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Overcoming unChristian Branding

By David Kinnaman

We had just received the final data and report for the church. We were wrapping up the conference call with the church’s leaders.

During this hour-long phone call, we discussed the research we had conducted on the church’s behalf. Research is not a panacea, but it can help discover what opportunities and challenges await a congregation.

I had spent several months doing a highly customized study of people who lived in the area surrounding the church. This was a prominent megachurch. It held a strong influence in the community because of its size, history, and leaders.

But people in the community had told our interviewers that the church came across as arrogant. They believed the church was out of step with the needs of the community.

The leaders of the church did not see their church as arrogant. They said the reason for their negative branding was their “strong emphasis on teaching the truth.” One of the church’s leaders quickly added that the local newspaper had recently featured several articles that were critical of the church.

For a minute, I almost bought it. Churches are often misunderstood, I thought. Given the spiritual dimension of our work, it is easy for people to portray the church incorrectly. The world, one might say, has a vested interest in getting our message wrong. Jesus even promised that a broken world would criticize our efforts as Christians.

Yet, the story does not end there.

A Twist

By the end of the conference call, the same group of advisors and staff proved that the arrogant label might fit after all. After the conference call, I found myself agreeing with that assessment. Why is that?

The research showed that the people in the community expressed a clear set of physical and spiritual needs. During the call, however, the church deflected that ministry opportunity among the economically downscaled. One church leader closed the door on that discussion by saying: “We already have programs for that group. You know, we just feel like we’re … well, we’re concerned about those people being too dependent on our church.”

Excuse me, poor people too dependent?

During the conference call we also discussed working with other churches in the area. The research indicated an opportunity for the church to partner with other congregations to help serve the area and unite local believers. Their response: “We tried that. But our members just were not happy about it. Other churches were just too different from ours. I don’t think that will fly here.”

What? Partnership with other believers will not fly?

Toward the end of the call, one of the men clarified the objective of the research with this comment: “We are mostly concerned about how we can launch another campus on the other side of town … using satellite technology or whatever. You know, the multisite campus movement. For us, that’s the main thing we were looking for from this research.”

Frankly, I was stunned by the progression of the conference call. I sensed the same lack of humility that people in the community had identified. Had the community or had the journalists who wrote about the church misunderstood the church? Perhaps on some level; but in a real way, the outside observers had hit a raw nerve. They were more accurate than the church leaders were willing to admit.

Research is like a mirror. But the church’s spiritual guides were not willing to look at the reality of their reflection.

An Image Problem?

I use this story for a reason. I do not intend to disparage this church (which I have intentionally not identified). I describe this episode to point out how often Christians are self-absorbed and unaware of their own image. Christians often lose sight of the reality of how they come across to people.

In fact, we are like this more than we realize. Paul uses an apt metaphor when writing to the early Christian community (2 Corinthians 3:2): “You yourselves are our letter … known and read by everybody.”

When someone reads your life — or your church — what does it say? When you encounter negative press — either specifically concerning your church or about Christianity in general — what does this tell you? How do you respond — defensively, or with graciousness and willingness to learn?

Part of dealing with negative press is to understand where it comes from, how people derive their image of you. In ministering to a skeptical culture, we need to fully grasp why people are skeptical. In proclaiming truth to a secular society, we need to admit that our flaws often obscure the Truth we seek to represent.

After all, if our world is not what it ought to be, maybe we need to be the first to acknowledge that we are partly responsible.

This admission goes to the heart of my most recent research. Christianity has an image problem. People on the outside are quick to point out the gaps between what we say we believe and how we live. A new generation of Americans is putting more distance between themselves and the Christian faith. People are expressing more hostility, doubt, frustration, and skepticism toward Christianity. This is especially true among young people. They perceive Christians as judgmental, hypocritical, and grabbing for political power.

A Compelling Witness

Percent of non-Christians who say
(16 to 29)

Millions of non-Christians (and many Christians as well) believe Christians have made homosexuality worse than other sins. In fact, we recently discovered that most senior pastors believe that Christians have not exhibited enough love in addressing homosexuality. Although Scripture is clear that same-sex relationships are immoral, it is a complicated issue, one in which Christians have often received negative publicity.

