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Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Sunday, October 21, 2007


 Christianity has an image problem.

Many of those outside of the Christian faith think Christians no longer represent what Jesus had in mind – that Christianity in our society is not what it was meant to be.  We’re seen as hyper-political, out of touch, pushy in our beliefs, and arrogant.  And the biggest perceptions of all are that we are homophobic, hypocritical, and judgmental. 

Simply put, in the minds of many, modern-day Christianity no longer seems Christian.  

And much of that image has been earned.  We’ve acted in ways, talked in ways, lived in ways, that have stolen from God’s reputation. 

All this, and more, from a book titled UnChristian by Steve Kinnaman and my friend Gabe Lyons, that reveals some of the latest research on how people view the Church and people in it (disclosure:  I was one of several asked to contribute a few essays for the book, including Chuck Colson, Andy Crouch, Louie Giglio, Dan Kimball, Brian McLaren, Chris Seay, Andy Stanley, John Stott, Jim Wallis, and Rick Warren).  

Here’s the heart of the matter:  among young American “outsiders” (the author’s preferred term for those others might refer to as seekers, non-Christians, or the lost), the following words or phrases were offered as possible descriptors of Christianity, and the number who affirmed their accuracy:

*anti-homosexual (91%) 
*judgmental (87%) 
*hypocritical (85%) 
*old-fashioned (78%) 
*too involved in politics (75%)
*out of touch with reality (72%) 
*insensitive to others (70%) 
*boring (68%) 
*not accepting of other faiths (64%) 
*confusing (61%) 

Fifteen years ago I commissioned a similar study that went to those who were unchurched and asked them a simple question:  How did the church and those inside it lose you?  I first published the research, done in coordination with the Barna Research Group (which also conducted the research for UnChristian) in my book Rethinking the Church.  Comparing the two studies is interesting.   

In 1992, the unchurched gave the following reasons for abandoning the church:  

*There is no value in attending (74%).
*Churches have too many problems (61%).
*I do not have the time (48%).
*I am simply not interested (42%).
*Churches ask for money too frequently (40%).
*Church services are usually boring (36%).
*Christian churches hold no relevance for the way I live (34%).
*I do not believe in God, or I am unsure that God exists (12%).

Such findings pointed to a culture that was saying, “God, yes; Church, no.” 

Now, research shows the deepening crisis, for it points to a culture that says “Christ, perhaps; Christianity and Christians, no.”  Whereas before we were losing them institutionally, but not necessarily personally, we are now losing them personally.  They look at our lives and see little that is attractive – and even they know that this means they are seeing little of Christ.   

As with any crisis, we must not lament the problem, but address it.  First, get the book, read the results, and immerse yourself in its implications and dynamics.  It is already causing quite a stir in the secular media – it needs to cause a stir among Christians (see some links to secular conversations surrounding the findings below).  Second, Christ-followers must renew themselves as to what it means to truly follow Christ.  The “outsiders” are right – it isn’t Christian to be a hate-monger, or to be judgmental, or hypocritical.  Many of us have drifted from the faith, and we need to repent.  As the final chapter in the book dictates, we must move from “unchristian” to “Christian.”  Third, we must speak openly about such matters.  Mecklenburg Community Church has launched a weekend series on the top three perceptions surfaced by this research, and the response has been amazing among insiders and outsiders alike.  There was a palpable sense of relief just to have the conversation opened and to own the image challenges; to confess for what led to the perceptions; and great encouragement when a true biblical portrait was presented of what a life impacted by Christ does look like.  

The book might be overwhelming, the findings discouraging, but we must take heart.  “As C.S. Lewis believed, imagination precedes fact,” Lyons concludes in the final section of the book.  “Let’s imagine together what could happen and then commit to being the change we want to create.”  

James Emery White  


David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Unchristian: What a new generation really thinks about Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007).

 “Q&A: Facing Christianity’s Crisis,” from Time.com, Tuesday, October 2, 2007 (http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1667640,00.html).

James Emery White, Rethinking the Church: A Challenge to Creative Redesign in an Age of Transition, Revised and Expanded (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997/2003). 

On Mecklenburg Community Church, and its current series “UnChristian,” including media: www.mecklenburg.org.