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3 Stereotypes of Christians (And How to Change Them)

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.

3: ‘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 these stereotypes of Christians?

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 Stereotypes of Christians

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 stereotypes of Christians. 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 stereotypes of Christians 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 stereotypes of Christians to loving thyem.


This article on stereotypes of Christians originally appeared in Outreach Magazine, and is used by permission. About the author: DanKimball.com 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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