Furthermore, young non-Christians also conclude that Christianity is old-fashioned, boring, and unintelligent. They contend that Christians are insincere and too focused on making converts. They believe the followers of the Prince of Peace are unable to live peaceably with others.

These may sound like harsh statements, but they spring from extensive research we have conducted with Americans, and especially with young adults and teens who are not Christians. Whether we like it or not, these negative views are fixed in the minds of young people in our culture. In just a decade, the perception of evangelicals has become eight times less favorable among young non-Christians when compared to the image held by Boomer non-Christians.

We may not like these realities, but we need to consider what people think.

A Bad Brand?

Negative publicity. A bad brand. How do church leaders need to deal with these problems? First, they need to keep in mind how prevalent this problem is. This is not a new problem. People have misunderstood and ridiculed Christians for centuries. Nevertheless, it is worse than ever in America, especially in the wake of movies, books, magazines, television and Internet news, and other pop culture sources. These are quick to berate, ridicule, and criticize Christianity.

Second, as Christians, we need to understand that the negative press we receive is often a result of our own unChristian attitudes and behaviors. You might call it unChristian press — image problems of our own making.

These perception problems result from our not living up to what Jesus asks of us. It is worse than simply being flawed; we are deluded enough to ignore our flaws. Our spiritual intentions cloak the fact we are pursuing them through unChristian methods. Our hearts are cracked — even as leaders. We begin to believe that our own accomplishments pave the way for future success, with or without God’s blessing. Paul puts it in strong language (Galatians 3:3): “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?”

It is easy to blame the big names — the unscrupulous televangelists. But high-profile leaders do not single-handedly create the Christian community’s reputation. Every one of us — 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 offhanded, 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 from you?

I 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 struggled with that lifestyle. I am ashamed of these memories — and others like them — when my behavior stole away a sliver of God’s great fame.

All have contributed to this image problem. All have facilitated an image of Christianity defined by what it is against rather than whom we are for.

Steps To Take

Where do Christians need to go from here? What steps can they take to help deal with negative imagery in the marketplace? Here are some practical applications.

First, Christians need to properly distinguish between persecution and criticism. American Christians are much too willing to claim persecution for mild to moderate criticism. The consequence? Christians are often misguided in what they are trying to achieve. They try to minimize discomfort. They attempt to polish their image. Ironically, they claim not to care what people think, but end up being slaves to their reputations. They miss the fact suffering helps them identify with Christ. It also gives them opportunity to provide a winsome answer for the hope they have in Jesus.

We do not always need to agree with our critics to see they are right about many things. Pastors need to help Christians understand that when people criticize them, it presents them with an opportunity — in fact, a blessing (Matthew 5:10–12) — not a red badge of courage. Persecution should drive us to give more of ourselves away, not to batten down the hatches.

Second, Christians need to pay attention to their cultural setting. This is not the first-century church, nor is it the predigital, modernistic 1900s. Things are quickly changing around us — socially, culturally, technologically, and attitudinally. We can feel threatened by many of these shifts. Nevertheless, we need to understand how the Christian tradition has influenced this country — both for good and for ill.

In a country where 83 percent of the population identify themselves as Christians, the American church is dealing with significant spiritual apathy, arrogance, and self-absorption. Young people are rightly rejecting some embarrassing elements of our self-righteous subculture. Are you helping them disavow the cultural Christianity, spiritual consumerism, and easy-bake materialism that prevent most rich Americans from penetrating the hole on a needle?

Third, Christian leaders need to help people in their churches understand their role as missionaries. They are agents of healing and restoration to a broken world, wherever they serve.

This project changed me as a researcher. One of the most personally challenging insights came when I realized how little I understood what it means to be a missionary to a cracked culture. It is much easier to be offended than to be provoked into making a difference. I find it much more natural to talk about sin than to assist people affected by sin.

I would ask you, based on what we learned in this research, to help reorient believers’ thinking about people outside the church. They are not opponents. Whether broken, flawed, arrogant, obnoxious, or offensive, it does not matter. These people are not enemies of Christianity. It is not an us-versus-them battle; it is an us-versus-us crisis.

As Christ followers, we affirm that the world is not what it ought to be — and we need to confess our part of the problem. Are you cultivating fear and loathing among churchgoers? Or are you nurturing people who are godly, thoughtful, responsible, and responsive to the out-of-sync world around them?

