Mark Fairweather Tall
Church noticeboards and hate crime
When I first started in ministry, posters outside the church were a bit of a challenge to me. We benefited from a location that was both very close to the town centre and next to a beautiful park which meant that there were always people walking past the building. To my mind, this made the church notice board an important means of communication because it was a good opportunity to a) show that the church was alive and well, and b) encourage passers-by to consider matters of faith. I soon discovered (if I didn’t already know) that coming up with artistic and thought provoking posters was not my natural gifting.
I confess I used a number of popular Christian catchphrases, like ‘1 cross + 3 nails = 4 given’ and ‘Seven days without prayer make one weak’. I tried to tie in with popular sporting events, so during Wimbledon: ‘In tennis “love” means nothing, for Christ “love” means everything’ or when England had actually won a football match on penalties: ‘David Seaman saves penalties... Christ paid the penalty to save.’
I hoped people would find these engaging and thought provoking, although the reality was that people outside the church never really commented on them. Regardless of this, month by month I tried to come up with something new until one kindly couple offered to take the responsibility from me. I am certainly glad that I am now blessed by having gifted people around me who take care of these things. And just as well because I have met people at church services and other events who have been encouraged to join us after seeing a poster outside our building.
Remembering this, I have a great deal of sympathy for Attleborough Baptist Church at this time because of a poster outside their church that has caused controversy. The message was: “If you think there is no God, you’d better be right!!” with a picture of flames underneath. One person deemed this message offensive and complained to the police. The police investigated the circumstances and spoke to the pastor who agreed to take the poster down. The matter has been recorded as a hate incident. Reports of this have hit both local and national press which, I imagine, has come as a shock to those involved.
As I read the story, a whole range of thoughts raced through my mind.
My first reaction was surprise that this was considered a police matter by the one who was offended. This country has a proud tradition of freedom of speech, where people can express their opinions without restriction. Of course, there does need to be some limits: for example, if the words are inciting violence or there is an encouragement to break the law. However, this case made me ask the question: “If this is a ‘hate incident’, what else could be classed like that?”
What if I put up a poster saying I am preaching on the ‘Parable of the Sheep and the Goats’ or the ‘Parable of the Wheat and Tares’? Could someone see that, read the Bible story, be offended and report it to the police? Such a scenario may be exaggeration, but once freedom of speech is compromised it is difficult to know where it will end. I believe it is important to defend the rights of people to express their views and this holds whether they are Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Atheist and so on.
Secondly, it reminded me that there is a common misunderstanding of Christianity. Robert Gladwin who made the complaint in Attleborough was quoted as saying, “It is my basic understanding that Christianity is inclusive and loving in nature. The message being displayed outside of the church could not be further from the often uttered phrase ‘love thy neighbour’.” It is a sad mistake that is made all too often today when people believe Christianity is simply about a ‘moral code to live by.’
It is too simplistic to say Christianity is about being nice to everyone. The heart of Christianity is about the possibility of an eternal relationship with the One who is Creator of all. In recognising that He is a God of love, we, who are made in His image, should seek to treat others in a manner which reflects the love that we receive from Him. At the same time the great Christian hope is that this life is not all that there is but there is a possibility of something more beyond. This poster was designed to encourage people to ask questions about what happens when we die. The issue of mortality is after all something each of us has to face and Christianity has an important message to deliver. We need to challenge the misconception that Christianity is simply about ‘love thy neighbour’.
However, the unfortunate experience of Attleborough Baptist Church is one that we need to learn from. One lesson is an encouragement that passers-by do observe notice boards. They are worth the time, effort and expense in keeping them up-to-date. This argument can be expanded to websites and social media – people will see and take in the messages that are displayed in these places. They have an important place in the life of the church. Those who are gifted in these areas are a blessing to the church.
There is another very important lesson, though: We need to be very careful about the message that we are giving out and try to understand how those who are not in Christian circles will hear what is being communicated. I think it is not only possible to argue, but more accurate to suggest, that the poster put up by Attleborough BC was intended in a loving way. After all, if your concern is that people who don’t respond to Christ will go to hell the ‘hate crime’ is not to warn people that they are in danger. The problem, however, is that people may not understand the motivation and hear something completely different to that which was intended.
I found it fascinating to read some of the comments of readers of the article in the national press. One of the common themes was that this poster was about ‘trying to scare people into the church’ and so the message was seen not as a warning about a potential hazard but as a threat from the church.
At this point it would be possible to get side tracked into a debate about what happens when we die. In recent years there has been renewed controversy (particularly through the book by Rob Bell, ‘Love Wins’) over the long-term debate about whether a loving God would actually send people to hell. Whatever side of the argument you might come down on, I believe we have to seriously question whether the message of hell is the message we should be sharing.
Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly” John 10:10b. Later in his gospel, John records his motivation for writing: “... so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” John 20:31. We have good news that faith in Christ isn’t simply about avoiding hell when we die but about having life in all its fullness now; we can live abundantly; a better life than we ever dreamed of.
When Peter preached on the day of Pentecost he spoke of what Jesus had done on the cross; he talks about the need for repentance and baptism; he tells them about forgiveness and the blessing of the Holy Spirit; he calls on them to save themselves from the corrupt generation that they are a part of. At no point does he tell them that they will go to hell unless they repent. Around three thousand were added to their number that day.
People need to know about the difference to life a relationship with God as Father, Son and Spirit, makes. People need to know the sure and certain hope that we have in being in His presence both now and for all eternity. Our message is about living abundantly.
The challenge, of course, is how to communicate this in the climate of today... and not simply through the church notice board either. We need to communicate this wonderful, life-transforming message of the fullness of life there is in Jesus and what he has done for us both through our words and the lives that we lead. It isn’t easy and we will make mistakes, but it is our calling and it should be our joy to share this good news.