Christianity’s Image: Time for an Extreme Makeover?

CHRISTIANITY HAS DEVELOPED a severe image problem. Many Christians—especially those of the most conservative variety—see the church as besieged by a wave of secularism. They have settled into a militant and somewhat paranoiac stance against what they are convinced is a godless culture out to at least ridicule—if not persecute—them and their beliefs.

And in that militancy, many Christians—including and perhaps especially high-profile Christian leaders—have taken to lashing out at the prevailing secular culture. They call down God’s judgments on all who do not share their pro-God, pro-life, pro-family values.

Now, let’s assume that most, at least, of these values are good and truly biblical (though as sometimes defined, some could be questioned on that count). If so, how far has it gotten the church to condemn and judge the sinners around it? As Dr. Phil asks: “How is that working for you?”

Apparently, not very well. Recent research among young people 16 through 29 by California-based research center, The Barna Group, shows that today’s younger generation is giving the church and Christianity mostly a failing grade.

Barna’s president, David Kinnaman, recently reported on that research in a new book entitled UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity.

By large percentages, young people said that the Christian community is judgmental, hypocritical, and anti-gay.

The majority of the survey participants were non-Christians. Of those, 85 percent said Christianity is hypocritical; 87 percent said it is judgmental; and 91 percent said it is anti-gay.

The young Christians surveyed, perhaps not surprisingly, had a somewhat better view of themselves: 47 percent said Christianity is hypocritical, 52 percent that it is judgmental, and 80 percent that it is anti-gay

The research discovered that even among the Christians, many no longer want to call themselves Christians because of the baggage that comes with that label. Some now call themselves “followers of Jesus,” or “apprentices of Christ.” Even Kinnamon, himself only 33, now describes himself as “a committed Christ follower.”

“Our goal wasn’t simply to say, here’s all the problems, but to hopefully point a way forward,” Kinnaman said.

“When Jesus pursued people,” he added, “He was much more critical of pride and much more critical of spiritual arrogance than He was of people who were sinful. And today’s Christians, if you spend enough time looking at their attitudes and actions, really are not like Jesus when it comes to that.”

Megachurch pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California—and best-selling author of The Purpose Driven Life—in commenting on Kinnamon’s research, said he wishes the church could become “known more by what it is for than what it is against. For some time now, the hands and feet of the body of Christ have been amputated, and we’ve been pretty much reduced to a big mouth. We talk more than we do.”

And apparently what Christians are saying is not winning the world to Christ but driving them away from Him. It’s the old “honey works better than vinegar” principle. You get farther attracting people—whether it’s the godless secularists around us or a potential spouse—by leaving out the judging and condemning.

An Adventist writer once said this:

“The people of the world are worshiping false gods. They are to be turned from their false worship, not by hearing denunciations of their idols, but by beholding something better. God’s goodness is to be made known.” Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 299.

  • Perhaps we should ask whether it’s our job to condemn sinners and their sins—or whether it’s the work of the Holy Spirit instead to do that convicting.
  • Perhaps we might get farther in dealing with even such a specific departure from God’s will as homosexuality by bringing on the love rather than the condemnation.
  • Perhaps we might remember that only those without sin are qualified to throw stones.
  • Perhaps we might remember too that our mission is to lift up Jesus, not declare war on sinners and call down upon them His divine judgments.
  • Perhaps Rick Warren is spot-on accurate: It’s time we became known for what we are for—not what we’re against.

As Christians, we can become defensive and self-justifying in the face of research such as Barna’s. We can rationalize our status quo and find ways to prove non-Christians wrong. But the fact remains that as today’s young people see the church, it’s turning them away—and it does not represent very well its namesake Leader.

And the solution—if we don’t like what we see in the mirror that’s been held up to us—is not to trash the mirror but to ask God for an extreme makeover.

If we must be at war with the sinful pagans around us, then let’s attack them with overwhelming force—with the most potent of all weapons: the limitless power of God’s accepting, approving, forgiving, restoring, and life-changing love.

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