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OCTOBER 2004
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First Impressions Last the Longest
By Debbie Porter

The final countdown was on and my seventeen-year-old son, Matthew, was growing more excited by the minute. The next morning he would be on his way to the Snowy Mountains for the annual Year 9 and 10 school camp Ė and he couldnít wait.

His experience the previous year had left him eager to get back on the slopes again so that he and his friend, Joshua, could do some more "extreme" tobogganing. The fact that everyone else had opted for either skiing or snowboarding, didnít deter the two tobogganers at all. They knew where the real action was.

As Matt chatted on about what was planned for the camp, that motherly desire to cushion my children from the disappointments of life caused me to offer a little word of warning.

"Honey, you know that itís been kind of warm lately. If it stays like this, there may not be a great deal of snow down there."

My teenage son stopped chatting instantly and looked at me as though Iíd just told him that space aliens may try to take him to the planet Kuzbane while he was away. Incredulously, he asked, "Why?"

Although Iím neither a meteorologist nor a "snowologist", I know enough from my days of high school science to be pretty sure that heat and snow donít mix.

My explanation produced another look of disbelief from Matt. But then he must have decided to take pity on his poor, muddled Mother and try to help her understand what she obviously didnít quite get.

"Mom, itís the ĎSnowyí Mountains Ö of course thereís going to be snow there. I mean, what do you think they do? Just pack everything up for the rest of the year!"

As far as my son was concerned, the fact that he was going to a ski resort absolutely settled the matter.

Peering over my glasses, I shook my head and simply said, "Matt, thereís a snow season from late autumn through to about mid-spring, if itís a good year. Other than that, there may be some snow on the highest points of the mountains, but usually the rest is gone."

With a snort, Matt decided to go to a higher authority Ö several higher authorities for that matter. Leaving me in the office, he headed down the hall to the kitchen where his Dad was holding a church committee meeting. He had no doubt whatsoever that everyone would support his opinion that there was always snow on the New South Walesí Snowy Mountains.

A moment or two later he bounced back into the room, pointing a finger in my face and crying exuberantly, "YOU WERE SOOOOOOO ÖÖÖ.Ö. right."

I managed to hold back the "I told you so" that was longing to burst out of my mouth and instead just laughed and smirked Ė all at the same time, which takes quite a bit of talent.

Flopping back in an office chair, Matthew tried to work out why heíd been so sure that he was the one who was right. Finally he came up with the perfect explanation. "Itís just that every time Iíve been there, itís been snowing so I figured it was always like that."

"Every time?" I queried, eyebrows arching almost to my hairline. "Matt, youíve only ever been ONCE before!"

Later that night, after Matt had headed off to bed and Iíd returned to my office work, I couldnít help but chuckle as I thought about his Snowy Mountain belief.

"Every time Ö" I repeated as I tried to concentrate on the work at hand. But then, mid-giggle, I realized that although Mattís comment had been funny, the same type of false assumption isnít even remotely amusing when itís aimed at the Church.

The unfortunate fact is that first impressions do last the longest and even if someone has only ever been to church once in their life, they are more than likely going to make a long term evaluation of Christianity and Sunday Services based on that one experience.

What a challenging situation this poses for us as Christians!

We may not be able to undo that first impression someone has regarding church life, however, we can certainly do a lot to avoid perpetuating it.

The complaints and assumptions regarding Christians and the church are wide and varied. But there are some key issues that crop up time and time again. So letís take a moment to have a look at some of these common misapprehensions and consider whether we also are sending the wrong message Ö

1. They only want your money.

Giving is an important part of our Christian life and is, in fact, a very real part of our worship to God. Giving involves much more than our finances, yet this one small area is the most likely to raise red flags with visitors to our services.

We can choose to just brush their opinions aside because they donít understand why we give. However, to do that is to risk turning someone away from Christ. So instead, letís look at how we approach the matter of giving. Do we turn it into a major production, or do we treat it as a relatively small but very significant part of our worship? Is our attitude toward those who are wealthy and large givers, the same as it is to those who are less affluent? Do we pass around the collection plate without any explanation, or do we use it as an opportunity to share the Christian heart for giving?

One of the saddest reasons I ever heard a couple give for leaving a church that they actually loved, was that they "couldnít afford to go there."

What impression is your church making when it comes to finances?

2. Theyíre all hypocrites!

Weíve all heard this one and, unfortunately, the reality is that we all fall short of the glory of God (and if we think otherwise, then we are definitely deceiving ourselves).

However, letís not use that as an excuse and live down to expectations! Instead, letís ask ourselves whether, personally and as a congregation, we are aiming to live as a reflection of Christ every day of our lives? Are we living only in our "Sunday Best" or are we flowing in our "Daily Blessed"?

Do you act the same outside the church, as you does inside the doors?

3. Theyíre too cliquey!

Even some Christians will make this judgment after visiting a new congregation. Itís always so much easier to mingle with the people we know well and with whom we feel comfortable. But when it comes to church life, we have to be warm and welcoming to all who come, making sure that everyone feels included within the life of the congregation and not as though they are standing on the outside looking in.

How well does your congregation embrace newcomers?

4. Theyíre too pushy!

The one risk with being warm and welcoming is that we can actually be just a little too "welcoming" and immediately swamp the newcomer with invitations to join home fellowship groups, prayer meetings and even the crŤche roster. Thereís a fine line between welcoming and overwhelming. Each congregation needs to consider the ways in which they incorporate a newcomer into the life of the church.

5. Itís just too boring!

Although we are not in the "business" of amusing non-believers, and traditions should be respected, we do also need to make sure that we are speaking the language of our community. The challenge for us is to be true to our faith and traditions, while staying fresh and relevant to a world in need of salvation.

How clearly and relevantly is your congregation communicating Godís message of truth, love and grace?

You know, when Matthew eventually went on his camp, it turned out that there was plenty of snow. If we hadnít had our little discussion beforehand, he would have been even more firmly set in his opinion that the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales are always "snowy".

In the same way, there are plenty of things that happen in church life which cement those unfavorable first impressions even more firmly in the minds of many. Thatís why we need to make sure that we arenít adding to those wrong opinions. Instead, letís make that first impression really count Ė letís make it one that God would want to last forever!
Debbie Porter is the Editor-in-Chief of FaithWritersí Magazine and Editor of "We Are the Church". Deb lives in Sydney, Australia, with her husband and two teenagers. She writes for her ministry site, Breath of Fresh Air. http://www.breathfreshair.org
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