Far, far too many things happen to give the church a black eye.
It’s not always deserved. Many pastors have experienced the pressure to perform, knowing that there may be a handful (or more!) of church members who are waiting to pounce on any mistake they make, real or imagined.
I know of one pastor who was asked for a meeting by a woman from his church. He took the precaution of meeting her in a public place and bringing his wife. But when his wife excused herself to use the restroom, another member of the church spotted the pastor and the woman together and promptly started a smear campaign to have him ousted.
Thus, we have to be realistic: even if you’re careful to “do what is right not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of others” (2 Cor 8:21, NRSV), that’s no guarantee that others won’t find fault.
But sometimes, of course, the black eye is deserved. Anyone in a position of influence, including pastors, can be tempted to abuse that power, in large ways or small. Scandals abound. And most disturbing of all, some who abuse their power do so with self-serving rationalizations that they are doing God’s will.
To say that appearances matter is not to say that churches must follow the latest trends and fashions. It’s not a popularity contest. But it does mean realizing that there are those who relish the opportunity to accuse Christians of hypocrisy and moral failure, giving them sufficient reason to reject God and the gospel. We need to give careful thought to how our behavior seems to others.
Paul’s situation with the Corinthians provides us with an example that still rings true today: it matters how the church handles money. When you ask people to give generously to ministry causes, there needs to be transparency as to how the funds are being spent. Who signs the checks? Are there clear systems of accountability? Are those who have given connected back to how God has used their gift?
Or consider the fact that another election year is upon us. Christians will find themselves spread across all points on the political spectrum. And there is nothing wrong with being passionate about one’s commitments and beliefs. But that’s no excuse for the kind of incivility and hatred that seems to dog every election.
I have seen Christians standing on one street corner, wearing crosses and bearing signs emblazoned with the name of Jesus, engaged in contemptuous shouting matches with the people on the other side of the street. Why should the public be treated to such a spectacle? Wouldn’t the cause of Christ be better served by someone who was willing to cross the street and have an actual conversation?
God’s plan has always been that people would be his witnesses to other people. It’s not just about getting money to where it’s needed, but how the money is collected and handled. It’s not just about whether others believe our arguments, but whether we come across as argumentative. And so on.
We’re being watched. What will others see?