By Cheri Lynn Cowell
Recent national surveys by the Barna Group have determined the three most common perceptions of Christians today are anti-homosexual (an image held by 91 percent of young non-Christians), judgmental (87 percent), and hypocritical (85 percent).
In their seminal book, UnChristian (Baker, 2007), a summary of their three-year study of how Christians are perceived outside the church, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons state, “One of the surprising insights from our research is that the growing hostility toward Christians is very much a reflection of what outsiders feel they receive from believers. They [non-Christains] say their aggression simply matches the oversized opinion and ego of Christians.”
Whether we want to blame the media, a minority of Christians, or if we simply want to blame it on Satan, the truth remains; we are not viewed as those who are “one” with a loving, caring, and compassionate God. Today’s young adults (those under 30 years of age) are hungry for authenticity, making them especially sensitive to hypocrisy. If we want to change this negative perception, we cannot ignore the facts. In another Barna survey, 30 percent of born again Christians admitted that in the past 30 days they had engaged in some type of sexually inappropriate behavior
(including porn) or had an intimate sexual encounter outside of marriage.
This is compared with 35 percent of other Americans. For those on the outside looking in, these statistics don’t add up to the transformed lives we’re supposed to be living.
“The new generations are increasingly resistant to simplistic black-and-white views of the world,” Kinneman writes. What many Christians view as standing on principle or defending Christian values, those outside our faith view as judgmental and self-righteous.
Simply said, these young adults believe we are trying to justify feelings of moral and spiritual superiority when we condemn homosexuality, same-sex marriage, the pro-choice position, and when we seek to “save them” without really knowing them.
The Rub: Lukewarm Christianity
Christians cannot deny what the Bible teaches. In fact, we are warned against lukewarm Christianity in Revelation 3:15, 16: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
These words were written to a church in Laodicea, a wealthy textile and banking center. That God would prefer a cold Christian over and against a lukewarm Christian must have been shocking news. The question raised is one of allegiance. The Laodicean’s were serving two gods—the god of power and the one true God. As Jesus taught, no one can serve two masters (Luke 16:13). We cannot be both hot toward what brings us power and prestige and at the same time cold toward the things that warm God’s heart (the lost); hot mixed with cold equals lukewarm!
The question isn’t whether we will uphold the teachings of the Bible—we must! But if we want to reach the younger generation and not stand in the way of the gospel message, we need to become warm to the things that melt God’s heart. We must become more compassionate, more transformational, and more willing to engage culture rather than condemn it. This is what many are calling post-evangelical.
The State of Our Union
Rather than simply distrusting a sinful world, fear of contamination drove many so-called evangelicals to create a cultural parallel universe: Christian festivals, music, dating agencies, movies, comedy, computer games, and even aerobics. This was not bad, but it brought the unintended consequence of setting us “above” the world. Today, we’ve become so comfortable in our “Christian” world that we don’t even recognize how those outside our faith view our “otherness.” Thanks to recent research, we now know—and it is a wakeup call.
Post-evangelicals are defined as those who are heeding the call for a new approach to Christianity. They want to make their homes “in the world” where salt and light are most needed. This is more than inner-city missions; it’s becoming part of the fabric of everyday life in the city where one lives, and while there, in the day-in and day-out of life, looking for opportunities to be Christ’s hands and feet. It is messy, time-consuming, and difficult. It is costly. It requires allowing our hearts to be broken by the things that break God’s heart.
In Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture (Hendrickson, 2007), Michael Frost observes, “The death of Christendom [evangelicalism] removes the final props that have supported the culturally respectable, mainstream, suburban version of Christianity. . . . This version of Christianity is a façade, a method for practitioners to appear like fine, upstanding citizens without allowing the claims and teachings of Jesus to bite very hard at everyday life.” Christians who love and care about the church have a choice. We can bemoan the loss of our privileged evangelical status, or we can embrace the opportunity this provides us to live as exiles as God intended.
The Solution: Embracing Exile Status
From the call of Abraham, God’s people were told to “go.”
“The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you’” (Genesis 12:1).
They were told to leave all they knew and to go into a land where they would live as exiles. We are also to live as exiles—people of another kingdom called to live in this one. If we are to change the negative perceptions held by those outside the church, we need to learn the lessons of “exile living” found in the Bible.
First Lesson: Discipleship
First, we must acknowledge that for those of us called to live the truth, the Bible’s absolutes apply; they do not, however, apply to everyone. The Bible makes it clear that the truth is folly for those who do not know truth (1 Corinthians 1:18). And yet, we continually call the world to a standard for which it is not equipped. We are the ones called to conform to the one who calls us. Like the Israelites, we’ve been called to be different; to set ourselves apart from everyone else as God’s chosen. This is a call to radical discipleship—the difficult work of accountability and self-examination.
Discipleship done right leads to transformed lives. Transformed lives are set free from the bondage of sin, addiction, and hypocrisy. It is the very thing non-Christians are looking for as evidence that what we are peddling is real. At the same time, we must balance this high calling with the idea that set apart does not mean not a part of, as we’ve come to define it.
Second Lesson: Chosenness
This brings us to our second lesson: chosenness and conceit have grown so close that many confuse the two. First Peter 2:9 says, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (NIV, 1984). Nevertheless, this chosenness never meant better, superior, wiser, or more deserving, which is what the Barna survey revealed non-Christians see in our actions. On the contrary, Jewish chosenness brought a call to service and humility, the opposite of what non-Christians see in us. Young adults are right; we cannot pass judgment from our lofty perches. God, through the example set by Jesus, invites us to take off our cloaks, get down on our knees, and wash feet.
In fact, nowhere in the Bible do we hear God tell his chosen people to build a wall around their kingdom and never interact with those around them except to criticize and condemn. Yes, they were to be different, but then they were to live, uncorrupted, among those of other nations. By the way they lived and loved, they were to be witnesses to the God who is above all others—not followers who were above all others. In the life of Jesus we learn that it is by stooping, serving, and loving that those who are on the outside become insiders.
The saying is true: People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. And we might add, only then will they care to know who enables us to care so much. Only when we truly ache for those for whom the message of Jesus is muddled, even contorted, by the shrill voices coming from behind stained glass windows, will we embrace the call of the exile—the call of Jesus who left his throne to live among us—to live sacrificially as those chosen and set apart. Does your heart ache?
Cheri Lynn Cowell is a freelance writer in Oviedo, Florida.
“My Child Doesn’t Believe”
Parenting a child, young or not-so-young, who is questioning his faith is a challenge—especially when his lifestyle openly defies Christ. These resources will help in difficult and painful circumstances.
• “Let Them Come Home” by Abraham Piper
• “When Kids Question Their Faith,” an interview with Sean McDowell
• “Francis Chan and John Piper get to the bottom of unanswered prayer” by Lillian Kwon