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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.

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