THE CHRISTIAN CHRONICLE
Readers respond to questions on negative media characterizations
By Bobby Ross Jr. | The Christian Chronicle
August 1, 2007
In a recent column, I asked how we should handle negative media characterizations of Churches of Christ.
Among my questions: Should we worry about unfair representations? Why, in some cases, are we so misunderstood? I also asked: What has your own congregation’s experience been in dealing with the media? Are the types of descriptions mentioned above exceptions or typical?
A number of readers responded. Keep reading to see what some of them had to say.
tersKeith Ellis, minister, College Avenue church, Enterprise, Ala.: In the tornado last March we had wonderful treatment by the media, both local and national. Communication up front seemed to be the key. This has not always been true with the media, but for the most part it has.
(Meanwhile), I remember dealing with one young reporter in Florida. She was interviewing me regarding a church member who had been murdered. To her credit, she asked me just how I wanted to be referred to in the article. I remember thinking, “OK, no title, no reverend, no pastor.” So, I asked if she would simple say Keith Ellis (comma) minister of the Crestview church of Christ. Feeling I had won a small theological victory, I was a little surprised to see the reference the next day proclaiming me, Keith Ellis, common minister of the church of Christ. Makes one sound a little boring, I think.
Mark Thomas, member of Memorial Road church, Oklahoma City, and Oklahoma Press Association executive vice president: Our self-identity is so muddy that it's no wonder the media, whether it be mainstream, right wing or liberal left, can't figure out our image. We can't respond to those "unfair representations" when many of our brotherhood still believe in them! (A Baptist friend in a small town told me they still call the C of C a "cult" since they have "many of the same practices as a cult.")
Tim Brown, Katy, Texas: Just read your article on portrayals of the church in the media. You asked for suggestions. One of our families has a son who has had psychological and drug problems but has, nonetheless, written several songs recorded mostly by alternative rock groups (Dan Johnston). There was a documentary produced about him and they filmed him in worship services. In the final cut, there was not too much mentioned about the church other than the suggestion of our “fundamentalism” may have contributed to his condition. We did not address it because the film did not have a big target audience.
So what should we do? Here are some suggestions (not in order of importance):
-- Recognize that this will happen
-- Challenge the perceptions as you did
-- Send them a copy of The Christian Chronicle and ask them to read about all the good things that members of the church do all over the world
-- Invite them to worship with you. I know there are exceptions, but most churches have positive, uplifting times of worship, and they should be met by friendly people.
Park Linscomb, Manchester, N.H., church: The church in Manchester has, thankfully, gotten a lot of positive media coverage in southern New Hampshire. This is probably largely due to a few of the community help that we've offered over the years. Among some of the things that the community knows us for is a "Give-Away Day" that we took downtown into the poorer part of the city for several years in Manchester, disaster relief work in the spring of 2006 for flood victims in southern N.H. (thanks to Churches of Christ Disaster Relie Effort), and the tragic but heroic work of Mark Rowland (the social worker who was murdered in the late ‘90s -- all of these garnered media coverage, all positive. Our work for over 20 years with a bus ministry has likewise put our name in the community in a positive light.
We have had the disadvantage of having had the Boston Movement in our backyard for a number of years, but happily, our reputation was never negatively affected in our community or in the local media through their cultish practices and reputation.
Since I have ministered in New England for the past 33 years., I realize that my observations are less well-informed regarding churches in the South, but I sense an introversion on the part of many congregations when it comes to interacting with the community -- service or evangelism. Many seem to want to apologize for our faith and then retreat into their shells, contenting themselves with meeting for Sunday and Wednesday services. And I also sense that we have become hypersensitive to denominational criticism; I believe that the best response to outside criticism remains, "and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame." 1 Peter 3:16, In other words, positive, benevolent, concerned, godly behavior will silence bad PR much better than either trying to conform to the world's religious standards or retreating into our shells.
