Does Christianity Have an Image Problem?

Paul Edwards | "The Paul Edwards Program," WLQV Detroit | Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Does Christianity Have an Image Problem?


October 15, 2007

Radio host and columnist Paul Edwards recently spoke with the President and Strategic Leader of The Barna Group and author of the new book, “UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity and Why it Matters,” David Kinnaman. 

Paul Edwards: Christianity has an image problem—that, at least, is the view of the new book “UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity and Why it Matters.” In this book the President of Barna Research David Kinnaman says, “Our most recent data show that young outsiders, those ages 16-29 outside the church, have lost much of their respect for the Christian faith. These days nearly two out of every five young outsiders—38 percent—claim to have ‘had a bad impression of present day Christianity.’ Beyond this, one-third of young outsiders said that Christianity represents a negative image with which they would not want to be associated….They are more likely than previous generations to believe that Jesus Christ committed sins. They’re also more likely to believe that people can live a meaningful life without Jesus Christ….Their negative perceptions outnumbered positive perceptions of born-agains by more than a three-to-one ratio—35 percent to 10 percent….Among those aware of the term evangelical the views are extraordinarily negative, 49 percent to three percent….There are roughly 24 million outsiders in America who are ages 16 to 29. Of these, nearly seven million have a negative impression of evangelicals, another seven million said they have no opinion and 10 million have never heard the term evangelical. That leaves less than half-a-million young outsiders, out of the 24 million, who see evangelicals in a positive light.”

This audience is going to say, look, Jesus said the world is going to hate us, so what’s the problem? 

David Kinnaman: Christianity has an image problem and the real question is whether to care. And the way we approached this as researchers and writers and as committed Christians is to realize that there is this tension between being liked and being like Christ. What we really find in this whole project is that when people say they reject us—it’s very complicated and there are a lot of reasons for that—a lot of times they are rejecting some of the superficial Christianity that we display to them. So it’s not simply an image problem, although certainly you could make the argument that it’s been given to us by a skeptical media and a skeptical culture, but it also represents some substantive issues that we need to wrestle with.

The Scripture is very clear that we are likely to be hated, we will not be popular for following Christ, but it also doesn’t let believers off the hook. It [the Bible] says we must be careful, have a good reputation with outsiders, be wise in the way we act toward outsiders and our lives are to be read by people as if we are an open letter. So we have to take some of the things we’re responsible for and then try to understand them.

Edwards: I think what your research is saying….these negative perceptions come from us not being the kinds of Christians that Jesus calls us to be.

Kinnaman: One of the phrases we use is, it would be one thing if they were judging us, if outsiders were skeptical of us, because of righteousness sake, the truth is I think it’s because of self-righteousness sake….Those of us on the inside also have to take account for the fact that we often add to the gospel something other than what Jesus really intended. Like Galatians says, having begun your life in the Spirit why are you now trying to prefect it through human effort? And if you don’t [live your life in the Spirit] you actually end up devouring people.

Edwards: You say in your book, “It’s clear that Christians are primarily perceived for what they stand against. We have become famous for what we oppose rather than who we are for.” Certainly there is a sense in which the gospel is anti—it’s against—but not at the expense of….intentionally alienating the hearer. How are we defining what it means when the world perceives us for what we’re against rather that what we’re for?

Kinnaman: Perhaps the best way of describing that is in John 3:17. Jesus says that He came not to condemn the world, but to save it. I think maybe Christians have got the reputation of being condemners: we’re quick to judge; we’re quick to point out the fault in other people; we’re quick to point out our problems with homosexuals rather than looking at the gravity and the offence of our own sin in God’s eyes.

There’s a great verse in Proverbs that says, “A true witness rescues lives.” Jesus was passionately pursuing broken people who were sinners. The people that were most offended by Him were the religious people. And a lot of times there’s some real congruence with what happens here in American culture, where we as religious individuals are offended by lives around us rather than looking for those opportunities to rescue them—to pursue God’s purposes in those people’s lives.

Edwards: One of the areas that you point out….is that outsiders perceive Christians….as “too focused on getting converts.”

Kinnaman: What’s really interesting is that most Americans—a vast majority—say that, not just do they call themselves Christians, but they’ve made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that’s still important in their life. Seven out of 10 Americans say that is true of them. If that were true our lives—our world—would be revolutionized by the commitment that we have. As you go through this book it’s very clear that we’re very Jesus centric—He’s done everything for us. But it’s more about finding ways of cultivating deep faith—a biblical worldview in people. Again, it’s a simple starting point to becoming a Christian: all you do is ask Jesus to forgive you and commit yourself to Him. But when we say that’s the only thing Christianity is measured by, whether you’ve had that kind of conversion experience, we miss some of the deeper portions of what it means to be a follower of Christ.

Edwards: You’re holding up for us the lens through which lost people, at a minimum unchurched people, look at Christians….not so much to make ourselves liked by the world, but to be certain that we are truly being who Jesus called us to be as His followers.

Kinnaman: I’m really glad that message comes through, because anytime you start looking at ways to be popular or to spin-doctor your message, it’s no longer the message. I think what we’ve come to realize—what was so fascinating in this research—is that young people, when they said how they gained a perception about Christianity today, they said media played a role, but the most common way was because of the five friends that they have who are Christians, from their experiences in a church, from those conversations they’ve had with people.

What we try to convey through this whole project is if we start to understand why critics have this experience, why we have been unchristian, we can actually start to be Christ in a deeper way. It comes down to loving and listening and thinking like Christ, and that’s a hard thing to measure up to, but it is possible to do.

Paul Edwards is the host of The Paul Edwards Program, a columnist and a pastor. His program is heard daily on WLQV in Detroit and on godandculture.com. Contact him at paul@godandculture.com.

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