“Face” is a matter of life and death. Just ask Lance Armstrong and anyone fighting against cancer.
In 2012, Armstrong admitted to doping his way to cycling history. In 2011, the “Lance Armstrong Foundation” (which raised funds to fight cancer) had $47 million dollars in revenue and around 90 full time employees. In 2010, it helped over 600,000 people. That same year, the foundation distributed over 2 million of its famous yellow wristbands.
The foundation (now called “Livestrong”) reported less than $12 million in revenue and donations for 2014. This year, they have about half the employees as they had in 2011.
What changed? Not cancer. Rather, Lance Armstrong lost face. Consequently, cancer patients lost much of the support that Armstrong brought to the movement.
After his admission of cheating, people largely stopped buying and promoting the ubiquitous yellow bracelets because of their association with Lance Armstrong. Nike’s partnership with Armstrong resulted in over $500 million in funds raised. That partnership was lost with Armstrong’s face.
What is the church’s reputation?
One lesson to glean from Armstrong’s story is this: our reputation affects the people around us. Likewise, our reputation is influenced by our relationships.
You might say this two-sided observation is obvious. True. But judging by the church’s behavior, it seems less clear we know how to apply this insight. The church has a mixed track record.
In 2016, many Christians unabashedly endorsed Trump. Evangelicals historically have been quick to endorse military action and gun rights but slow to embrace environmental initiatives.
Lifeway stopped selling Jen Hatmaker’s books because of her remarks about LGBT rights. RTS pushed out Bruce Waltke for his comments on theistic evolution and uninvited Tremper Longman from adjunct teaching for allowing for the possibility that Adam was not a historical figure. At the same time, a conservative seminary enrolled a Muslim in its PhD program. Who can forget about the Wheaton professor who almost lost her job for comments about Christians and Muslims worship the same God?
The Acts 29 Network removed Mars Hill Church without prior notice because the “association discredits the network and is a major distraction.” Mark Driscoll was disinvited from speaking at a Hillsong conference. Abuse victims petition Together for the Gospel to prevent C.J. Mahaney from speaking at its conference (although Mahaney has was never convicted of a crime). Church discipline is extremely rare; when it is practiced, debates rage about whether it is appropriate (as seen here, here, and here).
These are famous cases. At the local level, examples abound, such as when a North Carolina pastor was fired for attending a rap concert. Just last week, I conversed with a friend about Chinese pastors who think we shouldn’t buy Apple computers because the CEO is gay. By the way, I dare any SBC pastor to take a sip of alcohol; just see how fast he will be dismissed.(FYI–– I don’t imply judgments about the items in this list.)
It seems Christians are slower to disassociate with political/social figures and quicker to disassociate with fellow believers. For a moment, set aside the individual reasons for this and that circumstance; instead simply ask yourself,
“How intentional are we when it comes to protecting our reputation and maintaining certain relationships?”
The Church as the “Face” of Christ
We’ve all heard the quip, “I like Jesus but not his people.” It doesn’t have to be that way, even if we are all sinners. Simply recall the early church’s reputation for charity and solidarity.
No doubt, the reputation of churches and ministries depends in part on their relationships, e.g., membership and partnerships. However, we do not seem to have a clear vision about the precise reputation we want and therefore the relationships we will preserve. It appears political and social issues unite evangelicals more than doctrine, ministry priorities, to say nothing of Christ!
In our slowness to offend the world, we fracture the church by not investing deeply in our relationships with each other. We have slowly stopped practicing inviting people into our homes. We are afraid to confess sin to one another.
Furthermore, we have low (or no) expectations of one another. Churches are slow to enact church discipline because of what it would look like to outsiders (not to mention wayward insiders). While being tolerant of gluttony, greed and disobedient children (all condemned severely in the Bible), churches are quick to dismiss pastors and professors for the slightest infraction (often leaving them and their families in dire shape financially).
(And I triple-dog dare a theologically conservative evangelical pastor to endorse a democrat for president.)
The church is the “face” of Christ in the world. Our reputation is tied to those with whom we relate.
- Given the evangelical exodus to the suburbs, what impression do Christians give when they do not associate with addicts, the poor, and diverse ethnic groups?
- What reputation does Christ have when the labels “Republican” and “Democrat” shape our friendship circles more than Christ?
- What does it say about Christ when Christians have difficulty cooperating with each other because of disagreements about secondary theological debates?
What relationships do we invest in? Whose opinion do we care about most? The church’s? Or non-believers (in the name of evangelism)?
Lance Armstrong’s reputation problems had major ramifications for millions. Because people didn’t want to associate with him, millions of dollars have been lost in helping fight cancer. What is being lost when we are not mindful of Christ and the church’s reputation?
Who we relate to demonstrates what we want to be known for.
If typical social distinctions unite us more than does Christ, we dishonor Christ. The church will not be the fragrance of Christ. Neither Christian nor non-Christian will want to relate to the church; as they distance themselves from Christ’s body, they further distance themselves from Christ.