Bill Vermillion, North Boulevard church, Murfreesboro, Tenn.: The basic reason there are many negative perceptions of our fellowship is that we have such diversity that all of the negative characterizations are probably true of some individuals or congregations in our fellowship. Without a central organization, we have no way of preventing congregations or individuals doing things which embarrass the rest of us. (The quote from the Nashville Scene correctly stated that it is hard to generalize about our beliefs because we are a network of independent churches.) Referring to the characterizations in your column, some among us are "quirky" or "rigid fundamentalists" or "squirrelly" in the eyes of many members of the "Christian right." Some probably do consider a church piano to be the "devil's instrument," and most do restrict "women's role in the worship service," although not because of bias against women but because of our understanding of God's teaching.
So what do we do about the unflattering characterizations of others? We take a positive approach in which we emphasize the lack of censorship in our fellowship and the freedom each of us has to hold to our understanding of God's will for us. Rather than being strict, we actually are very permissive. While we cannot deny the embarrassing actions and statements of others in our fellowship, we should urge others to judge us not by the views of the minority but by the views of the majority. Let me refer again to issues you mentioned in your quote from the Scene. The majority prefer a cappella music (not rabidly because the belief is based on early Christian history more than on scripture) but are not going to condemn users of instruments to hell on that issue alone (again because it is not a clear scriptural teaching). The majority recognize that the exact date of Jesus' birth is unknown but are tolerant of mention of Jesus' birth at any time of the year (including Christmas). And the majority do not consider our fellowship, known as the Church of Christ, to be the only Christians even if we believe that we have less error in our practices than do others. The reality is that all of us are sometimes embarrassed by others with whom we might be identified. Some males embarrass the rest of us males. Some Americans embarrass the rest of us Americans. Some Caucasians embarrass the rest of us Caucasians. The list is pretty long, but we just have to remind people that not all males are alike, not all Americans are alike, not all Caucasians are alike, and not all "Church of Christers" are alike.
Neoma Haskin, Western Heights church, Sherman Texas: My comment on the things said about church members: We are supposed to be a peculiar people, distinguished in nature or character from others. (American College Dictionary). So I would say they are right on.
Darren E. Beachy, senior pastor, LaHarpe Christian Church LaHarpe, Ill.: I am a former minister of the CoC. I am responding to your comments concerning the secular media in this month’s issue of the Chronicle. You asked if the descriptions of the CoC written in the newspapers were typical or exceptions — my initial reaction was, “you have to ask?”
I have been schooled in the CoC (Harding HSBS) and served in 2 CoC’s (one in Wisconsin and one in Maryland) for the past 12 years. I have to say the reporter you quoted had a pretty good handle on the CoC. Of course, not every CoC is this way but it has been my experience that what he said was more truth than hyperbole.
As I said, I am a “former” minister of the CoC. Now I am a Senior Pastor of an independent Christian Church. I got out of the CoC for the very reasons the reporter mentioned. In fact, when I read the quote I thought, “This guy pretty much summed it up!” Yes, I am writing this because of my bad experiences, and I am sure it is even worse in the south.
Lets just say this reporter got it wrong. One has to wonder why the CoC is looked at with such hatred and anger. Deserved? Perhaps. If I were serving a CoC in the south, I would want to change the name. The CoC has too much baggage and the name, in my opinion, is too much of a hindrance.
Kristin Ebey: I am from Hennessey, Okla., and have been a member of the Lord's Church since a young child. I just got the Christian Chronicle in the mail and have been reading it. I came across your article on the world's view on HIS Church. I was both surprised and then not. This is a very different world--Fast Everything!!!--Food, $, Instant approval, etc.
