Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Perceptions of Christianity

Yesterday I received the following note from a friend:

Finally, David Virtue has said something I agree with. “The time for dithering is over,” he proclaims at VirtueOnline. He wants the Archbishop of Canterbury to shape up and side with the conservatives to kick our liberal butts out of the Anglican Communion already. I, on the other hand, would like to see The Episcopal Church stop dithering and live into what we say we believe. We may have already lost our chance with emerging generations, but if we haven’t we need to act, and soon.

I’m reading Dan Kimball’s book, They Like Jesus but not the Church. While Dan makes some assumptions that I have trouble with (like that we’re all on a mission to convert the world to Christianity), his principle thesis is a point well-taken. People in the 18 to 35 age bracket love Jesus. When asked about him they respond positively, even with their body language. However, when asked about the Christianity, Christians and the church, the response is overwhelmingly negative, sometimes even pitying.

In general, they find Christians hypocritical and one of their chief complaints is this over-arching preoccupation with homosexuality. Younger folks just don’t seem to get it and it’s one of the reasons that they cite for not darkening the door of a church. They see it as a homophobic, repressive institution, one that they’d be embarrassed to be a part of.

Imagine what would happen if we in The Episcopal Church took a stand, a real stand. Imagine what a witness we would make to these people if we said, “Here we stand. We can do no other.” We say that we believe that God is doing a new thing, that God is revealing Godself in new ways all the time. If we were willing to be kicked out of the Anglican Communion because of our stand for justice, we might be able to win back the respect of some of those younger generations. And we might actually deserve it.
My friend has echoed some of my own thoughts, which have been generated by a book I'm reading; unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity by David Kinnaman, President of the Barna Group, and Gabe Lyons, founder of the Fermi Project. Their research project involved interviewing "outsiders" (those who are outside the Christian faith) and young Christians, focusing on the 16 - 29 age group (identified as older "Mosaics" and younger "Busters"). The perception that they discovered of how younger generations view "Christians" is a real eye opener. Here's a few of the top descriptions from the "outsider" group:

Question: Here are some words or phrases that could be used to describe a religious faith. Please indicate if you think each of these phrases describes Christianity.

91% - Antihomosexual
87% - Judgmental
85% - Hypocritical
75% - Too involved in politics

Here's some of the responses to the same question from young adults who are church members:
80% - Antihomosexual
52% - Judgmental
47% - Hypocritical
50% - Too involved in politics

The authors appear to bring a more Evangelical perspective to their responses to this "image problem" that Christians have, which was cause for me to disagree with some of their conclusions and recommendations. However, they also offered some good insights, such as the following:

...Gabe and I frequently encountered the idea that Christians should not care what outsiders think about us. After all, Jesus warned that "world" would hate us...

...However, before you dismiss the unChristian perception as "just Christians doing their duty," realize that the challenge runs much deeper. The real problem comes when we recognize God's holiness but fail to articulate the other side of his character; grace. Jesus represents truth plus grace (read John 1:14). Embracing truth without holding grace in tension leads to harsh legalism, just as grace without truth devolves to compromise. Still, the important insight based on our research is that Mosaics and Busters rarely see Christians who embody service, compassion, humility, forgiveness, patience, kindness, peace, joy goodness and love.

Should we care about what people think? Gabe and I began to realize that the more important question was What if young outsiders are right about us? What is missing in our portrayal of the Christian faith to new generations? If we have failed to represent the grace that Jesus offers - if we have been poor representatives of a holy and loving God - then absolutely, what they think about us matters. If we have been unChristian, then we bear responsibility for the problem - and the solution...
I would imagine that these authors would disagree with some of the ways the Episcopal Church is attempting to restore the distorted image of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. No doubt we will continue to pay a high price for our insistence that truth must be balanced by grace. But, as my friend pointed out, we have made our stand.

May our witness to the healing power of God's radically inclusive love continue to be a beacon of hope for those seeking a safe place where they will be embraced by grace. It is only in such settings, where our human inclinations to judge and condemn are set aside, that we all, "outsiders" and "insiders" together, can anticipate an encounter with the living God.

J.

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