As President Obama began his inaugural speech an unholy row was brewing on twitter. A prominent American evangelical pastor called Mark Driscoll had tweeted that he was:
"Praying for our President, who today will place his hand on a Bible he does not believe to take an oath to a God he likely does not know."
Christians of all types and persuasions took to social media to discuss the slur. Some agreed with Driscoll, many were outraged that he'd questioned the President's faith journey. Others said it was wrong to judge Driscoll, even though he was clearly judging Obama; and some said ignore the Pastor (who incidentally had just launched a new book). Meanwhile those outside the church bubble looked on.
Church-goers may be decreasing in number, according to the 2011 Census, but we're still hitting the headlines, sometimes for all the wrong reasons. And, in response, a lot has been written in the Church community about unity and how we appear to the outside world.
When the synod vote on Women Bishops returned last year I agreed with Pastor Mike Pilavachi, when he tweeted, 'Just voted for another 8 years of arguing with each other while the world watches with incomprehension. Don't give up on Church.'
I engaged with a disgruntled mum on twitter and attempted to explain the background to the 'No' vote. I didn't ask but I assumed her confusion meant she wasn't a church-goer. Her response, not surprisingly, was, 'Blimey, what a farce.'
We do seem to enjoy our debates in the church, and just like the next person I like to have my say. Women in leadership, same-sex marriage, many of the debates are good-natured and friendly, but it can turn ugly when the 'salvation police' are out in force. Who's in, who's out, what is the right thing to believe? 'They can't be a proper Christian with those views'; we sometimes forget we're being watched. Or perhaps we don't really care?
Should Christians be concerned with our 'image'? I've been told before that it's the Holy Spirit who does the 'work' of bringing people to Christ, not us.
Fine, but surely we must have some part to play - otherwise why bother? Frankly, I find Christianity and the culture surrounding it baffling much of the time. It seems clear to me, though, that Christ told us to care for the lonely, the oppressed and the poor in spirit (and you don't have to look very far to find them). How can we reach out if we're seen as a group of people bickering about the finer points of doctrine? How can we be a haven if people think they're going to judged when they walk through our doors?
There are positive signs of progress. Some years ago in newsrooms across the UK if a 'Church' story came up journalists would automatically call the fundamentalist pressure group Christian Voice, (catchline 'Britain in Sin'). I think it's fair to say that viewers of the TV programme I worked for thought the group's spokesman did speak for the majority of Christians in the UK.
These days a variety of Christian voices are being heard and the discussions are thankfully not always restricted to what church people are seen to be 'against'.
Does 'unity' necessarily mean we should all agree with each other? Expressing our different views and opinions is vital if we're to be seen as authentic. Fake smiles and manufactured displays of 'togetherness' don't work. If we're seen as a wide church full of real people that might just give someone who's exploring faith the confidence to take a first step.
It's a fine line to tread though, and if our actions and behaviour are giving the Christ we represent a bad name then we're letting Him down.
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