As Others See Us
One of the fascinating things about the tension that exists between evangelicals and the predominant western culture around us is the perpetual complaint we have that we are being misunderstood. We come together in church and enjoy one another’s company and recognize (truly) that our fellow evangelicals are kind, caring and really nice people. We are then mystified that so many people don’t like us.
If we stop to ask each other why “they” don’t like us we generally get answers that point to someone else as the problem. It is the liberal media. It is those people with a homosexual agenda, feminist agenda, pro-choice agenda, secular agenda, and any number of other agendas. We really don’t like to consider the maxim “the only common thread in all your conflicts is you.”
The voices of our evangelical community assure us we are right. Everyone we know agrees with us. [Note: You can take any closed community and make the same statement but it is my community that I am speaking to in this post.] It is hard to accept that, just possibly, even though we are surrounded by wonderful, intelligent people who agree with us, we might be (at least partially) wrong in our common assumptions.
A few years back my wife and I were at a wedding where one of the guests, upon learning we had lived in Sri Lanka for many years, proceeded to share, on the basis of his seven day visit to that country, authoritative insights into the people and culture. When we tried to correct some of his misunderstandings he simply blew us off. His one-week visit outweighed, in his mind, our multi-year side-by-side residency with actual Sri Lankans.
Anyone who has lived in (not visited or taken a short mission trip to) another country can tell you stories of how common American impressions of those countries are simply wrong. You see this most clearly in the current political debate on immigration. Conservative candidates pontificate on Latin American culture in ways that are clearly ignorant and never get challenged in their community of like-minded people. They are then free to ignore immigration advocates because, after all, everyone they know agrees with them.
If we evangelicals are truly tired of being misunderstood, and I surely am, then we have to accept that no matter how convinced we are that we are wonderful people there is something in us, and the way we present ourselves and our faith, that is the root cause of the problem. Sure, there are people who might take that root cause and twist it. But if there were no root cause, they could never succeed, could never convince others they are right about us.
Way back in 1786 poet Robert Burns included this (slightly adapted to modern English) line in his rather interestingly named poem “To a Louse”:
“Oh would some power the gift give us, to see ourselves as others see us.”
The distinctive of my community, of evangelicals, is that we want to bring others into a relationship with Christ and fellowship with us. I contend that, no matter what technique or methodology we use, we will never be successful until we answer the “as others see us” question with honest humility. To do that we need to step outside our community of the like-minded and listen to the actual voices of those who differ. For that is the only way we will ever see that, quite possibly, we need to rethink who we are and how we relate to the world around us.