I am so upset with narrow-minded people. It is often hard to raise kids in the world today. My husband and I struggle all the time to keep our thumb on my 2 kids and make sure they are not influenced by the world they live. I am also reminded of my dad telling me as a young person what my role is as a woman in HIS Church. Dad made sure I know I was important to GOD and he would read to me the verses in the Bible telling me why I was created and just exactly what I am here to do. I am in the process of trying to instill into my daughter what she can do and how much GOD needs her in HIS Church. On the same page, I am also
teaching my son to be a leader and to be an example. I wonder how many
Christian Role-Models those of the world have--NO ONE!!! But, upon reading your article, it got me to think--what if The Christian Chronicle were to write to readers just exactly what to say to someone who has a question about who we are and what each of us can do to Glorify HIM? I know your readership reaches many and they may or may not be Christians, and it would be nice to have a How To Guide printed to try to counteract the negative.
Chuck Gregory: Did you grow up in churches of Christ? If so, I'm surprised that you're surprised about how the media portrays the church of Christ. Having grown up in one, I can tell you that everything you listed is exactly how I was taught and how the majority of churches still teach to this day. My own grandmother still believes all of it, hook, line, and sinker. According to her, Max Lucado is going straight to hell and so was I for going to church at Oak Hills (I no longer live in San Antonio). It was wrong to celebrate Christmas, worshiping with instruments = going straight to hell, and we were the only ones going to heaven. It is a strict denomination (another sinful word). No dancing, drinking, being at a swimming pool in swimming attire with the opposite sex, all equals going to hell. That's the church of Christ I remember. Was your experience so different that you are amazed at how the media portrays the church of Christ or were you fortunate enough not to grow up in that sick environment? Only in larger cities have SOME of the larger churches broken away from that sick thinking and have stopped trying to decide who is going to heaven and who is going to hell, a job that can only be filled by God. Oh yes, a lot of the people in the churches I grew up in are quirky and a little squirrly, not to mention gossipers, backstabbers, and dividers. If you haven't guessed by now, I am a little bitter about my childhood. I don't think the church of christ is misunderstood and is portrayed unfairly. It has earned the reputation it has and you are in denial or did not experience what I did.
Thanks for listening and I don't mean any offense. I never write this kind of stuff but felt compelled after reading your article in the Chronicle today. I do attend a church of Christ in a large city that is progressive. I honestly don't know why I bother attending a church of Christ except to say that I like the minister and the people. Otherwise, I wouldn't because I hate telling people I attend a church of Christ.
Billy R. Harper: A secular journalist wrote in the Nashville Scene concerning the church of Christ that, "It is a loose network of independent churches with no creed, so it's hard to generalize about its beliefs. but in addition to the standard conservative Christian articles of faith, the typical Christin thinks a church piano is the devil's instrument, it's wrong to celebrate Christmas as 'Jesus" birth and, oh yes, everyone but members of the church of Christ is going to spend eternity in hell."
There are two specifics in the statement with which we should take exception, but other than that the article is right on. Scripturally. that is. The two exceptions are 1) that the church of Christ has no creed and 2) that we adhere to the standard conservative Christian articles of faith. The Word of God clearly teaches that the answer to both these charges is the same. Our "creed" and our "articles of faith" are the Word of God and we adhere to that strictly if we do not we will face dire circumstances throughout eternity.
As for the other "charges", they are all true and I for one am happy to see a secular journalist who understands more about the truth than a supposed Christian journalist who works for the Christian Chronicle.
Scripture clearly teaches that a piano or any other instrument of music used in worship is the devils' instrument. If you believe otherwise I would challenge you for a book, chapter and verse. Any book, chapter and verse. I can provide you with many that clearly teach the truth on this subject. However your paper and many supposed Christian preachers have watered this teaching down to such an extent that even many members of the church of Christ no longer understand the truth on this subject.
Scripture clearly teaches that no one knows the birth day of Christ. Had he intended for us to celebrate his birth he would have certainly provided this information for us. Scripture does teach that Paul was worried about Christians in the first century because of their observance of special days. We better be clear to everyone that we do not know when Christ was born and those who celebrate a certain day as his birthday are in grave danger.
