Christianity Has An Image Problem

Christianity has an image problem and it’s getting worse, according to research by the evangelical Barna Group.

In a brief article in TIME, David Kinnaman of Barna says in 1996, 80% of U.S. citizens identified with Christianity and fewer than 20% of non-Christians held an unfavorable view of the religion. But how that has changed.

Today fewer identify with the faith (73%) and among people between 16 and 29, 38% have a “bad impression” of Christianity. As Kinnaman says, “It’s not pretty.”

Not pretty at all. Non-Christians say the preoccupation with homosexuality is their biggest complaint against Christian churches, and remarkably, 80% of the Christians Barna interviewed picked the negative adjective “anti-homosexual” to identify Christianity. The report on the Barna website says, “As the research probed this perception, non-Christians and Christians explained that beyond their recognition that Christians oppose homosexuality, they believe that Christians show excessive contempt and unloving attitudes towards gays and lesbians.”

Remember, this isn’t a research group that can be accused of skewing numbers to represent a position, it’s a well-known and highly respected research organization clearly identified with evangelical theology.

The number of people who don’t identify with Christianity is growing and so is the number who have a bad impression of it, according to the Barna research

These numbers aren’t encouraging. In fact, they point to a diminished future, not just for evangelicals but also for mainline communities. Overall, people in the United States are becoming less favorable to Christianity, especially youth and young adults.

The United Methodist Church has been actively sending messages to key groups in this demographic and research shows a more favorable attitude after eight years than before. There is a receptive audience and the messages are working. They are also effective in getting the church’s voice into the public conversation. As a result, perceptions of the church run counter to the conclusions Barna reports in the general survey.

But they are one small effort in a din of competing sights and sounds, and my hunch is the “anti” stance that turns off so many Christians and non-Christians alike is more pervasive and penetrating. “Anti” messages come in the form of news stories about controversial divisions that capture attention at key points of public exposure such as the recent conclave of Episcopal bishops in New Orleans discussing homosexuality.

These messages have disproportionate influence because they are more visible and are expressed in passionate language. But they aren’t working for a lot of people, and are doing harm to the image of Christianity.

I don’t advocate taking a vote to determine the content of faith. But a faith stance that is open to learning more, encourages us to serve others and assists us to find a deeper relationship with God and others presents a different face to the world than the “aginers.” Standing for something is more inviting.

There’s a message here.

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