Last week, I bought David Kinnaman’s book UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity… And Why It Matters. I’ve seen it floating around bookstores and has sat on my unending list of things to read for a while, so I finally picked it up for a family trip.
Shortly after I cracked it open, it became clear that Kinnaman’s research was a much-needed wake-up call for me and, I believe, all members of the Christian faith. We need to face the facts; Christianity is having major image problems. Even if you simply go online and look at the Google search suggestions included in the image in this post, those impressions of Christianity are awful. What I find most hurtful is the one at the bottom of the list: “Christianity is… fake.” “Christianity is… not a religion.” Just to see if anything had changed, I did another Google search this morning to see what suggestions came up. The list was even worse: “Christianity is bull****,” “Christianity is a lie,” “Christianity is dying.” (Pardon the language).
All of these results are exactly in line with the perceptions outlined in UnChristian. The results of Kinnaman’s research with the Barna Group read like the world’s most revealing and awful game of word association, with words like “bigoted,” “antihomosexual,” “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” “sheltered,” and “too political” coming up as the terms or phrases most often associated with Christianity.
That hurts. A lot. Especially because we are all collectively to blame. That list forces you to ask some really tough questions of yourself, especially when it comes to how you’ve spread Christianity and represented it to the world. We’d all like to think that we’re well on our way to being perfect likenesses of Christ, but clearly something is lost in translation if nobody (and these results included the perceptions of young Christians, and they didn’t differ very much from those who are outside the faith) associates Christianity with its fundamental tenets of love, service, and community. For “outsiders” (to use Kinnaman’s term), and especially for those who have tried Christianity and had a bad experience, our religious community has become a country club for the predestined élite, a sheltered place where we gather to laugh about “sinners” while the world burns around us.
Anyway, back to Google… One of the search suggestions that struck me was “Christianity is “. When I searched this morning, it came in second, right after “Christianity is bull****.” This tells me two things: first, that we haven’t done a very good job of defining Christianity if one of the general public’s primary interests in Christianity is what it actually is and means; and second, that the world is waiting for us to fill in the blank. We have a great opportunity to redefine what it means to be a Christian here, and to show the world what good we can do once we’ve left our self-centered and self-satisfied focus aside.
I’m just as guilty as the next person of exemplifying all those awful terms Kinnaman revealed in UnChristian, in addition to spreading a watered-down version of the Christian truth in order to make myself and others feel better about their sins. I would love to pin down Christianity’s image crisis on the emergence of the Religious Right, on gay-bashing street “evangelicals,” on the unbelievably judgmental people I encounter during town halls at my internship, on impersonal and holier-than-thou megachurches, on enterprising and dishonest people who use Christ’s message of hope for their own personal greed and gain. But I can’t. I can only pin it on myself and how I’ve represented my faith. It sucks, but the good news is that there’s nowhere else to go but up. And I have the power to make a significant difference in how people view me and my faith.
This is the word association list that I imagine will turn up on Google in the future:
love, life, the truth, necessary, current, full of loving and generous people, consistent, awesome.
What can I, you, we do to make people see the Christian love we know?