The great 20th century thinker Joseph Campbell had a profound insight when he noticed that everyone – every human being – has a belief system. This is like a set of glasses, and it impacts the way in which we see the world. We get into trouble when we assume that we are seeing things the same way, and examining (and cleaning) the glasses from time to time, is very useful. Campbell noticed that some ways of seeing our world exclude the possibility of any transcendent aspect to it, some doubt this possibility, and some embrace it. Ministers, by definition, embrace the transcendent. But when agnostics, atheists, and anti-religious individuals think of ministers –especially if they haven’t had any positive personal interaction, they are likely to draw from images they’ve seen in the media, and that will REALLY cloud their glasses. Most have had experiences of church, and it hasn’t been positive. They have turned away for a reason.
Dan Kimball explains a new trend: because churches feel “programmatic, constrictive, and limiting,” people are leaving…  some to become disciples of Christ in new ways. Still, many of this generation are “spiritually starving in a secular wasteland where they sometimes try to feed their souls on media icons, and films, which at their best get at some of the deep spiritual truths. Like the prodigal, they long to fill themselves on anything that might satisfy…” Two great books on the subject of ministry to the unchurched, and the perception of Christians by outsiders are UnChristian and They Like Jesus But Not The Church: Insights from Emerging Generations.
Both speak to the established church organization about the emerging church trends and why changes are necessary, asking pastors to stop ignoring the call to change, to wake up, smell the coffee, get over the discomfort and get to work at changing themselves so they are no longer known as scary or angry and so their agendas are eventually perceived as positive. It asks probing questions about topics such as how we imagine our own personalities as compared with that of Jesus, how Jesus has been portrayed in pop culture, and what portion of these portrayals is verified by Scripture.
Both books take different approaches, one using statistics and the other relying more on individual stories, but the conclusions are the same: Christianity has a problem. The perception is one of homophobia, negativity, male dominance and oppression, arrogance, literalism, myopia, and judgmental attitude. His prescription is simple: move from an organized religion with a political agenda and a dominance-hierarchy structure to a loving and respectful, non-sexist, welcoming, humble community with a heart to serve others. [3,4]
Since ‘perception is reality’ — what to do now? One answer may be to engage, but respectfully and from the middle. Christianity does not belong to any one side, and it doesn’t need to–nor should it–dominate, the conversation, but neither does it need to slither away into the darkness and hide its light beneath a bushel. It should stand up as a model of transformational leadership and service, following Jesus. In a gentle, non-harming way, it is possible to reclaim religion. Religion and belief, like the flag, democracy, truth, beauty, or freedom, or Jesus, cannot be owned by any dogmatic group.
1Kimball, Dan, Emerging Worship, Grand Rapids: Zondervan (2004): xiii.
2Smith, Chuck, End of the World as We Know It, The; Clear Directions for Bold and Innovative Ministry in a Postmodern World, (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2001): 159.
3 Kimball, Dan, They Like Jesus but Not The Church: Insights from Emerging Generations, Grand Rapids: Zondervan (2007).
4 Kinnaman, David & Lyons, Gabe, UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity, Grand Rapids: Baker Books (2007).