Third and finally, when the Lord returns he is coming to save one group of people and one group only. Those who are members of his church. Either the church of Christ is that church or it is not. If the church of Christ is the Lord's church then we will be saved and we will be the only ones saved. If the church of Christ is NOT the Lord's church then no one who lived in the twentieth and twentyfirst centuries will be saved.
The secular journalist you mentioned knew the above truths. He even referred to members of the church of Christ by their scriptural name, as Christians. Is he nearer to heaven than you? You, who should know the truth and rejoice when you see that others know it.
I have lived a long time and I have preached and taught the truth all my adult life. I know you can not walk up to a member of a denomination and tell them they are going to hell when they die. But you must eventually get around to teaching the truth on every scriptural subject. When a secular person recognizes part of the truth even if they attempt to use that information against us, we should rejoice. The biggest problem we have with Christians in this day and age is that to many want to be popular. Telling people they are scripturally wrong is not popular. We withhold the truth at our own peril. Please tell the truth in the Christian Chronicle.
Ken Mabry, Monterey, Tenn., church: How many times have I heard "you'all think you're the only ones goin' to heaven"? Now, "squirrelly" is a new one, but fits with the unwashed media's MO. Did I say "unwashed" ? Was that judgmental. That would fuel another stereotype.
I've heard organ and piano music in a Baptist Church. Both are the Devil's instruments. Oops... My brother-in-law says you have to have instruments to drown out the congregation's singing.
I guess the way to handle it is to be like Christ. He was misrepresented all during his ministry on earth and so it goes today.
Gerri Means, Trivially church, Livermore, Calif.: Thank you for giving us the opportunity to state how we feel on this subject. I think we, as members and staff, create our own destiny as to how the world looks at us as a congregation of the Lord's Church.
We are always read to condemn and judge if others do not feel or accept the scriptures as we do. The possibility of being able to have the freedom to worship as we understand the scriptures without judgment. If we could go to church with the purpose of worshipping God instead of trying to correct everyone else and focusing more on the Great Commission!
Susie Shimp, Twin Peaks church, Longmont, Colo.: Just a suggestion about the media. I think it should be responed to by immediately but by editorials. I know that they are not always printed but I think the effort should be made. In the case of those running for office, it would be good for their reputations if someone who knew them could comment on their good character as well as comment tactfully on the c of C beliefs. I realize the difficulty because the world does not view God with respect so we sometimes come out as foolish to them.
Dwight Whitsett, Dean of International Training/Oceania, Sunset International Bible Institute: As I read your piece I thought, "What else can we expect?" People are suspicious of that about which they are ignorant. Racial prejudice is a case in point. That people are ignorant of the true nature of most of our churches is understandable given our tendency to isolate ourselves and our penchant for being reactionary. We segregate ourselves from our culture in church buildings when we ought to be following Jesus into the streets. Granted, Jesus was misunderstood also, but not because he stayed in some building holding "worship services."
We would be far less misunderstood if we made ourselves more visible as lights in the midst of the surrounding darkness. As long as we remain invisible and fail to be witnesses for truth, people will draw their own conclusions. In addition to being highly visible and vocal in the marketplace as Jesus taught, we must give our message and teaching credibility by our good works (Matthew 5:13-16). Some people still might not like us, but it won't be because they don't know us.
Steve Shaner, Naperville, Ill.: I worked as a reporter/photographer for and ABC affiliate for five years. My fellow media members really had a hard time defining us and almost always got it wrong. Most often we were mocked (off the air or off the record) but never did they take that to the medium for final copy.
On a bigger issue to me, regarding "Media Bias" --- I NEVER once had a reporter or editor try to slant a story other than that which was straight down the middle. Many preachers and elders report that the "Media has an Agenda." They speak from which they do not know! We never had a meeting to discuss what influence we wanted the audience or culture to believe. Never was there any such meeting and decisions at any level. I have some very strong opinions on this that I do not have time to write. If you would like to discuss this in person please give me a call.
Aug. 1, 2007