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6 Common Perceptions 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 six most common perceptions 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 things 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 comments—“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.

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 impressions 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).

Now when I travel, I try to find a local coffeehouse where I can listen, observe, and talk to people. Eventually, the conversation comes around to their thoughts on Jesus and the Church. I hear the same comments everywhere I go. No one ever says, “The Church is after your money,” or “The sermons are irrelevant,” as you might expect. Rather, the six most common perceptions of the Church among post-Christian 20- and 30-somethings include:

  1. The Church is an organized religion with a political agenda.
  2. The Church is judgmental and negative.
  3. The Church is dominated by males and oppresses females.
  4. The Church is homophobic.
  5. The Church arrogantly claims all other religions are wrong.
  6. The Church is full of fundamentalists who take the whole Bible literally.

While it’s essential that we as church leaders thoroughly explore all six of these perceptions and listen to what these emerging voices identify as barriers to putting faith in Jesus and becoming part of a church community, I want to focus on three that seem to be especially prevalent in our current culture—and in my conversations with non-Christians.


Perception No. 1: The ‘Organized Religion’ Barrier

I can’t count how many times I’ve heard “organized religion” used to describe the Church. But there are specific reasons why people see the Church as organized religion and feel they don’t need it: I can relate to God without the structure. I rarely talk to anyone who’s not seeking “God.” But emerging generations don’t see “church” as the place to explore who He is. Instead, they understand and strongly believe that they can pray to a caring and personal God without being in a church. They also fear the church will try to control how they dress and act and organize their faith the way the leaders think it should be patterned.

The Church is about hierarchy, power, and control with a political agenda. Emerging generations have a strong sense that most churches are all right-winged fundamentalist and everyone in the church is expected to vote a certain way. While we may know that most churches don’t have political agendas, the impression on the outside is that most do. The Church is filled with leaders who function like CEOs and desire power and control. Think about the titles of your staff—senior pastor, associate pastor, executive pastor, executive assistant—all throwbacks to the ’80s when churches began applying business principles to their infrastructure and using some of the business world’s language and metaphors. To baby boomers, this made sense. But in our emerging culture, language like this can come across as very unlike Jesus. Alicia, a 24-year-old that I talk with at the local coffeehouse, made this observation: Church leaders seem to focus more on acting like businessmen, raising funds to build bigger buildings for their own organized religious corporations, than they do on taking the time to teach about social action for the poor and marginalized. I think Jesus would’ve cared more about raising money for the poor than building yet another mini-mall church. I fully understand and believe in the need for building new, well-equipped church buildings. But put yourself in an outsider’s shoes who doesn’t know the hearts of the pastors and church leaders and only sees elaborate buildings on large campuses. So those are three main reasons why “organized religion” is often a barrier to this group. And while you may be inclined to dismiss their reasons because they aren’t actually accurate, remember this is how we are being perceived to those on the outside. It’s important to listen to and address their perceptions. I believe there are several things we can do to dispel the “organized religion” stereotype.

Communicate how your church is organized and why you practice your faith in this way, its basis in Scripture, etc. Explain that a church is like a family and all healthy families do need “organization.” Communicating this and not letting the “organization” strangle the life out of your church is key.

Be aware of your biases. I’m convinced that emerging generations are open to hearing hard things that go against today’s culture. We shouldn’t be afraid to share how Jesus said some strong things about what sin is and the need for repentance. However, be careful how much your personal biases and opinions slip into your preaching. Avoid saying, “Jesus thinks this…” when you really don’t know what He thinks, subtly using God and Jesus to back your opinions about various social or political issues that aren’t clear in Scripture.

Evaluate your titles for church leaders and the number of hoops people have to jump through to meet with them. If you’re using titles such as senior or executive pastor, have you ever paused to ask why and what that communicates?

Listen to the younger voices. We need to not only make it easier for young people to be involved in our churches, we also need to show them that they’re needed in all areas—not just isolated in youth and young adult ministries. They need to know that we respect their opinions on the direction of the entire church. Make sure your board has one or two younger elders, and set up a leadership training structure to include people of all ages.

Perception No. 2: Judgmental and Negative

Recently, I was in the airport when I spotted a young man in his 20s wearing a black T-shirt with the word “INTOLERANT” in large white letters across the front. Below the word, the shirt read, “Jesus says…” My first thought was Uh-oh. Written across the back of the shirt in big, bold letters was: “Islam is a lie! Homosexuality is sin! Abortion is murder!” You could see people rolling their eyes, thinking, Those Christians…they’re pretty messed up and angry.

The whole experience reminded me of how essential it is to understand that even if we are expressing truth, how we express it is extremely critical. In my interviews and conversations with post-Christian 20- and 30-somethings, this kind of negative impression of the Church surfaced repeatedly. Besides T-shirts like the one I just described, this unflattering perception stems from a gamut of observations and experiences: Christians protesting with large signs telling people they’re going to hell, seeing Christians on television crediting God for natural disasters to punish sinners, and being approached by Christians who put people on the defensive and invade their privacy.

Why is it that we in the Church focus on the negatives? Why do people on the outside know us only for what we stand against? Perhaps the main question we should be asking ourselves is how do we address this misperception that’s keeping thousands of people from the Church and from Christ?

Teach how and when to talk about sin. I’m convinced that people in emerging generations actually want to be informed about Jesus and His teachings, even the ones that require repentance and change. But our approach makes all the difference. If we go around pointing out people’s sins, the reaction will usually be negative. But if we share how we can become more loving and more like Jesus by changing in certain ways, then it’s often accepted as a positive thing.

