In light of a recent Sunday evening sermon I preached on the woman caught in adultery, I recently re-reading and shared some of the findings to the congregation from the book unChristian by David Kinnaman which I read and reviewed on this blog back in November 2007. Kinnaman works for the Barna Research Group and he spent quite awhile gathering research about young people's view of Christians and Christianity. He also polled young people within the church, and, surprisingly their views matched the "outsiders" thoughts pretty closely.
Kinnaman discovered that the view of Christians is, in general, quite negative. Christians are seen as hypocritical, too focused on getting converts, anti-homosexual, sheltered, too political and judgmental.
Whether these things are true about Christians or not, these are the perceptions people have of us. And what I thought was extremely interesting and profoundly sad is that the people polled were not getting the majority of their negative feelings from the "liberal media." They were getting them from Christians themselves:
Being hurt by Christianity is far more common among the young than among older outsiders. Three out of every ten young outsiders said they have undergone negative experiences in churches and with Christians. Such hurtful experiences are part of the stories of nearly one out of every two young people who are atheists, agnostics, or of some other faith.
Kinnaman says: "[Y]oung people said they formed their views of Christians based on conversations with others, often with Christians. This is significant because not only does it mean we have a great deal of responsibility in developing many of the perceptions that people hold, but it also suggests the possibility that our words and our lives can change these negative images."
Kinnaman notes that Christians have become "famous for what we oppose, rather than who we are for." He points out that people in this generation are naturally skeptical of everything -- not just Christians. They are looking for genuine people, and they see Christians as people who pretend as though we are perfect, when, in fact, we live very similar lives to non-Christians.
Kinnaman said that the automatic reaction of some Christians to this research is to say, "whelp, we expect the world to hate us. Satan has blinded the minds of unbelievers." This sentiment is true to an extent. Christians receive push back because they are promoting biblical truths and values in a relativistic society. Many people don't want to hear that they're wrong.
However, this does not give us license to avoid the truth in this research. Christians have a bad reputation, and we've apparently done something to get it. Kinnaman points out that we are to represent God's holiness and His grace in our interactions with non-believers.
I've heard some things like this before, but after reading through this research, it is quite sobering to realize how non-Christians view me and my friends. And although Kinnaman is sure to note that in order to fix this problem we should not go around watering down the gospel, he does give suggestions for how we should show Christ to others. Young people today are looking for people who live out what they say they believe, which is good. If Christians, as a whole, try to be more Christlike in our everyday lives, we have the opportunity to change these perceptions.
The apostle Paul advises Christians to 'live wisely among those who are not Christians' and to 'let your conversation be gracious and effective,' (Col. 4:5-6, NLT) Eph. 4:15 still says, “speaking the truth in love.” Paul challenged the Corinthian church that they were to be "the aroma of Christ" to the world. One writer has said: “If people would taste the "Bread of Life," they must be made hungry through the fragrant lives of those who are feeding on it. Sometimes people stay away from the banquet table, not because of the food, but because of the aroma of those on the inside.”
The real possibility exists of having our rhetoric against culture comes across as hatred or dislike of the lost and unconverted, only driving them further away from the good news of Jesus Christ. God sent Jesus to show the world His love, not condemn the world (John 3:16-17). Jesus is our model on how to deal with people in our culture. We are His Body, His presence, in the world today. Just as the Father sent Jesus, we have now been sent by Jesus to be the agents of His redemptive love (John 20:21). We can't be content to become enemies of our times, our culture, or our world. Instead, we must learn how to better love them, attempt to have genuine dialogue and understanding of them. We must learn how to better cultivate relationships and environments where others can be deeply transformed by God.
So let's be more careful with our rhetoric and more genuine with our service to those in our communities who are unbelievers!
What do you all think? Is there validity to this research? If so, how can those of us who are Christians do a better job of showing Christ to those around us?