Pictures of You

by Bob Turner on August 04, 2022

Our parents’ house is the place we go to see pictures of ourselves that look absolutely nothing like us. In my parents’ house there is a collage of photos: a senior picture of me in a blazer, possibly airbrushed face, and sideburns I worked all summer to fill in; a silhouette portrait that makes me look like most other boys– though strangely stoic and obedient; a baby picture that may or not be me at all. Next to all of these is a caricature of my dad that some guy at a festival must’ve done. It totally looked like my dad when viewed in my dad’s house, but I’m unsure if someone would know it was my dad if they picked it up at a Goodwill. Though I’m not sure why Goodwill would sell a caricature of my dad anyway.
Pictures are strange because they never actually look like us. By definition, a picture captures only what we used to look like. They are never in real time. Staged pictures are too formal; candids are more realistic, but can make the walls of our house look like a refrigerator door. So there’s no perfect system. My experience is that people’s perceptions of church are similar to the photos on our parents’ wall.
Some people view the church the way we view pictures of young children. These are the old, faded pictures with the time stamp in the bottom corner. They randomly captured the times we dressed as Captain America for four consecutive Halloweens, or tried dying our hair with orange Tang, or thought for one spring that equestrian might be our thing. Those moments were totally real, no doubt. But they were very, very long ago, and we’ve grown a lot since then, and those images bear absolutely no resemblance to who we are today. Have you ever talked to someone who left church years ago and felt like their criticisms were really dated? They say the church doesn’t believe in grace or that nobody in it has gay friends or that there are people who are unsure about interracial marriage. You didn’t want to be defensive and argumentative, but couldn’t help but distinguish between images that were true once but are not still true today. Some pictures are old and we need to remember they are old.
Other people view church the way we view those black silhouettes. They are rather generic and all of them are basically the same. Seriously, ask a dad to pick his kid out of a lineup of silhouettes and he’s mistaking his own kid for the kid down the street every time. Some people assume that what was true in one church must have been true in every church. If one church isn’t generous toward the poor, then it must be true for all of them. If one church swept a sex abuse scandal under the rug, then most probably have, too. And while we all do have certain things in common (like being made in God’s image and also being wrecked by sin), churches vary from place to place in profound ways. Big churches are different from small churches, urban churches are different from rural churches, and predominantly white churches are different from multicultural churches. A bad experience in one place does not guarantee a similar outcome elsewhere. Everyone’s not the same. The world is not as black and white as some portrayals lead us to believe.
Some people view church the way we view caricatures. Those cartoonish images exaggerate a few less attractive features, while minimizing many other features. Often the caricature tells more about the artist than the subject. It shows what the artist finds attractive, appealing, or alluring. Some people don’t know many Christians so they rely on caricatures they’ve been presented, often through social media. These are rarely accurate and even more ungenerous. The caricatures suppose that every Sunday is a gathering of people who are all the same color to hear songs written 400 years ago and hear a sermon against abortion by a preacher who always asks for money to buy his fancy car with a GOD4USA  license plate. It’s funny to detractors, but it’s not even remotely accurate in most cases and is more for the comedy of the beholder than the dignity of the subject. 
So what do we do? What is the best way to appreciate the whole story of what the church is?
Do exactly what our parents did. Put up a ton of pictures. Plaster the wall with mismatched frames and absolutely zero curation. Just let people see the whole beautiful, joyful, imperfect, and sometimes messy story. And help them to focus on a version that is current.
  • When we tell stories, admit the bad while also insisting on sharing the good.
  • When we talk about our own lives, concede the disappointments while also acknowledging the blessings. 
  • When we talk about our church, be humble about the problems, but appreciative for the progress.
Sometimes we get the whole picture not by seeing one giant image, but instead by seeing a wall of small pictures. But no matter what the picture or how it was taken, somebody is always watching. Our moments may end up on the wall. Our best, our worst, our in between. 
Say Cheese.

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