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My family didn’t go to church when I was a child, yet I had an image of “church people,” and it was a positive one. Church people looked like old Mrs. Fenwick, who led a vacation Bible school class I once attended. She was grandmotherly, kind, and welcoming.
After I came to faith and joined the church, I learned that not all church people are like Mrs. Fenwick. I knew a pastor, for example, who was never seen without a tie, whose wife always referred to him as “Reverend R.”, and who, to my recollection, never smiled.
If one were to survey people on the street with the question, “What are church people like?” I suspect their responses would be more negative than positive. I think this may be true even of those who never attend worship services and do not personally know any church people. It may be truer of them than of others.
Some of this, it seems to me, is due to decades of distorted representations of church people by the media. As soon as viewers learn that a character in a television drama is a church person, they can assume that they will turn out to be a spiritual grifter, an adulterer, or even a murderer. The religious hypocrite is a stock character in entertainment.
But grifters, adulterers, and other hypocrites have been in church longer than they have been on television. The Bible is quite open about this. The first revelation of hypocrisy in the church didn’t come from CNN but from the New Testament Book of Acts.
It is hard to blame people for thinking that church people are all hypocrites. If the televangelist scandals of the eighties and nineties weren’t convincing enough, we have the sexual abuse cover-ups of the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention—and whichever group comes next.
If it is hard to blame people for believing that church people are hypocrites, it is even harder to convince them that they are not – that the true church is no more a haunt of hypocrites than the bar or the barbershop. And how will they ever figure this out when they do not attend church or know church people?
Another church person trope, as prevalent as the hypocrite, is the stuffed shirt, the religious bore. Unchurched people believe that their churched counterparts are prigs. Unchurched intellectuals presume they are dolts. Church people are straight arrows, stuffy, and prudish. Fifteen minutes in their presence feels like an eternity.
Once again, this image has gained traction because there is some basis for it. Most churches have a handful of these people, but experience has taught me that it is rare to find more than a handful. Yet the image persists and is pervasive. Outside the church, people believe this is the rule. Inside the church, they know it is the exception.
People outside the church will never be convinced otherwise unless they come and see for themselves. If they were to hang out with people from my church family – and my church family is hardly unique – they would wonder where all the prigs had gone. The assumption that all church people were cast in the same mold would vanish. They would find interesting people from a variety of backgrounds with a wide range of interests.
My church family has people who have been to college, been to prison, and been to both. We have people who like their art in oils on canvass and people who like theirs in ink on skin. We have people who love Bach, people who love the Beatles, and people who love the blues. Some of our women are little old ladies, some are entrepreneurs, and some are homeschool moms. We have lifelong Republicans and lifelong Democrats. What ties us together is a shared commitment to follow Jesus and be God’s people.
The true church is not defined by politics, race, or economic class, but by faith in Jesus and love for each other. That so many people do not know this is a detriment to the church and a loss to everyone else.