Focus more on what we stand for. Those who like Jesus but not the Church see Him as one who stood up for the poor and oppressed. Scripture mandates that His churches follow Christ’s instruction to care for “the least of these.” By doing so, we also earn the respect of those outside the Church. They are also looking for a church that expresses love and “does not judge” as Jesus taught.

I am part of a team that planted Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California, and over the past three years, I’ve noticed a pattern in people when they come to our church for the first few times. More often than not, they aren’t asking about the specifics of our doctrinal statement or denominational distinction. Instead, they ask: What is your church doing for the poor? How are you responding to the AIDS pandemic? How is caring for each other and those in the community a real part of the life of your church? What’s the attitude of the church leaders toward those who don’t believe everything they do? Post-Christian emerging generations are watching to see if Jesus’ Church is taking the care of the marginalized and being a loving versus negative community as seriously as Jesus did.

Teach your church to break out of the Christian Bubble. As leaders, we can use preaching and the example of our own lives to teach people in our churches that their attitudes impact those outside the Church. Unless we’re creating cultures in our church in which people see themselves as missionaries in their day-to-day worlds, unless we’re challenging Christians to break out of the Christian Bubble and start listening to the hearts and cries of people around them, only the loudest, often-negative voices in the Church will be heard.


Perception No. 5: ‘All Other Religions Are Wrong!’

It may sound hard to believe, but I’ve found that most people of different faiths and those who believe all paths lead to God are actually willing to open the Bible and engage in positive conversations about exclusive passages claiming Jesus is the only way to God. Yet before we can have those conversations, we have to build relationships and understand other faiths well enough to talk about them intelligently and compassionately. So to be effective missionaries in our emerging culture, what do we need to understand about where people are coming from?

Our culture is post-Christian. About a year ago, I watched an episode of a popular TV sitcom in which the family was arguing over which religion a new baby would be dedicated in. The father wanted the baby baptized, the mother wanted a Hindu ceremony, and the grandparents wanted a Jewish bris. In the end, they compromised and did all three.

That episode represents where we are today. In my experience talking to people of other faiths, most aren’t steadfastly committed to any one specific religion. Instead, they appreciate all faiths and hold to a more mixed personal belief system. So I don’t think emerging generations are all becoming hard-core Buddhists or Wiccans. Most don’t study any one specific religion too deeply, but they still have an overall pluralistic belief in God. They are aware of global faiths, and most think everyone should believe what they want to.

We need to develop a basic understanding of world faiths. While we don’t have to become experts, as leaders we should acquire at least a basic understanding, so that when we teach in our churches and meet people of other faiths or those who hold a pluralistic view, we can talk intelligently about other religions. A basic knowledge shows people of other faiths that we respect and are interested in their beliefs enough to do some homework. It also helps counter the impression that all Christians are dogmatic and close-minded.

Train your church to understand world faiths. I know of one church that devoted five weeks in its main worship gathering to learning about world religions, even inviting individuals from various faiths to come and be interviewed. Whatever you do, whether it’s a weeknight class or a focus in the worship gatherings, the important thing is to train and prepare your people to live with the right heart and attitudes in our pluralistic culture. More than just offering information about other faiths, how we respond to and talk about them in our churches is absolutely critical.

Can your congregation explain why not all paths lead to God? People in emerging generations are open to discussing this truth. But they’re looking for conversation, not a lecture, and facts, not rhetoric. Simply quoting a Bible verse and smugly saying, “Case closed,” will only alienate them. Despite what you read and hear about our relativistic world, when you logically and gently lay out the facts before someone who’s interested in your opinion, there is actually great response. Most people have never really thought about the implications of what it means when they say, “All paths lead to God.”

Changing the Perceptions

The more I listen to those outside the Church, the more I realize that we in the Church need to be prepared to respond to these perceptions. Now more than ever before, we should be thinking—and equipping others to think—deeper theologically because people outside the Church are asking questions that require it.

While the comments of the “pagan” students I mentioned at the beginning could be depressing, I think they’re actually hopeful. These students are open to Jesus. Perhaps we live in times when we need to refocus our discussion with people on Jesus. But that requires us to break out of the cozy Christian Bubble—or church office—and be in relationship with them. It also requires us to create new understandings of the Church, so that we’ll no longer be seen as a negative, judgmental, homophobic, organized religion that oppresses women and thinks all other religions are wrong. Instead, we’ll be perceived as a loving and welcoming family that’s a positive agent of change, holds women in the highest respect, and has a regard for other beliefs.

I firmly believe that as leaders responsible for teaching our congregants, we can begin to change these perceptions and show post-Christian 20- and 30-somethings that church is vital to their lives. What I think most people mean when they say, “I like Jesus but not the Church,” is that they like Jesus, but they don’t like what people have turned the Church into. We need to explain that if they truly like Jesus, then they cannot help but also like the Church because it’s His Church and His bride. They need the Church because it’s the expression of Jesus as His body.

May those who like Jesus but not the Church understand the Jesus of the Bible and the full, wonderful life that His life, death, and resurrection bring. And may they move from liking Jesus to loving Him, and from not liking the Church to loving it.   

by Dan Kimball
As a speaker, author, blogger, and founding pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California, Dan Kimball regularly engages with both church leaders and emerging generations. He has authored several books including The Emerging ChurchEmerging WorshipListening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches, and They Like Jesus but Not the Church.

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