In my doctoral research I interviewed people outside the church who have never been Christianized. If you’ve read other things in this blog you’ll probably know that there wasn’t a lot of positives in the perceptions people outside the church have of the church. However, some amazing good had been noticed by these people outside the church, and in this post I explain this significant contrast.
The interviewees noticed some Christians who were committed to the practice of their faith (rather than just belief), specifically:
- A childhood friend of one of the people interviewed was in a Jehovah Witness family. Their church community visibly supported one another practically.
- Another interviewee’s friend was physically healed through church involvement.
- Some noticed sincere Christian people actually making a difference in people’s lives.
- Someone had friends whose Christian faith seemed to sustain them through long-term traumatic family circumstances.
- Some Christian people were noticed showing respect and generosity towards others.
- Other Christian people were noticed simply doing good works.
Some positive stories had close connections, such as with friends or neighbours, other stories were more remote, such as observing an organisation:
Positive stories with close connection
Katie* mentioned a friend of hers who she saw having a positive experience with a church:
She had gone through a separation and she was very angry, but at the church they had a forgiveness study or group or something they did, and I just noticed a real shift in her from doing that, with being more forgiving and more accepting [of] things, so that was positive, and I was actually quite surprised that the church did something like that actually, you know, that they got involved with that, because to me that was more of a counselling thing, but it was really nice that they were able to bring that humanness into someone’s real experience, rather than to preach of well “this is what the Bible says go off and do it.” They were actually given attention and care and support to work through some big issues in their life, so I thought that was a really positive thing, and it was a surprise for me because I didn’t know that, I’d never heard of that before.
Dave*, who said a whole lot of negative things about the church, later talked positively about his childhood next-door neighbours who were Christian:
They were normal people, they were real grounded, they did not preach, and the communities, I mean if they wanted something done, the whole church would pitch in, like a new driveway or new garage. And I actually thought, if anything should be a church or a religion, this should be, cos to me it just seemed like it was more about the people, not about going to heaven, it’s more about giving.
Katie* gave another example of a Christian couple she knew in her neighbourhood:
Well I have met a couple of people that were part of a church here in Sumner where I live, and they’re more respectful of other people – I find them respectful, generous and appreciative of things in life. They have a greater sense of gratitude, they seem to treat their staff better, and their friends better, and their families better, so their values are really strong, from what I’ve seen.
Positive stories with remote connection
Positive stories with remote connections were few but mainly centred around the good work of the Salvation Army, how they care for the disadvantaged in society, focusing more on giving than receiving, and not having hidden agendas.
The Salvation Army do positive and transformative social work in the community and use branding and the media to their advantage. None of the interviewees were negative about the Salvation Army, which was remarkable considering the negative tone expressed in all interviews.
Here’s an example of an interview participant talking positively about the church and specifically mentioning the Salvation Army:
Well yes they [churches] do a lot- I think the institution creates a lot of good when they’re in the community, the Salvation Army and a lot of the charity organisations, they do a huge amount of good within the community, they help to look after people, provide them food, clothing, housing, counselling services: drug and alcohol, so I think that side of it is quite positive.
A confusing juxtaposition
People appear to sometimes have a tension in their mind as they juggle all the negative perceptions they have of the church, with a few stories that end up contradicting all the negative as if there might be something hopeful in the church after all.
Emily* generally thinks of Christians negatively as right-wing fundamentalists, but then alongside this has what she calls a fringe or alternative Christian friend who isn’t a right-wing fundamentalists, and this seems to gently rattle the stereotype, which she explained like this:
It’s like anything within any organisation, people are always going to have different thoughts and feelings around whatever it is that they’re affiliated to, and so just because you belong to an organisation doesn’t mean you take it all lock stock and barrel, you take bits of it possibly, that you think “that’s ok, and I can just ignore the rest”, and so I think the [Christian] people that I’ve met positively don’t swallow I guess all I would perceive as negative.
In terms of the church and Christians, stories of transformation, healing, companionship and community were acknowledged, sometimes with a sense of confusion because alongside these glimpses of positivity, the majority of their perceptions were overwhelmingly negative.
In my 2014 Christian/not-Christian comparison survey of more than 1000 New Zealanders, this perception, that some Christians do amazing good, was one of the few things that people who are not Christian agreed with people who are Christian.
These people outside the church are seeing and acknowledging signs of transformation, indicators of God’s new culture (aka the kingdom of God).
A few questions to ponder
- Do you have an appreciation of this conflicting or inconsistent observation by those outside the church? That amidst overwhelmingly negative perceptions, they acknowledge this positive reality.
- If some Christians doing amazing good creates a positive perception to those outside the church, and positive perceptions assist communication through the creation of shared understanding, could this on its own be a “mission” strategy?
- Can you imagine people outside the church having the perception that ALL Christians do amazing good, rather than just SOME?
* names used with quotes are pseudonyms.
Image: “salvation army donation” by Len Matthews on flickr.com (cropped), Creative Commons.