Our Image Problem

THE FOLLOWING IS AN EXCERPT FROM THE BOOK UNBELIEVABLE: EXAMINING THE UNLIKELY BEAUTY OF THE CHRISTIAN STORY

It doesn’t seem very loving of God to send people to hell. We should acknowledge the truth of that. To our secular neighbors, this line of the creed makes our God seem unreasonable and vindictive. What kind of father submits his children to torture when he could save them? Isn’t forgiveness always unilateral? Doesn’t it stop being forgiveness if we have to jump through religious or behavioral hoops to earn it? And doesn’t the whole idea of accepting forgiveness fall apart when we consider those who never get the chance?

These are not combative questions; they are good questions. They are the kinds of questions one would expect from someone thinking deeply and searching honestly for truth. Certainly, these questions can be asked in aggressive ways, but hard questions don’t always mask antagonism. As people of faith, we have to stop assuming that they do. We have to welcome hard questions. We have to give their askers the benefit of the doubt. We have to show patience and love in the answering. Because the manner in which we provide answers matters as much as the answers we provide.  

This is an important concept for modern Christians to grasp. Our response to hard questions is only partly composed of what we say. The most compelling part of our response to disparate worldviews is nonverbal.  

The great philosopher of communication Marshall McLuhan famously said, “the medium is the message.” He meant that the manner in which content is delivered affects the meaning of the content itself. So the sentence, “We just want a better life for our children,” can carry very different meanings coming from a rural Canadian mother carrying her son’s hockey gear, and a Iranian Muslim jihadist hoisting an assault rifle. The same is true for us. Our message — the gospel of love, forgiveness and freedom — cannot be separated from our image.

And we have an image problem.  

In 2012, Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman released a book called unChristian in which they revealed disheartening research. When American adults are asked for their impressions of Christians, the most common descriptors were anti-homosexual, judgmental, hypocritical, and too political. Among unbelievers aged sixteen to twenty-nine (millennials), a whopping ninety-one percent thought Christians were anti- homosexual, eighty-seven percent said we were judgmental, and eighty-five percent called us hypocritical.  Later research from the same team revealed that forty-five percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans agree with the statement, “Christianity is extremist.” 

Those numbers reflect a failure on the part of the church. Not a warning or a jeremiad. A loss. Those numbers are a final score. We have lost the game. We don’t need a Hail Mary; we need to go back to the practice field and regroup.  

John 1:14 says Jesus came from the Father, full of grace and truth. In our efforts to represent him to our secular neighbors, we have failed to embody both aspects of Jesus’ character. Too often, we have settled for truth without grace; for being right without being compassionate.  

But this failure is compounded when we keep calling the same plays — when we fail to understand how we sound to secular ears. When we keep trying to win this round with the same playbook rather than taking our loss and researching a new game plan. We need a new approach to dialogue with unbelievers.