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.
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. One reason younger people say I like Jesus but not the church is they 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.