Creating the Future

Reaching non-Christians does not have a simple solution. There are some important guidelines for re-engaging people outside the church and reframing the Christian way of life. First, we need to remember that our goal is not popularity.

Being well liked does not make a Christian more effective. Working harder, saying the right words, and trying the right combination of things do not help us reach more people. Instead, nurture creativity in your ministry efforts because without it your ability to penetrate people’s hearts and minds will wane.

One of the undercurrents of non-Christians’ perceptions of Christianity is indifference. The faith has no relevance. They are losing their interest and becoming more resistant to a church’s overtones. In fact, traditional church-marketing efforts — from advertising to personal invitations — are less effective than ever. But for most people outside the faith, it is not for a lack of hearing the gospel. Most of them have heard it before. The message, however, never sank in; it had neither gravity nor buoyancy, neither humanity nor divinity. It did not stick.

This is why creativity becomes so crucial in telling the story of relationship to a living God — not through slick designs or hip sermon titles — but through honest people telling the story of Christ’s death and resurrection in relevant ways. If God has given you a passion for trying something new, keep pursuing that vision.

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

It is easy to live a spiritually lazy life, but harder still to catalyze people to spiritual maturation and transformation. It is a cheap excuse to complain that the culture mistreats Christians; 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.

God is pleased when we accomplish things that increase His fame in our time. Jesus highlighted similar goals (Matthew 5:16): “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

Perceptions Matter

Maybe you do not know what to make of what is happening in today’s society. One thing is certain: unChristian branding will affect your life and ministry. If the current trajectory is not changed, the size and influence of non-Christians in American society will likely grow. Without major changes in direction, the culture will struggle to see Jesus in the efforts and language of Christians.

The negative perceptions about Christianity will only deepen. These views will continue to barricade people from Jesus. Parents in outsider homes will raise their children to despise or disregard Christians — largely because they have never known any real Christ followers.

On the other hand, true Christ followers will find it increasingly difficult to have open and respectful conversations because people inside and outside the church will dredge up Christian stereotypes rather than engage in heartfelt conversations about real issues. Christians and outsiders will speak different languages; they will struggle to find common ground.

Evangelicals and other conservative Christians will need to make tough decisions about whether they are loyal to the evangelical label — a term that is not in the Bible — or to the beliefs and convictions that undergird it. This term has become an emotional and spiritual barrier to millions of outsiders.

Another probable, if unfortunate, outcome is that some conservative Christians will become even more entrenched, defensive, and strident. They will become more aggressive in buttressing Christianity against what they (sometimes correctly, sometimes incorrectly) perceive as attacks on the faith. They will become increasingly marginalized, undermining their efforts to reach new people with the gospel. The gap between non-Christians and theologically conservative Christians will grow, making it harder to connect with certain groups in America’s fragmented mission field.

Pastoral ministry in the next 10 to 20 years will be a great deal different from what it was in the past. People will come to pastors with an intense load of previous experiences and deep hurts. They do not want a pastor to scold them; they want help and empathy.

As an oncologist must correctly diagnose and treat cancer, churches must have a team of people who pray, counsel, and guide people through their frustrations. If pastors ignore this baggage at the time people are open to dealing with it, they will have failed these people spiritually.

Those who do come to churches will increasingly come from a Christian background, while fewer people on the distant side of the religious spectrum — non-Christians, atheists, and others — will be open to the Christian thing. Outsiders’ will grow even more skeptical of a pastor’s motives and interest in them. Even insiders will question their allegiance to the congregation, finding new arenas to express their faith, as their resentment builds toward the unChristian faith.

On its current collision course, the cold war between Christians and outsiders is likely to deepen. Christians will face more hostility when dealing with those outside Christianity, especially in business, education, and politics, as well as in the arts, media, and entertainment. It will grow more fashionable — even justifiable — to disparage and dismiss Christians.

Research is like a mirror. Will the church — will pastors — look at the brutal reality of the reflection?

Neil B. Wiseman

DAVID KINNAMAN, Ventura, California, is president of Barna Group. Check out more about the firm’s research and cultural insight at www.barna.org.

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