The church in the popularity polls

Notes on Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck’s
Why we Love the Church:
in praise of institutions and organized religion

Chapter 3 : The Personal (On hurt and heresy)

Why do outsiders have a negative impression of the church?

According to DeYoung, this is somewhat of a truism: “If outsiders thought the church was hot stuff, they would become insiders. So, of course outsiders don’t like the church.” But DeYoung urges us to look deeper at how “outsiders” view the church. He encourages us to start by listening to what they’re saying–but also to take into consideration three vital points.

First, historically speaking, the young have always been the most disillusioned about religion and hypercritical of “organized religion”. Generally, this tends to be moderated as they age. Second, perceptions are not always reality–we should take seriously the perceptions of outsiders but be aware that the church is not always as they perceive it to be. Third, the church has often been despised–but that has not always been a sign of failure.

My take-home message from this segment of chapter 3 has been: if the church is unpopular with the world, it is for one of two reasons (or a combination of the two). Either we are failing to reflect Christ, or we are reflecting Christ. Either can result in unpopularity. The ultimate question that the church should ask when she reflects on her unpopularity with outsiders, then, is: are we reflecting Christ?

If the church of God fails to reflect Christ, she is little more than a social club and deserves the world’s derision. If the church of God shows partiality to the rich over the poor, she fails to reflect Christ and is worthy of derision (James 2:1-5). If the church permits or even glories in transgression, she fails to reflect Christ and is worthy of derision (I Corinthians 5:1-13). If the church fails to act in a decent and orderly fashion, she fails to reflect Christ and is worthy of derision (I Corinthians 14:22-33). If the church preaches some gospel other than the gospel of Christ, she fails to reflect Christ and is worthy of derision (Galatians 1:6-12).

But reflecting Christ is not a guarantee of popularity with the world–in fact, we have a guarantee that the world will hate us. John 15:18-20 makes this plain:

“If the world hats you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also.”

Christ is a controversial figure. He always has been–and always will be. The great line between the believer and the unbeliever is how he responds to Christ. Christ is the great divider–either one loves Him (by the grace of God) or one hates Him. There can be no middle ground.

You may say that there are plenty in the world who love Jesus–that Jesus is doing just fine in the popularity polls. But what Jesus is this? Is this Jesus, the incarnate Son of God? Is this Jesus the crucified who conquered death? Is this Jesus who by His very coming judged the world (John 3:19)? Is this the Jesus who is popular?

No, the popular Jesus is not the Jesus of Scripture and history. This Jesus is a man, made in the likeness of man–a touchy-feely, non-controversial figure. As DeYoung states: “The Jesus they like is almost certainly not the Jesus who calls sinners to repentance, claimed to be the unique Son of God, and died for our sins. He is almost certainly a nice guy, open-minded, spiritually ambiguous, and a good example. He is guru Jesus who resembles Bono in a bathrobe.”

This is not the Jesus that the church is called to exemplify, regardless of whether doing so would increase our ratings in the popularity polls. We are called to be the church of Jesus Christ–the controversial, love-inspiring, hatred-inducing, flesh-killing, God-exalting Jesus Christ.

So the polls cannot be our indicator of success. We cannot judge ourselves based merely on how outsiders see us. Neither their love or their hatred for the church says anything of whether the church is succeeding. For their love could indicate that we preach a different gospel, giving them what their itching ears want to hear (II Timothy 4:3-4). If the church is universally popular, she has failed. On the other hand, the world’s hatred for the church is not a sign of success either. The world could hate the church because they hate Christ and the church reflects Christ–but it could be that the church is legalistic, discriminatory, sinful, and proud.

In light of this, how is the church to respond to her “failures” in the popularity polls? Is she to seek to do whatever it takes to improve her ratings? Is she to ignore the ratings because they are not accurate predictors of true success?

I believe she should do neither. Instead, she should carefully look at how outsiders view her and humbly consider whether she is being faithful to reflect Christ in each of those areas. If she is reflecting Christ, she should rejoice that she is being counted worthy to suffer for the cause of Christ. If she is not reflecting Christ, she should sorrow that she has brought shame to the cross of Christ–and her godly sorrow should lead her to repentance.

“Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.”
Colossians 4:5-6

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