Against All Foes?

[The following is an article written by David Kinnaman, Strategic Leader and Vice President of The Barna Group… I thought its topic would provoke a smart conversation]
When it comes to faith, many Christians embrace a similar kind of thinking – us versus them. But not necessarily the biblical notion of combating spiritual forces (described in Ephesians 6.12), which is the very real kin of spiritual entanglement that Christians should be engaged in.
Instead, many believers demonize the people with whom they disagree – atheists, homosexuals, environmentalists, political opponents, and even people from other faiths. For these Christians, their motivation is not bringing the Kingdom of God into sharper relief. Rather, they respond to the world and to others based upon impulses of fear and self-righteousness.
Unfortunately, we are in that boat more than we care to admit, aren’t we? Mel Gibson’s tirade against Jews was extreme, and public failures such as his certainly damage the image of Christianity. But the reputation of the Christian community is not merely created at hands of high-profile leaders. Every one of us, as leaders, communicators and bearers of the image of God, are partly responsible. Do your thoughts and actions always reflect Christ’s love toward others? When was the last time you made an off-handed, demeaning joke about homosexuality or some other area in which people struggle? Have you been kind and bighearted – without being condescending or compromising – toward people who believe differently than you?
I can vividly recall verbally hammering two young Mormon missionaries who came to my door. Another time, I remember making a joke about homosexuality, only to be reminded later that one of our houseguests had personally struggled with that lifestyle. I am ashamed at these memories – and others like it, when my behavior stole away a sliver of God’s great fame.
A research study I have been working on examines this issue more deeply – how Christians are perceived today in our multi-faith, sophisticated culture. You probably would not be surprised at the findings: the “brand” of Christianity – the set of perceptions and imagery that people maintain about the Christian faith – is not flattering. Most non-Christians think of Christianity as hypocritical and judgemental (among other things) because we have misrepresented God’s character by our lives and our words. We have become famous for what we’re against rather than Who we’re for. Just ponder that for a moment.
I would ask you, based upon what we learned in the research, to re-orient your thinking about people outside the Church. They are not your opponents. It is not an us-versus-them thing; it’s an us-versus-us crisis. People bearing the badge of Christ are often at the root of the problem. Yes, there are “mighty powers of darkness” that should motivate us to spiritual contention. But let’s look at three ways that the Christian community bears responsibility for cheapening the image of God.
Spiritual Apathy – Lazy Christianity is devastating because it undermines the compelling difference Christ makes in people’s lives. the vast majority of Americans are in this predicament: they call themselves Christians, but comparatively few have been transformed by that faith. Their lives are no different than the “average” American. Their Christian faith is a dusty trophy sitting on a shelf somewhere in a cluttered life.
The scope of this problem is huge. Out research suggests that seven out of every eight self-identified Christians and three out of every four born again Christians are dealing with significant levels of spiritual apathy. As an example: less than one in every 10 churched families spends any time in a typical month in spiritual pursuits in the home, aside from praying at mealtimes. So, when non-believers come in contact with a “Christian,” the chances are good that they will come away with an apathetic, uninspiring, and theologically scrambled impression of what it means to be a Christ follower.
Spiritual Arrogance – The research points out that spiritually arrogant Christianity is also part of the problem that diminishes God’s reputation in our culture. In the interviews, non-Christians explained that they are offended by the assumption that people who are not part of the Christian faith are immoral. They feel threatened by Christian posturing as morally superior. And they often take offense at the terms we use to define them, such as “lost” and “non-believers” – the implicit message of our terminology being that those outside of churches are no spiritually minded.
In a stunning but strategic maneuver of Satan, the people who are most susceptible to spiritual arrogance are the very ones who are least likely to be spiritually lazy. In other words, among the most biblically thinking and functioning believers in the country, much of their effort is undercut by a lack of love. This means that the ones who can best communicate the answers that Jesus provides are often neutralized by their own pride.
Self-absorption – Our research among non-Christians also shows that their perception is that Christians feel the world revolves around them. For instance, Christians sometimes complain about being a persecuted minority in America – that they are misrepresented in the media and other venues. While there may be some truth to this view, cries of abuse don’t help non-Christians (who really are a minority) feel more endeared to a faith which draws allegiance from four out of five Americans and that continues to operate with significant opportunities in this country. Non-Christians believe our grumpiness is a reflection of an inflated sense of self-importance. In their view, the nation’s most dominant religion – the big faith on the block – shouldn’t have (or need) special treatment. Besides, they feel as though Christians consistently misunderstand and mischaracterize them, so what’s the big deal?
Another reason why non-Christians believe we are self-absorbed is that our efforts to share Christ often come across as insincere and one-sided. Here’s a remarkable thought: How do you feel when Mormons come to your door? Do you believe that they are genuinely interested in you as a person – or do you believe they would very much like to see you convert? Do you feel that they really listen to what you have to say or do they pretty much have an agenda for their visit? Well, guess what? That’s not far from the reputation we have among those outside the Christian faith. We have to take a long, honest look at our approach to spiritual conversations: are we operating out of a pure spirit to help people find the living Christ – or does our concern for others come with a not-so-hidden agenda, another notch in the convert belt?
There are no simple solutions or easy way out of the hot water we’re in. But here are some guidelines for re-engaging people outside the church and reframing the Christian way of life. The first thing is to remember what our goal is not: popularity. Being well-liked doesn’t make Christians more effective. Working harder, saying the right words, and trying the right combination of things doesn’t help us break through to more souls. What does? Being more in tune with God’s desires and His passion for people.
Instead, our main goal should be life transformation, molding people into the types of disciples Jesus shines though. This is easy to articulate, but very tough to do. Our research shows that transformation rarely happens through brief interactions, but through life-on-life modeling over a long period of time.
Next, you should realize that creativity is vitally important to the future of our faith. One of the undercurrents of non-Christians’ perceptions of Christianity is indifference. It has no relevance. Good or bad, they simply don’t care. But, for most of them, it’s not for a lack of hearing the message of Christ. They have heard it, most of them, before. But the message never sank in; it had neither gravity nor buoyancy, neither humanity nor divinity. That’s why creativity becomes so crucial in telling the story of the Christian faith – not just through hyped-up presentations or slick, well- run church services – but through honest people trying to tell the story of Christ’s death and resurrection in remarkably relevant ways. If God has given you a passion for trying something new – maybe in your church, perhaps outside of it – keep pursuing that vision. It’s not a mistake that you’re feeling that way.
Finally, take stock of your own context. God wants to shape you into the best possible servant of His kingdom. If you want to reflect His glory brightly, He will show where to apply the polish.
  • Are there ways in which you are enabling spiritual laziness to exist in your life, your family’s life or in your church?
  • Has spiritual pride or self-absorption crept into your faith?
  • Do you use language or phrases about people outside of Christianity that are demeaning and judgmental?
  • What steps do you take to understand other people when you meet them – not just their spiritual journey and needs, but everything about their life?
  • How much leverage do you give the Holy Spirit to show you blind spots in your life?
  • Are you defined by what you oppose or Who you’re for? It’s easy to claim we are motivated by our love for Jesus – but how would other people describe you? In their view, do your words and actions help or hurt God’s reputation?
  • Is your life or your church a place where only perfect people are welcome?
  • Since Scripture has the special ability to cut through us, what parts of the Bible are you rolling around in your brain regarding God’s fame and how he wants us to treat others? How does Jesus react to people? Spiritually needy individuals? Prideful people?

