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Kinnaman insists that our response to these complaints is not to toss out biblical truth:
Although outsiders don't always understand us, we have to be very careful about not tossing aside the biblical motivations that contribute to these perceptions. For instance, Christians are known as judgmental because we address sin and its consequences. Christians should be involved in politics because faith weaves itself into every aspect of our lives. Christians should identify homosexual behavior as morally unacceptable because that is what Scripture teaches. Christians should be pursuing conversations and opportunities that point people to Christ because we are representatives of life's most important message. And Christians should strive for purity and integrity even if that makes us appear sheltered.
But we still have to be mindful of the negative impressions unChristian Christianity has made on young people who are just starting to take their place as culture-shaping adults. Kinnaman said, "Like a corrupted computer file or bad photocopy, Christianity, they say, is no longer in pure form, and so they reject it." In fact, they are rejecting it in greater numbers than older adults. While about 25 percent of those over the age of 40 are outsiders to the faith, 33 percent of those in their 30s are part of this category and 40 percent of 16- to 29-year-olds do not consider themselves Christians. You can see that the trend is not going our way.
As I said, we're going to take a few editions of LeaderLines to look at the Barna Group's findings. Why? As Kinneman says:
Your church has to deal with the image of Christianity each time you send the mailing, in each instance of interacting with city officials, and every time you invite unchurched individuals to your church. If you are a professional working in other industries, such as science, education, the media, and so on, your job and your witness are affected by the image that people conjure up when they hear you are Christian.
Where have young people formed their negative impressions of Christianity? Did media have a role in their negative opinion of Christians? Only 9 percent of young outsiders said that Christianity has received a bad reputation from television and movies. I'd say that many of them are simply unaware of how media has, in fact, shaped their perceptions. Still, it's convicting to find that most of them say their negative perceptions of Christianity came through their own interaction with believers and our churches. According to the research into 16- to29-year-olds, "most have attended at least one church for several months; and nearly 9 out of every 10 say they know Christians personally, having about five friends who are believers."
So, non-believing young people say they're well acquainted with believers and with the churches believers attend. On the one hand, this means that Christians bear a lot of responsibility for the cynicism among young adults. On the other hand, it also means that we have relationships with nonbelievers that gives us a chance to change these negative images.
But only if we have the heart for it. And Kinneman says not every believer is ready for this: "Often outsiders' perceptions of Christianity reflect a church infatuated with itself. We discovered that many Christians have lost their heart for those outside the faith."
I hope that doesn't describe you. Carefully read the next few editions of LeaderLines and let's see what part we can play at removing unChristian Christianity from our ranks. Each week I'm going to post the current edition of LeaderLines on my weblog, Get Anchored. I hope you'll leave comments about your reaction to what we're discovering together.
LeaderLines is a weekly "e-briefing" providing valuable information and inspiration to those who serve at Hillcrest Baptist Church.