You go into a restaurant. As you walk in you notice the premises are messy, the tables are full of dirty dishes and no one is there to seat you. After you are finally seated, you look at the menu and are shocked by the prices. Reluctantly, you order the overpriced food, which takes forever to arrive at your table. The food is terrible.
As you leave the restaurant, you find out from one of the locals that the restaurant changes owners faster than it changes employees. Most of us would not go back to that restaurant unless it happened to be the only restaurant in town. Many of us would not eat out at all!
Just think of the public-relations image of this restaurant in the community. It doesn't take long for the community to get their opinion out on a restaurant like that. Its public-relations image will determine its destiny.
What takes place in the community eventually becomes known in the community—whether a business, church, school or city hall. Your organization's public-relations image defines it positively or negatively before your potential customers (or church members) ever step through the door, determining what kind of relationship the public will have with you.
If a church's public relations image is determined by its behavior in the community, and the community is bombarded with news of church splits, controlling leaders, doctrinal wars, financial mishandling and immorality among pastors or parishioners, the result can only be a negative public perception.
On the other side of the coin, if a church projects a superior, us-versus-them, judgmental attitude toward the community, why would anyone show up? Behavior like that gives the church a bad name. Whether true or not, to those who don't attend church, perception is reality. That affects our mission and, ultimately, the welfare of the community. What we do in church leaks into the community.
Like it or not, the church and the community are connected at the hip. We're here because they're here. The way you as a pastor see the community is the way the community sees you and your church.
The early church understood this principle. They used wisdom, not compromise, to create a public-relations image and the community held them in high esteem (see Acts 5:13). In other words, public perception of them was positive, even though they might not agree on everything the church believed in. This enhanced the church's opportunity for growth and influence in the community.
As I travel around the world, I speak in churches that have favor with God but little favor with man. These well-meaning churches sing the latest songs, follow the latest church fads and have great speakers. They are great churches, but the community doesn't even know they exist.
On the other hand, there are churches that have favor with man but little favor with God. They have social programs but have not opened up the Bible in years.
The church has lost much of the authority and influence it once had in Western culture. In other words, while the church was studying Greek, having Holy Ghost meetings, conducting deeper-life sermons and cocooned in a church-centric ethos, the world changed.
We don't do this intentionally. It's the culture of the church. Churches have a strong gravitational pull … inward! That creates the public perception that the church is a world unto itself using the community as a means to its own end.
Churches need both church focus and community awareness to be effective. Focus is doing those things that need to be done now and doing them correctly. Awareness is a broader focus, if you will, on the factors that might affect the success of those endeavors.
The church lives in the context of the community, so we need to be aware of what is going on in the community that affects our mission. After all, the church is the only organization in the world that exists primarily for its nonmembers!
If the church has a negative public-relations problem, how do we change it? How do we change a public perception that is hindering our mission? How can we get a passport into the community once again?
You need a living definition that is stronger than a public image or perception. God sent Jesus to Earth to create a living definition of Himself, a real and tangible person that redefined Himself. Jesus said, "I have made You known to them and will continue to make You known in order that the love You have for Me may be in them and that I myself may be in them" (John 17:26, NIV). The Son of God became the Son of Man to make God known.
In the realm of the community, seeing is believing. Natural men don't understand the things of the Spirit. Why would we expect them to? God redefined Himself through another who made Him known to the community. A living definition is much more effective than a public perception, at least to those who are open.
Now, let's apply this principle to today's church. How do you change a public perception? Simply put, if they can't see us, they won't be us! That is why living out the Christian life in both the church and community is so crucial. We are, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:2, living epistles "read by all men." God makes Himself known through you and me in the church and the community. We make God known in the marketplace, in our neighborhoods, with our friends and at PTA. Church is everywhere we are.
This is why Christians need to be in places of influence in the marketplace. They give God a face in the eyes of the community. They redefine God. They change perceptions. Marketplace Christians have the potential to open minds and open hearts to God. How? Through the vehicles of wisdom, character and success that create influence or stature. Marketplace influencers are identifiable to and involved in the community. They are the "living epistles" in the community context making God known. They are public-relations agents changing and redefining the often-negative public-relations image of those in church.
As I said before, living definitions have the potential to redefine negative images!
The answer to community behavior and welfare is you. The problem is not government, the problem is we don't have enough Christians in government. The problem is not media, the problem is that we don't have enough Christians in media. We need Christians of influence in places of influence in the community. Having wisdom and being in a place to use wisdom are two different things.
The most effective influence is from the top down, not the bottom up. So, don't just build a church, build a community. We serve God by serving the community. People used to ask me, "How big is your church?" I would say, "About 4 million people." That's the population of Phoenix, where I live. My congregation was 750, but my church was 4 million. I treated the whole city like it was my church. The community likes that.
Gary Carter is pastor of Word of Life Centre (dvwordoflife.com) in Drayton Valley, Alberta. Gary is on the town counsel and deputy mayor of Drayton Valley. He honors the mayor and works well with her. Gary, along with the other council members, are leading this town confidently into the future.
He has helped make Drayton Valley a town of character. His leadership, enthusiasm and love for the town is contagious. He is a person of influence in a place of influence. His church is growing too. He is building his church by building the community.
If you want to know how to influence the education sector of your community, just call Rob Gross, pastor of Mountain View Community Church in Kaneohe, Hawaii. Rob, along with other pastors and marketplace Christians, have changed the landscape of the education sector in Kaneohe by finding needs in the schools and meeting those needs.
As a result, they have completely redefined the church in the eyes of the education sector in Kaneohe. They, through their good works in the community, have received a virtual passport into the educational services in their area.
Obviously, these are just two examples of hundreds I could give you. If the church is going to become a vision-caster and influencer in the community once again, it had better become aware of the power of public relations. Having favor with God and man depends on it!
Ed Delph is the author of Church @ Community (Creation House) and the founder and president of N.A.T.I.O.N. Strategy (nationstrategy.com).
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