We cannot ignore the poor reputation of our faith. You probably already had a sense of this problem. If not, I hope this article spurred your realization of the challenges that we face. And I hope it catalyzes your search for solutions in your life and ministry.

It is easy to live a spiritually lazy life, harder still to catalyze people to true spiritual maturation and transformation. It is cheap excuse to complain that Christians are mistreated at the hands of the culture at large; it is much more difficult to make sacrifices for and serve that culture. Slowly succumbing to pride is a path of minimal resistance compared to humbly measuring our heartbeat every day by God’s standards.

But, then, God is pleased when we accomplish big things that increase His fame in our time. Are you up to the challenge?


4 Responses

  1. What a way to return…I will return soon (hence the short response).

  2. yes

  3. Great post. You mentioned Barna a lot did you read Revolution I have been meaning to read it, when it first came out I thought it would be crappy but have been having secound thoughts about it (due to several good books quoting from it) and have been meaning to give it a read.

  4. I’m confused as to why I did not read this earlier. This is everything we’ve been talking about for the past few months.

    I’m not quite sure creativity is going to be the answer though. It certainly would help, but it’s an uphill battle vs. the Moll Flander’s and the Bill O’Reilly’s representing the Christian image in the big picture.

    His point about leading by example is important because for those who truly feel lost that’s the easiest way to feel any sort of security. But it’s a whole other story to go from a follower to a believer…to a follower of Christ. I think that middle ground is where the church, the faith, and even myself are at a loss for an answer.

    I don’t think you can generalize the experience of being, or becoming a Christian…and I think that’s another big problem. It always seems like there’s this general plan to spreading God’s word. It’s such a personalized experience, and so much of it is up to the individual that for Christians as a group they fail to realize that what comes natural to them won’t come natural to everyone. And I say all of this as a person on the outside looking in.

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