Are we defined by public perception? My church body has suffered from an unflattering public perception recently. We are embroiled in a controversy over a pastor's participation in a Newtown, CT prayer vigil after the tragic massacre. Click here for the story written in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It also got national attention on NBC, ABC, etc.
A major component of the controversy is about perception. If the Lutheran pastor shows up and prays alongside Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists, does it give the perception that he is worshiping with them, or agreeing with their statements of faith? Or if he refuses the invitation to the vigil, is the perception that he is isolationist, rude, and just a bad neighbor?
What began for LCMS Lutherans as an "in house" debate has now become dirty laundry for national news media. And now, regardless of the issue's substance, the public can't see past the perception. I have brothers who are so insulated in their own denominational house that they have no idea what the neighborhood thinks. There is no sense of what the public's perception might be, only that "the pagan, secular world is out to get us." There was this blog post that claimed the number one lesson from the public media's coverage of our denomination: "We have learned that the world hates us, and is just waiting for a reason to unload on us. We can’t change that. It’s not a PR issue; it’s a Confession issue. A church that confesses Christ Alone will be hated and reviled by the world. That’s what we saw last week."
I couldn't disagree more. In this instance, the "world" is offended by us, not "Christ Alone." They haven't even heard us speak the gospel yet. They can't get past the perception they have of us in order to even hear the gospel we speak. If the national news media actually heard the gospel of Jesus, they wouldn't report on it. But they didn't hear "Christ Alone," they got the perception that we are an outrageously insensitive, insulated, parochial denomination that's stuck in the 1950's. That's a story.
Are we defined by this public perception? I can't determine the national news media's perception of my church body. But we work hard to gain the relational capital of those around us. We seek to know our neighborhood, our community, our city. We work hard to remove any obstacle and misperception. By being good neighbors, active in the life of community, we build credible venues in which we might be heard. "That by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in is blessings" (I Cor. 9:22-23).