Monday, September 28, 2009

An UnChristian Church...

I've mentioned here before how I grew up in the church. "If the church doors are open, we're there." was inscribed on the family coat of arms that hung above the fireplace, just below the swords and muskets. Ok, there was no coat of arms, but if there were... Being at church all the time shaped my view of Christianity very early. When I graduated HS, I got married and went to Bible College. Not too long after graduating there, I got my first 'real job' - in youth ministry, in the church. About 7 years after that, I moved to my second 'real job' - in youth ministry, in the church.

Being 'in the church' as long as I can remember has continued to shape my view of Christianity. I've always seen it from the inside. The church is my family. The church has been the environment where my greatest friendships have developed. I love the church. Even when the church misses the mark with crazy rules about where donuts and cupcakes belong, and with silly songs from the 70's, and with a deficiency of sugar in the VBS Kool-Aid... I will still love the church.

I just finished reading unchristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. Based on extensive research of people with a very different perspective, the book offered hard data to verify some of what I've noticed for a long time: A lot of people outside the church do not see what we should want them to see. At the risk of furthering misunderstanding, I will agree that "We have an image problem." When young people look at the church from the outside, they don't see God - and that is a problem that is not entirely their fault.

The subtitle of the book offers an explanation of what a new generation really thinks about Christianity... and why it matters. 10 years ago in my youth ministry, I determined that one of the biggest obstacles that I faced in trying to engage young people in the church was that many young people thought that church is boring. (To be fair, 'boring church' is all that many young people have ever encountered.) I have learned in my life that being connected and directed by the Holy Spirit of Jesus is anything but boring... so I determined to set about correcting that misconception. I still fight it, and will probably fight it until the day I die. Following Jesus is not boring... if the church is boring, you're not doing it right! {Note to students - I know I'm not the most exciting guy all the time, and I'm sorry for every moment I've ever bored you. Please dive deeper with me into Jesus and I promise HE will not bore either of us!}

When the young people I know think about the church, I want them to see Jesus. I want them to know the living, breathing Body of Christ that belongs to the mission of God. Unchristian is full of evidence that that's not what they see at all. I would like them to describe the church as compassionate and caring, loving and life-affirming, vibrant... Survey says... XXX

The most commonly used descriptions that Mosaics and Busters (the generations surveyed - generally between 16-29) used fell into 6 themes that are explored in the book:
-Hypocritical - Christians say one thing but live something entirely different.
-Too focused on conversion - Christians are insincere and concerned only with converting others.
-Anti-homosexual - Christians show contempt for gays and lesbians.
-Sheltered - Christians are boring, unintelligent, old-fashioned, and out of touch with reality.
-Too political - Christians are primarily motivated by a political agenda and promote right-wing politics.
-Judgmental - Christians are prideful and quick to find faults in others.

If "perception is reality", then this is a problem. Before you succumb to the knee jerk reaction, remember, these perceptions have come from somewhere. Real people have seen hypocritical Christians slam sinners, only to be revealed indulging in the very sins they railed against. Real people have felt like targets who were quickly dismissed by Christian 'friends' when it didn't look they'd convert. Real people have seen the churches holding 'God hates fags' signs - and rolled us all up into that same stereotype. This isn't always fair to all of us, but it's happening. And even if the perceptions are not true, we can't just let them persist... we have to give evidence that the perceptions are false.

Kinnaman and Lyons offer a great deal of hope for the future here. Each of the objections is buffered by a new reality - a new perception that we, the church, should work to create. We should be letting people see:
-"We are transparent about our flaws and act first, talk second."
-"We cultivate relationships and environments where others can be deeply transformed by God."
-"We show compassion and love to all people, regardless of their lifestyle."
-"We are engaged, informed, and offer sophisticated responses to the issues people face."
-"We are characterized by respecting people, thinking biblically, and finding solutions to complex issues."
-"We show grace by finding the good in others and seeing their potential to be Christ followers."

I hope you'll join me in revealing a church that is more like Jesus than many people are seeing right now. We can't just say it... we have to live it.

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