How does your church present its face to the outside world? When passersby see your church building, for instance, what do they glean about the community that worships inside? Would anyone who is religiously unaffiliated, seeing your church, think “That’s a place where a lot is happening!” or “I need to find out more about this!”? How we appear in public can be inviting, or forbidding, or simply non-descript. What does your church “say” by how it appears on the outside?
Luther Place, a Lutheran parish in Washington DC, offers an interesting example of an urban faith community that has put some work into making a visible statement in its neighborhood. Situated on a busy street, the church had many passersby, but did not always get much notice. At least not until they started using their outdoor space in new and interesting ways. Their community—the people inside the church—has a commitment to justice. They do a lot of outreach and community service. And they are home to a number of artists. Yet people walked by thinking nothing much was happening there and even that the church was closed.
The people at Luther Place were willing to try a few “risky” things in order to change the public perception of their church. They adorned a large statue of Martin Luther with rainbow colors on gay pride weekend. They painted three unused doors with folk art, making them into “saint doors” depicting of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and St. Francis of Assisi. They also displayed in their garden some “hubcap sunflowers” made from brightly-colored recycled materials. What they added to their public space gave clues to the qualities of the community within, which is GLBT-friendly, has an ecumenical sensibility, and creatively re-uses things other people would throw away.
It has been working. Their “sacred commons”—the space out-of-doors—has become a visible witness to the faith they live and bring to worship. Their community has gained notice and newcomers. Obviously, each church is different. Hubcap sunflowers won’t be the answer for everybody. But the question of how the Church presents itself, what it seems to be, is a timely one.
In the U.S, we are living in a time when the number of religiously unaffiliated young people is rising. These “outsiders” see Christian believers as, well, unChristian, as David Kinnemon and Gabe Lyons’ book of the same name has it. Kinnemon and Lyons’ research shows that young people (teens through early ‘30s) who are not already religious have a very negative view of Christianity. They see Christians as anti-homosexual (91%), judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), sheltered (old-fashioned, out of touch with reality) (78%), too political (72%) and proselytizers (insensitive to others, not genuine) (70%). They don’t believe that Christians really care about them or accept them. Interest in God is high. The reputation of Christianity, however, is low.
Should we care what people think? Gabe and I began to realize that the more important question was What if young outsiders are right about us? What is missing in our portrayal of the Christian faith to new generations? If we have failed to represent the grace that Jesus offers — if we have been poor representatives of a holy and loving God — then, absolutely, what they think about us matters. If we have been unChristian, then we bear responsibility for the problem — and the solution.
Ultimately, perceptions change because of human encounters that break negative stereotypes. Communities of believers must be as they seem, or image-burnishing will do no good. My hunch, however, is that many communities are better on the inside than they look from the outside.