Thirty-six years ago, fresh from Evangelism Explosion training, I was sharing my new faith with a friend. He said, “You seem to think I haven’t had any experience with this Christian thing. I was saved once. I was invited to a camp for kids, and the leaders were running around saving souls and hanging them on their belts like scalps, mine included. I went back home to my crummy life and I never saw or heard from any of them again. They didn’t care about me.”
I was stunned in the moment; but made an important decision that day. Never again would I “share Christ” as a project, but would pray that the Lord would make me truly interested in people. I decided to build relationships, enjoy and love people, and let Jesus bring them to Him on His timetable, not mine. My decision was reinforced by scripture in the second chapter of Acts where we read that after Pentecost, all the believers “were together, and had all things in common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” (Acts 2:44-47)
Apparently, in the beginning days of the early Church, “They” were intrigued enough by what they saw in “Us” to allow themselves to be gathered into the ranks!
How They See Us
Looking at the way “They” see “Us” is not just my idea, not just a file of notes and clippings I have kept over the years. In their book, UnChristian, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons present some troubling news about the public image of Christianity. They have written a book that contains what George Barna describes as “rigorous research and the difficult process of communicating statistics in everyday language. . . it is a logical carefully reasoned narrative about the past, present, and future state of society and the Christian faith.”
In the reading of UnChristian, I find it underscored and reinforced what we have experienced for years—a growing negative perception of Christianity. So, I would like to report a few points from UnChristian, and suggest that those who are serious about reaching out to our culture in the name of Jesus, should not just read, but study this book, discuss it among themselves, and make it a key part of their prayers and planning for outreach and evangelism.
“They” are “outsiders” as defined by David Kinnaman. According to his research of the perceptions of these folks, they wouldn’t be offended by this label, as they are “looking at the Christian faith from the outside. This group includes atheists, agnostics, and those affiliated with a faith other than Christianity . . . . and other unchurched adults who are not born -again Christians.” When they say, “Us,” they mean insiders, those who would call ourselves followers of Christ, Christians, born-again believers, and who practice our faith regularly.
Common Points of Skepticism
According to the research, there are six broad themes—the most common points of skepticism and objections raised by outsiders—that are important to understand about how “They” see “Us”. Those six themes are outlined in the following excerpt from UnChristian:
- Outsiders consider us hypocritical—saying one thing and doing another—and they are skeptical of our morally superior attitudes. They say Christians pretend to be something unreal, conveying a polished image that is not accurate. Christians think the church is only a place for virtuous and morally pure people.
- Too focused on getting converts. Outsiders wonder if we genuinely care about them. They feel like targets rather than people. They question our motives when we try to help them “get saved,” despite the fact that many of them have already “tried” Jesus and experienced church before.
- Outsiders say that Christians are bigoted and show disdain for gays and lesbians. They say Christians are fixated on curing homosexuals and on leveraging political solutions against them.
- Christians are thought of as old-fashioned, boring, and out of touch with reality. Outsiders say we do not respond to reality in appropriately complex ways, preferring simplistic solutions and answers. We are not willing to deal with the grit and grime of people’s lives.
- Too political. Another common perception of Christians is that we are overly motivated by a political agenda, that we promote and represent politically conservative interests and issues. Conservative Christians are often thought of as “right-wingers.”
- Outsiders think of Christians as quick to judge others. They say we are not honest about our attitudes and perspectives about other people. They doubt that we really love people as we say we do.
The next six chapters of this book explore these six critical perceptions, describing how outsiders arrive at these viewpoints and how these viewpoints affect their understanding of Jesus. Each chapter also articulates a desirable new perception—a biblical vision for how Christians should be known. This desirable perception is not an effort to be popular or merely to accommodate outsiders, but to engage them with the life-changing Jesus rather than an unchristian version of him.
Let me reiterate that you may not agree with the views of outsiders, but you should not ignore them. We have to deal with [them] as they are—candid, irreverent, and brazen. If we do not, it makes their criticism even more forceful because it goes unanswered.
Why Perceptions Matter
I almost want to apologize for this list of hard to hear criticisms of “Us.” Almost…but it is too important to ignore. “Outsiders” represent 37 percent of the population between eighteen and forty-one, 40 percent of those ages 16-29. Moreover, the perceptions aren’t just “out there.” To make one final quote from UnChristian, “. . .we must grasp the idea that young people in our churches are also feeling the heat of these negative perceptions. They are bringing up some of the same challenges, questions, and doubts facing those outside the church.”
Public Image—Does It Matter? I think it does—if we want to share the Good News, we need to face the truth about how “They” see “Us.”