The Church and Christianity in the broader sense both have a major Public Relations problem. I doubt you’ll disagree. My question is this:
Have we earned the negative reputation we’ve acquired?
Barna has been watching this for decades. In their book UnChristian, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons track the perception of Christianity from 1996, when 85% of people who did not identify as Christian held a favorable view of Christianity, to 2007 when that percentage dropped to 16%. The number of “non-Christians” who viewed the role of evangelicals in society as favorable in 2007 was 3%!
In that same 2007 study, they found that 85% of young “outsiders” (their technical term to describe people who don’t see themselves as “inside the church”) saw Christianity as hypocritical. Perhaps not surprisingly, 47% of young churchgoers agreed! 57% of “outsiders” said that Christians are quick to find fault in others. Only 16% of young “outsiders” believed that Christians consistently show love to the people around them. Along the same lines, Kinnaman and Lyons found that many young adults perceive Christians and the churches they belong to as being more devoted to self-preservation than world restoration.
These numbers are bad. I’ll address some of their more recent studies in future posts, but trust me, our PR problem hasn’t improved.“Barna tracked the perception of Christianity from 1996, when 85% of ‘non-Christians’ held a favorable view of Christianity, to 2007 when that dropped to 16%. Have we earned the poor reputation?”
(Some get dismissive of studies like this, but let me assure you that Barna does its homework. And they love the Church. AND, Kinnaman does not believe our task is to make Christianity more popular or Jesus more palatable. He says outright: “Softening or reshaping the gospel is an utterly wrong response to the objections people raise” (UnChristian, 33). He simply wants us to understand the reputation we have garnered and ask ourselves if that’s what we want.)
So back to my question: Have we earned the negative reputation we’ve acquired?
Here’s my take: yes and no. I’ll start with no. I could list for you hundreds of names of Christians who are loving, compassionate, and who contribute positively to the world around them. These people are not any more (or less) hypocritical than the average person who fails to be all that they aspire to be. Think about it: The average unchurched person believes that people should be treated with dignity but still gets snappy when service is poor at a restaurant. He or she also believes that we have a responsibility to care for the environment but has a hard time making the sacrifices necessary to reduce their carbon footprint. We don’t typically call this person hypocritical, but it’s not that different than someone who aspires to live like Jesus yet continues to fall short. So there’s a sense in which this broad brush dismissal of Christianity and Christians has not been earned, at least by the majority of Christians I know.
But also yes, we have absolutely earned this reputation. I look around and I truly do believe that we have been collectively more invested in self-preservation than the good of the people around us. I think that we Christians have been very judgmental on certain issues. It’s not that we hate the people around us (I suppose there are always exceptions), it’s that we have failed to consider the tone we use when we speak about certain people. Or how our actions and words affect real people. How did Christianity get a reputation for being horrible to the gay community? I’d say that in many cases, we earned this reputation by being horrible to the gay community. (No, I don’t believe it’s wrong for us to disagree with someone’s lifestyle. Nor do I believe it’s wrong to tell someone that we believe that they are engaging in a sin. But I do believe we have earned a reputation for being judgmental by the way we’ve done this and by an almost complete lack of love towards the people in this community.)
My contention is that while I can point to hundreds of really amazing and loving Christians, even these people can sometimes be jackasses in the name of Jesus. I feel confident saying this because that statement is autobiographical. We have come to collectively hold an un-Jesus-like posture on many things, and we’ve all individually misrepresented Jesus in a myriad ways. All of this contributes to the poor reputation of Christians and churches.
So yes and no. But also, whether or not we’ve earned our reputation for being judgmental and hypocritical and unloving, I do know this: we currently have this reputation and we have to live with it. We’re not going to help anyone by arguing that people shouldn’t be viewing us as judgmental. Here’s reality: they see us that way. So what will we do about it?
That’s our goal in addressing Jackass Theology. We want to help the Church move back into the ways of Jesus.
I don’t think we can instantly shake the poor PR we’ve been building for a long time now. But that’s not the point of Jackass Theology. The point is to ask what Jesus wants for his church. Let’s not negate the words of Jesus by dismissing biblical teaching. No, let’s hold the words of Jesus tightly, but also pursue with greater intensity the works and ways of Jesus. I believe we’ve lost sight of this.
Some would argue that we need to stop caring about truth. You won’t find us doing that here. We need to change, but not like that. I believe our PR problem has come from mishandling the words of Jesus by divorcing them from the works and ways of Jesus. If you want to see what that looks like, I invite you to join us in this journey of addressing Jackass Theology.