Many Christians are embarrassed and self-conscious about the public image of the Church. They want the world to see that the Church is compassionate in its concern for the poor, engaged in public life, technologically up-to-date and full of people who are generally ‘normal’ – and some who are rather trendy, too. This is completely understandable, given we live in an age in which image counts for everything and have a number of gloomy clouds hanging over the public’s perception of us.
The danger is that this self-consciousness risks losing the whole purpose of the Church’s public witness. Christians aren’t supposed to live lives as witnesses to the Church, in order that the Church might have a good reputation as a goal in itself, but rather to witness to the Lord Jesus Christ. As Paul said: “We do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” The Church is the messenger, but Jesus Christ is the message. The irony is that Jesus Christ requires no PR or spin whatsoever; he is objectively great, perfect and desirable. Every human being has been designed by God to find ultimate fulfilment in enjoying His glory – in St Augustine’s words: “You have made us for yourselves, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” Therefore, we can confidently proclaim Him as being genuinely wanted and needed by all people, even if they do not realise it yet.
Let me apply this to preaching in particular. Too often it is assumed that in order to connect with people today, preachers need to ramp up their use of technology, be funnier, show interest in some form of social activism, offer a spiritual experience or preach sermons that are more practical. All fine things in themselves, yet totally ineffective if the thoroughgoing thrust and aim is not, to borrow a lovely description of preaching from Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Home, “parsing the broken heart of humankind and praising the loving heart of Christ.” Take, for example, one of the most well-known and oft-replayed sermons – ‘that’s my King’ by S.M. Lockridge, which has been watched on YouTube over four million times. This sermon offers no practical guidance for every day life, makes no connection with the modern world, does not challenge any social ills, does not offer any great spiritual experience, is not funny, is a style of preaching that is somewhat old-school and alien to my culture, and its content is essentially very simple – a list of facts about Christ, all of which can be easily accessed in the Bible. Yet, its supremacy as a sermon is undeniable. Why is it so captivating? Because Jesus Christ is.
This is not to deny the importance of letting your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16), nor to ignore other verses that encourage us to live morally pure lives in front of outsiders (1 Timothy 1:7, 1 Thessalonians 4:12, 1 Peter 2:12). Rather, it is to give primacy to the fact that we are the ones who need to be justified through Christ’s deeds; Christ does not need to be justified through ours. When the Church fails morally, reflects God’s love poorly and becomes worldly, Jesus Christ is still perfect – He is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. We can still point the world to Him as the all sufficient saviour, and even point out our own failings to prove the power of His grace. Our ‘image’ may be sullied, dragged down and battered, but Jesus Christ’s image is indestructible, since he is the image of the eternal God.