17 Oct 2020

What is the “First Word? The Answer to our Image Problem

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: A Gathered People, Apologetics, Church, Culture, Discipleship, Jesus, Love, Ministry, Mission, Politics, Sectarianism

I wrote a version of this three years ago in October 2017. I revisited it today. I think our image problem is even worse now than then.

What is the “first word?” I have been wrestling with this question for a long time. Do we (do I!) understand the depth of this question? The question is not just about a word that passes our lips. The question covers deeds. The question asks, “what is the knee jerk response of all my actions and reactions.” I ask this question specifically as a Christian.

Several years ago I took the shepherds at PaLO VErde through David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons book, Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity. The book is a landmark study of people between the ages of 19 to 29, they are now in their late 20s and mid 30s. I was not greatly surprised by the perspectives. But I was so disturbed by the “image” even younger than me Christians had. What I wanted to do at PV was simply confess that “we” have an “image problem” in our culture so we could address it.

We may not care about our image in the community, honestly. As has been pointed out to me, “Bobby who cares what the lost think about us?” This was asked in all seriousness. I am surprised by this question though. Do not most of us check Yelp to see what the “image” of a restaurant is before we patronize it. We check other online sources before we spend money at a business. If we read through the comments and they say:

food sux!,”
“It is a dump,”
“McDonald’s is a 5 star restaurant by comparison,”
“They are rude and act like they could careless that you are there

Such a business will quickly cease to exist. We should care. Not because “the lost” are necessarily correct, rather because an image the repels leads to a dead business and a valley of dry bones where there was once a congregation.

We should care because God cares. Remember when Yahweh was going to destroy the Israelites (justly btw) and Moses said to God, “what will the Egyptians think?” (Exodus 32.12f) Who cares, right? God cared. Paul tells the disciples on the island of Crete that they need to live in such away that the teaching of God is “attractive” to the unbelievers (Titus 2.10, NIV). Peter tells his group of aliens that bad reputations are inevitable. Rumors will always abound. However he says that, as aliens, we need to conduct ourselves as if on a silver screen so that when we are castigated that our good deeds speak in our defense (1 Peter 4.14-19).

So this brings me back to my question, “what is the first word?” Over the last week, or so, I have been wrestling with Amos on the heels of 6 months of reading and rereading 1 John. They are like a double one two knock out punch. What ever the first word is, it dictates what the first deed, first action, is.

I think Unchristian is more needed today than when it came out a few years ago. When asked what was the primary word, image, thought that comes to mind an entire generation has unbelievably harsh words to say. Many in the research in fact even grew up in Christianity, went to Christian schools etc (not all but a bunch did). There were six primary thoughts.

1) Hypocritical
2) The only thing Christians talk about is “getting saved” and could careless about anything else in the world.
3) Christians are homophobic, indeed they “hate homosexuals”
4) Christians mistake their brand of politics for Christianity
5) Judgemental
6) Christians are mean spirited people.

The issue is not changing the Bible on any subject. I assume most of us would agree that Jesus of Nazareth knew the Bible condemned sexual immorality. I assume most of us agree that Jesus/Joshua of Nazareth was the most holy person that has ever walked the face of the earth. But I promise you that no sinner, no person ever used these six words/images to describe Jesus.

Instead, Jesus obtained the opposite “image problem.” Sinners loved to be with him. Prostitutes loved hanging around him. Tax collecting traitors (they would be like the “communists” in the Holy Land) for the Roman Empire hosted huge parties for him. When women were caught in the very act of adultery by the moral police, he dared to side with the accused. Jesus had an image problem with other religious people but he did not have one with the “unchurched” of the day.

Sinners loved to be with Jesus but seriously dislike Christians. This generation is leaving Christianity in droves. I am not sure some of us older Christians truly want to ask the questions of why. What is the first word? It may be simplistic but the answer to this question changes our image problem.

If outsiders saw that we had a “nasty reputation” of being on the side of the down, the out, the sinners, the adulterers, the “homos,” the aliens … the people Jesus ate with … we might find that something amazing might take place.

What is the first word? Is it not love! In every, in any, situation the first word, the first response, the first reaction, the first deed is LOVE. As the rock theologian Scott Stapp sang,

what would love do
If it were here in this room
standing between me and you,
what would love do?

Believe it or not my friends, my first job as a disciple of Christ is not to tell people to “repent and be baptized.” My first job as a disciple of Christ is to love as God so loved, to love as Christ so loved, to love because the Holy Spirit of love is the only reason I am even alive. As Paul wrote about Spirit inspired love.

Love suffers with others.
Love is kind.
Love does not envy.
Love is not arrogant.
Love does not seek its own way.
Love does not easily give way to anger.
Love does not celebrate in others misfortune.
Love rejoices in truth wherever it may be found.
Love bears with the faults of others.
Love endures the faults of others.
Love hopes.
Love leaves a blessing.
Love leaves the door open.
Love treats with dignity no matter who is in front of us.
Love is the supreme doctrine of God … God is love.
Love leaves the aroma of Christ.

Our image problems will change when we as Christians answer the question: “What is the first word? Any time, Any day? What is the first word?”

May the Lord bless you and keep you and make his face shine upon you as we struggle to have the reputation of Jesus/Joshua the Messiah.

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