An ad promoting a trip to Glacier National Park

By John Pierce

One of my favorite parts of doing communication consultation with churches is helping leadership to see some things their well-accustomed eyes might have missed. It is not that I am brighter or more perceptive. Rather I bring a new perspective to what they have seen so often that it doesn’t register.

Over the years I’ve seen some interesting things during these exercises: a large, growing church with a new sanctuary but directional signs that were small and rusted. And the first words guests read when pulling into the parking lot were: “County maintenance stops here.”

I joked with the pastor about such a creative name for a congregation.

At another church I suggested that the meeting times listed on the church sign should actually match those times when services are held. No minister or member had noticed. They knew about the recent change in worship times.

My typical approach is to pay attention to “first impressions” and make careful notes of what I see when coming to the church — from different directions — with “fresh eyes.” Then I take church leaders on a drive and point out what caught my attention.

Bad or missing signage and mildewed entries are some of the physical sights I’ve noted. Others relate to creating an overall communication plan that is consistent and careful.

For example, one church had a visitor’s card that called for guests to mark their marital status as single, married or divorced. When I inquired about this very personal question, the minister proudly spoke of the congregation’s excellent divorce recovery ministry. I suggested promoting the ministry program heavily but not asking first-time visitors to confess to having gone through a divorce.

It is important to explore how we are perceived by those on the outside — if we are honestly interested in being open and welcoming to others. This is true of individual congregations, denominations and our faith traditions at large.

The churches where I offered such help are ones that genuinely wanted to do a more effective job of communicating their identity and making others feel welcomed and engaged in congregational life. They were not defensive about my constructive criticism or suggestions for improvement. They acted quickly to improve their direct and indirect messages.

The biggest challenge, however, is that all congregations of a particular denominational tradition live with the reputation created by all others who bear the same or similar name. And Christianity benefits or suffers each time someone says or does something commendable or horrific in the name of Jesus.

It is interesting to ask (or overhear) what people think of Christians, or evangelical Christians or Baptists — or any other branch of faith.

The answer may be either: those are the nice people who helped us rebuild after the storm — or those are the angry people who always condemning my gay and lesbian friends and trying to keep women “in their place.”

Or: they are the ones who hold the health fairs to be sure poor children are immunized and the elderly have their medicines — or they are the ones who try to push their religion on everyone else through politics from the local school board to Capitol Hill.

There is a lot working against the image of Christianity: television preachers who exploit the gullible, cover-ups designed to protect church leaders at the expense of abused children, and baptized partisan politics that portray Jesus in direct contrast to the Gospels.

Too often evangelical Christianity is seen as nothing more than an organized effort to place selective conditions on the unconditional love of Jesus. And some of the more conservative evangelical churches, conventions and para-church groups are perceived as organized efforts to align that restrictive, exclusive approach to faith with right-wing political operatives in order to enforce narrow, religious beliefs and practices on others — all in the name of freedom.

Some fall for the temptation to strip the gospel of Jesus’ radical calls to self-giving, sacrifice, second-mile walking and enemy loving and replace it with a more appealing message of self-gratification through positive thinking. This latter message tends to fill auditoriums and offering plates better.

Others make Jesus less recognizable than when he appeared outside an empty tomb — by portraying him as a militaristic, self-centered American whose likes and dislikes match ours perfectly.

And the great tragedy, of course, is that often the negative impressions so many have of evangelical Christianity are not misperceptions at all.

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