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3 Stereotypes of Christians (And How to Change Them)

stereotypes of Christians

Today’s non-Christian 20- and 30-somethings are big fans of Jesus but are less thrilled with His followers and the churches where they worship. Pastor/author Dan Kimball reveals their most common stereotypes of Christians and the Church, what they wish church was like—and why you should be listening to these emerging voices.

Every now and then, we experience an epiphany of some sort that drastically changes our life’s course. For me, it’s an extremely vivid memory of what happened when I took the time to step outside the busyness of ministry and listened to some college students from what was known to be one of the more anti-Christian campuses in California. It was these “pagan” students who gave me such incredible hope for the Church.

I was leading a young adults’ ministry we had recently started at the church I was on staff with at the time, and occasionally during worship gatherings, we showed man-on-the-street video interviews to set up the sermon. For an upcoming message series on evangelism, we decided to go to this college campus to interview students and hear firsthand their thoughts about Christianity. We asked two questions: “What do you think of when you hear the name ‘Jesus’?” and “What do you think of when you hear the word ‘Christian’?”

When they answered the first question, the students smiled and their eyes lit up. We heard comments of admiration such as, “Jesus is beautiful,” “He is a wise man, like a shaman or a guru,” “He came to liberate women.” One girl even said, “He was enlightened. I’m on my way to becoming Christian.”

What an incredible experience! These students on the very campus I kept hearing was so “pagan” talked about Jesus with great passion. However, when we asked the second question, the mood shifted. We heard stereotypes of Christians like, “Christians and the Church have messed things up,” and “The Church took the teachings of Jesus and turned them into dogmatic rules.” One guy said, “Christians don’t apply the message of love that Jesus gave,” then jokingly added, “They all should be taken out back and shot.”

Now, I realize you could quickly dismiss these stereotypes of Christians—“They may like some things about Jesus, but they obviously don’t know about His judgment and teaching on sin and repentance.” That may be true, but what’s important, and so haunting, is that these students were so open to Jesus. Yet, they didn’t at all like what they have equated and understood to be “Church” and “Christianity.” They definitely liked Jesus, but they did not like the Church.

Inside the Church Office Bubble

After those interviews, I did a lot of thinking about the polarity of the responses to the two questions. Something important to note is that only two of the 16 students interviewed even knew any Christians personally. So most of those students had based their impressions of the Church on church leaders they saw in the media or on the more aggressive street evangelists passing out tracts and holding up signs. They hadn’t been in a friendship or relationship with a Christian to know any different from the stereotypes of Christians.

As I thought about it even more, I had another pretty horrifying revelation. I looked at my own life and schedule and realized I, too, wasn’t building friendships with those outside the church. My schedule had become consumed with church meetings, and when I wasn’t in a meeting, I was in my office or at home preparing for the Sunday sermon. Even my social time was spent only with Christians, usually key leaders in the church. Yes, I had casual acquaintances with non-Christians, like the auto mechanic I saw on occasion. And yes, I was involved in local compassion projects our church did when we went out and fed the homeless. But those weren’t actual friendships. I wasn’t hanging out with them on a regular basis. I wasn’t having them over for dinner or going to movies with them like I did in my friendships with Christians.

And as I talked with numerous other pastors and our church staff, as well as Christians who worked outside the church, I realized that we were all doing the same thing. We were all immersed in this strange Christian Bubble.

No wonder 14 of the 16 students we’d interviewed didn’t know any Christians. All the Christians were too busy going to the myriad of church activities, meetings, and Christian concerts that we as church leaders scheduled for them. We were so busy staying in Christian “community” that we had become isolated in our own subculture. It started making sense why those outside the Church got their istereotypes of Christians primarily from the media and aggressive street evangelists.

What They Think About the Church

When I realized that I had become part of this Christian Bubble and subculture, I knew I had to escape it. But to do so required me to make some significant decisions about my weekly schedule. I re-scheduled my various staff meetings for Mondays and Tuesdays in the church office. But on Wednesdays and Thursdays, I studied for sermons and held other meetings in a local coffeehouse (not Christian) instead of the church office.

Over time, as I built trust with the coffeehouse “regulars,” and especially the baristas, I was able to engage in conversations with them and ask a lot of questions. Surprisingly, it wasn’t difficult at all to discuss religion, Jesus, and Church. They were actually very willing to talk about their views and beliefs—but it required me to listen instead of doing all the talking (like many of us are used to doing).

See page two for Dan’s list of stereotypes of Christians