Image Problem or Integrity Problem?
I just finished reading unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity … and Why it Matters, by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons.
Dan Kimball writes in the Afterword of unChristian, that he has “great optimism about the reputation of Christianity in the future.” Dan Kimball wrote, They Like Jesus but not the Church, which was published six months prior to unChristian. Kinnaman and Lyons back up with statistics what Kimball discovered in conversations across the country. I also noticed another book out on this subject, I’m Fine with God…It’s Christians I Can’t Stand, by Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz, published in January of 2008 – just months after unChristian. According to these authors, Church, Christianity, and Christians have an image problem.
An image is a representation of something, sometimes visible and reproducible, other times, a mental representation. In this context, image is the general impression that a person, organization, or product presents to the public or that is perceived by the public. An image problem often exists when a person, organization or product presents an image to the public that is not an accurate representation of the real thing. Kinnaman suggests that the image problem we have as Christians is possibly an accurate representation of the way many of us truly are – and in this sense, we have more than an image problem, we have an integrity problem – we are not consistently representing Christ as he truly is. Another criticism of Christianity is that we try to project an image that is not real, and the public is just not buying it.
What image should we be presenting to the public and how can we help present it in a clear manner, so misperceptions are minimized? Kinnaman does not thoroughly address these questions in his book, but I do believe these questions are a worthy response to Kinnaman’s research. Most Christians have some familiarity with the concept that we are supposed to be representing Christ and are in some way personally being conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). But the research reveals that many of us are sorely missing the mark. One of the saddest comments I encountered in unChristian was on the first page of the first chapter, “many of those outside of Christianity, especially younger adults,… reject Jesus because they feel rejected by Christians.” The Jesus that I know and read about in the Bible came to love and serve and bring peace to all people and desires that none should be left out of his kingdom. That sounds a lot more like accepting than rejecting to me. I agree with Kinnaman, “Christianity has an image problem.” If we are projecting an image of Christ that is not a faithful representation of who Christ is to the world, then we need to change it.
Kinnaman reminds that “as we work to change the negative perceptions of outsiders, we need to avoid an opposite and equally dangerous extreme. Some Christians respond to outsiders’ negativity by promoting a less offensive faith.” But then he goes on to say, “Softening or reshaping the gospel is an utterly wrong response to the objections people raise.” While I agree we need to offer a faithful representation of the gospel, I do believe we may need to do some reshaping of the gospel if we have distorted it and deformed it so it is no longer recognizable as Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom. “Like a corrupted computer file or a bad photocopy, Christianity, they say, is no longer in pure form, and so they reject it. One quarter of outsiders say that their foremost perception of Christianity is that the faith has changed for the worse. It has gotten off track and is not what Christ intended. Modern day Christianity no longer seems Christian.” The question for Christians here is: what did Christ have in mind when he thought up the church? If Jesus wanted us to mimic his every action and copy his every word, perhaps he would have waited until the advent of YouTube to appear. Peter says, “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” (2 Peter 1:3-4) I believe returning to a pure form of Christianity will not only require a change in what we say and do, but a recognition of the source of our life and a renewal of the transforming power of Christ within us that alone can reshape and reform us into a holy people who reflect Christ more authentically to a world in need. As we seek to change perceptions, we must be careful to seek those changes from within. “The reputation of the Christian faith should never be managed or spin-doctored, but we can change how we’re known by becoming more Christlike.”
Kinnaman covers six broad themes in unChristian, exposing the most common points of skepticism and objections raised by outsiders. First, outsiders consider Christians hypocritical. They also consider us too focused on getting converts as if we don’t really care about them. Not surprisingly, outsiders view Christians as bigoted people who show disdain for gays and lesbians. They think we are out of touch with reality and do not respond to reality in appropriately complex ways. We are too political and finally, we are judgmental. They doubt whether we really love people as we say we do. I have experienced some of this kind of criticism personally. An extended family member thought I was being unloving because I did not love her in the way she expected. I struggled with this for quite some time, because my love for her is real and yet it wasn’t being perceived as real. I asked God to show me ways that I had been unloving so I could make it right with her and also to show me how to love to her in meaningful ways. God revealed that I was harboring some unChristian attitudes toward her that I needed to confess and change. He also inspired creative ways for me to communicate my love to her. There are still days when I am misunderstood and by no means am I loving her in the way she expects most of the time, but through Christ and my willingness to change, she has become more secure in my love and my love for her has grown. In response to these criticisms, I don’t believe we need to do what outsiders think Jesus would do in order to change the perceptions, but we do need to respond in humility seeking God’s perspective and asking God how we need to change individually and corporately to accurately portray Christ in the world.
Kinnaman concludes his book with some thoughts on how we can move from being unChristian to Christian – how we can change these perceptions. “The goal of overcoming their negative baggage is not just to make outsiders think pleasant things about us, but to point them to life in Christ. We do not “spin” the Christian message; we live it. We do not need to exaggerate or hype faith; we embrace and describe all the potency, depth, complexity, and realism of following Christ.” When we think about changing perceptions, we must remember that it’s not going to happen through some new marketing campaign, or by forming some new institute for real Christian living, but through relationship. “Jesus laid the foundation for the church through relationships. His influence was (and is) indelible because he changed people.” I pray Jesus changes me as a result of reading this book so when people see me, they will get a clearer picture of who Christ is and who he wants to be for them.
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