About fifteen years ago, so I would guess, Andre Agassi was doing commercials for someone (I can’t remember) in which he said “Image is everything.” How much does the “image” others have of Christians matter? Both the seeker movement and the emerging movement have had “image” as one of their themes. The seeker movement sought to undo why folks didn’t come to church and the emerging movement, at various venues where I have heard such ideas, have used the negative image of the Church to construct some of its ideas and models of how to do church. Now, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, under the sponsorship of the Barna Group, have come out with a new book called unChristian.
My question for today is a simple one: What role should “image” play in local church ministry? Have you thought about this, about how often it is now used in rhetoric to point out what others think of the church and about how that is shaping some of the things we emphasize? Is “image” moving us in the direction at times of political correctness? How is this idea reshaping what we do?
Gabe Lyons, on the phone with David Kinnaman: “I want to help a new generation of leaders understand the perceptions and images that young people have of Christianity — what people really think of us” (13) and “I want to help start conversations and lead people to start thinking about how to bridge this divide between us and them” (13).
David Kinnaman: “We are not responsible for outsiders’ decisions, but we are accountable when our actions and attitudes — misrepresenting a holy, just, and loving God — have pushed outsiders away” (14).
“It’s not a pretty picture” (15).
The thesis might be this: outsiders think Christians and the Christian faith have become unChristian.
“Every Christ follower bears some degree of responsibility for the image problem …; it is not helpful to assign blame to those who have made mistakes” (16).
So they have conducted research on “outsiders” and what they think of Christians — particularly those Barna studies call “born again” Christians. They looked at 16 to 29 year olds. There are 24 million of these “outsiders” in the USA. They are 40% of the generation that are “outsiders” to Christianity. Their view is not dissimilar to the same age group inside the Church!
A classic Barna mapping of the evidence: How do outsiders perceive Born-again Christians?
1. Know of/aware of Christians (NA), evangelicals (57%), born-again (86%)
2. Bad impression of Christians (38%), evangelicals (49%), born-agains (35%)
3. Neutral impression of Christians (45%), evangelicals (48%), born-agains (55%)
4. Good impression of Christians (16%), evangelicals (3%), born-agains (10%).
Here’s an insert question: Is it worth trying to retain the label “evangelical”/”born again”?
The primary reaction is to the “swagger” of evangelicals/born-agains. When Brian McLaren says this, the grace-grinders come unglued; when the Barna Group says it will the same group believe it? What am I saying? The book says the dominant perception of evangelicals is this: conservative, entrenched in thinking, antigay, antichoice, angry, violent, illogical, empire builders; they want to convert everyone, and can’t live peacefully with others. Christians, this book contends, have become famous for what they oppose.
K-L (Kinnaman-Lyons) know that some of the negative perception is the outcome of a faith that cuts into the kingdom of darkness, but they also know that’s not the whole story. So, if you think you can brush this book aside, they urge you to think again. The solution is not to become soft in commitment. If grace-grinders have an only-holy God, some have an only-love God.
So do perceptions matter? Yes.
1. People respond on the basis of perceptions.
2. These perceptions might make us more objective about ourselves.
3. Perceptions can change.
4. Perceptions are framed most often through personal stories and experiences.