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3 Stereotypes of Christians (And How to Change Them)

3 Stereotypes of Christians

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 stereotypes of Christians 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 arrogantly claims all other religions are wrong.

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.

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 stereotypes of Christians.

Communicate how your church is organized and why you practice your faith in this way, its basis in Scripture. 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.

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.