Part 4 of series:
What is a Church?
Where Do People Get Their Ideas of Church? Part 2
Yesterday I began considering the sources of people’s ideas about church. To review, here are my first two points:
1. People get their ideas of church from their past experience of church.
2. People get their ideas of church from pop culture.
3. People get their ideas of church from the news.
Much of the time, what people get from the news isn’t all that positive. The media are generally not inclined to report on the good things that churches do, but church scandals tend to make headlines because they draw viewers and sell advertising.
There are exceptions to this rule, however. For the past four years, I have been reading the San Antonio Express-News, the third largest paper in Texas in terms of circulation. The Express-News is owned by the Hearst Corporation. Though the paper reports on church problems, I’d estimate that 75% of its church-related stories focus on positive aspects of church life and mission.
4. People get their ideas of what a church should be 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, during which 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 as a church. 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 time and again. People have a need and figure the church is the sort of place that should meet their 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, a church does meet many needs. Most importantly, a church should offer to people a way to fulfill their need for God. Closely related to this, church can be a place where people meet their need for deep, committed relationship with others. But this does not mean the church should meet whatever needs people might happen to feel.
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 the most influential.