need. Sometimes it’s the desire to expand ethics education. Sometimes it's the need for friendship, or financial assistance, or political activism, or, well, you name it. Folks take their needs and project them onto the church.

To be sure, the church does meet many needs. And often people are drawn to church because of felt needs that aren't the church's main business. For example, someone might come to church hoping to make new friends. She finds these friends, indeed, but also much more than she bargained for, like friendship with Jesus, for example. Rarely do people come to church because they feel a need to worship the living God or grow as disciples of Christ.

In my next post I'll address one more source from which people get their ideas of what a church should be. This one, I believe, is often one of the most influential.