Perception is reality, and why it matters in Christianity

Based on national survey data from Barna Group, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons brought together three years of research that discusses what people on the outside really think of Christians, and why. The overwhelming result was that Christians are in a bad light; and for being “the light,” that’s not good news. How are we to go about being the light and hope of the world? Kinnaman and co-author Gabe Lyons gave us some insight with the help of other renown Christian leaders in a must-read book, “UnChristian.”

UnChristian thumb

From the get-go, Kinnaman and Lyons pull no punches, telling us that the old saying, ‘perception is reality’ in this case results in eternal souls. People’s negative perceptions about, and negative experiences with, Christians “changes the tenor of people’s discussions about Christianity. It alters their willingness to commit their lives to Jesus” (Kinnaman and Lyons 2007, pg. 11). Kinnaman went on to say that although not all of the negativity is our fault (some of it is based on wrong stereotypes), we still have an active role in reversing these stereotypes of the X and Millennium generations (referred to in this book as Busters and Mosaics). The research also showed that not all negative perceptions come from outside the Church. There are negative perceptions among younger church-goers as well.

UnChristian poll

I have found in personal interactions with many people from Baby Boomers through Millennial generations is that the perceptions in the book are not far off. But I have also found something that the authors did not hit on: that their perception of what Christianity is supposed to be is not necessarily accurate. Many in today’s unchurched society believe Christianity is about following a Jesus who was essentially some sort of mix between a hippie and Mr. Rogers—“peace and love, you are special” and that’s about it.

Like what was said in the book, I have also found that people see Christians (usually via media) in usually one of two extremes: something more stingy—old men in suits always putting people down (anti-gay/too political, judgmental and hypocritical); or just the opposite—young men in suits with waxy smiles always giving pat answers who have seemingly had no real problems in life, nor do they associate with people who have real problems (sheltered, living in their own world, out of touch with society).

It is more disheartening, though, to find that most of the surveys have pointed to personal interactions with Christians to be the major turn off. I have seen this happen as well. The difference is that while many of us Christians also have had negative experiences with churches, church leaders or other Christians, we simply switch churches, not abandon the faith altogether.

But what is the solution? What Kinnaman and Lyons say needs to be done is a major turn-around from what has been the Christian norm for the latter half of the 20th Century, where Christians saw the changing moral decay of the world around them and hid in their shells while pointing and wagging their fingers from the inside of their shell outwardly. Kinnaman and Lyons both said in the closing chapters that the future of Christianity needs to be mission-oriented, getting our hands dirty and focusing on a person’s physical needs as much as spiritual, and doing so with Christ-like compassion. “To rebuild our lives and restore our nation, we have to recover love and concern for others” (Kinnaman and Lyons 2007, 219).

unchristian (1)

The good news is, as Lyons pointed out, “It seems the only direction these perceptions could go was a more positive one” (Kinnaman and Lyons 2007, 222). Let’s hope so.

I do have a more positive outlook on the future of Christianity, mostly because those of us Gen-Xers and younger who are now stepping into ministry roles have had enough with our own people. We are ready to be more willing to overlook an outsider’s imperfections; mostly because we are so keenly aware of our own. As Mylon Lefevre sang some 30 years ago, we want more of Jesus, and less of ourselves. Let’s then show the world more of Jesus.

Every Christian leader young and old should read this book. It is certainly among the most important books I have ever read.

4 thoughts on “Perception is reality, and why it matters in Christianity

  1. Pingback: You Lost Me…and why it’s so important | A Closer Look

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  3. Pingback: Jesus & Fake News, part 3 – A Closer Look

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