The used car salesmen of church history

Last week I went with a friend of mine who is looking for a new used car. You know what that means? Used car salesmen. (And let me just say that we did not see a single sales woman anywhere.)

There’s one image that really stuck in my mind. At one extremely large used car lot, they made a point of saying that they would not sell a car that had sustained serious damage in the past. They had a photo of a car that appeared to be totaled, its front hood crumpled like an aluminum can. Next to it was a car—the very same car—looking shiny and new. There was no way to tell from looking that it had required such extensive work to be hammered back into place.

One of the reasons I suspect people leave the church is because we try to sell it like an unscrupulous used car salesman. God knows the church has had more than a few collisions. But we show it to people as shiny and new and say, “Look! It’s fine now!” And then, once people have driven it a while, they realize that there’s some pinging under the hood. It’s not that the church is a lemon, but in our eagerness to get people in it, we may not faithfully represent its entire history.

When we’re teaching about church history, I get concerned when I hear either a Church Triumphant story, in which the church progresses onward and upward, unless, of course, it’s another denomination, in which case they can be completely wrongheaded; or a Church Depraved, in which everything ever done in the name of Christ was nasty and wrong.

One of the things we can offer anyone exploring the Christian faith is as fair an assessment of our history as we can. This is hard. My metaphor of the used car salesman is not helpful, here, because we’re not just selling the car; we’re driving the car. We’ve learned the little tricks with jiggling the turn signal to make the oil light turn off. And then someone gets in the car and says, “What about that oil light?” to which we say, “Oh, that’s nothing.” But people who bring new eyes to the story may make us see things in a new way as well. They may point out some things that need fixing, things that we've learned to live with.

OK, I’ve about driven this metaphor into the ground (so to speak). The point is this: we’re not in the sales business. We’re here to give people all the information they need to make their own decisions as wisely as they can. To do that, we need to be fair and honest, and it may require us to struggle with the hard parts of our own faith and history. But that’s one of the blessings we get when we teach and share our faith and witness.

Drive safely.

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