The gospel of image management
What I’m reading
Metamorpha: Jesus as a Way of Life
Baker, 2007. 265 pages
I recently attended a municipal discussion forum on the most significant challenges facing our region. Participants were asked to introduce themselves, tell a little bit about the organization we represented, and what solutions we felt our perspective brought to the table. The group I was part of was tasked with envisioning 20-year potential solutions for problems of drug abuse, innovations for advancing culture and the arts, and with addressing the dilemma that fully one-third of people in our area have difficulty finding affordable housing.
When I said that I was a local pastor, one woman interjected, “You mean Christians actually care about finding solutions to these problems?” When it comes as a shock that Christ-followers have anything to say or contribute in discussions on homelessness, good government, artistic excellence, and the rule of law you know that we have an image problem!
Adventures in missing the point
This experience got me thinking: “What do my neighbours think being a Christian is all about?” Clearly some think that faith is a private matter, good for personal consumption but not fit for public discourse. When I inquired further of the lady in my discussion circle, she remarked that to her, Christianity was a set of beliefs to which a person gives mental assent and perhaps a few activities such as church attendance thrown in for good measure.
We live in a world where hundreds of thousands of people check the multiple variations of the “Christian” box on a census survey, yet many of these individuals consistently fail to live authentically transformed lives. I’ve often wondered why this stark discrepancy exists and so this summer, I decided to probe the perception gap. The two books I’ve read describe – from two very different vantage points – a series of adventures in missing the point.
An unchristian faith
The subtitle was what really grabbed me about the stimulating new book, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity, by Barna Group president David Kinnaman. I like sharp thinking that has some statistical analysis to back it up, so I was intrigued by his survey of thousands of young adults between the ages of 16 and 29 about their perceptions and experiences of the Christian faith.
The title of the book, writes Kinnaman, “reflects outsider’s most common reaction to the faith: they think Christians no longer represent what Jesus had in mind, that Christianity in our society is not what it was meant to be.” Using terms like “insensitive” and “focused only on getting conversions and being right,” the research paints a compelling picture of what a new generation thinks about Christianity. For example, more than 85 percent of young people surveyed from both inside and outside the church think that present day Christians are anti-homosexual, judgemental, and hypocritical.
It is not encouraging but it is essential reading.
We’ve been discussing this volume in our church’s summer book club and some fascinating dialogue has resulted. For example, my own reaction when I read the six top negative perceptions expressed was self-congratulatory. “Well, I’m certainly glad I’m not like that!” I thought. “And I’m so glad I’m not part of a denomination that behaves like that!” This kind of insulating arrogance does nothing to break down or change the views of those who have not yet come to faith, counters Kinnaman. He rightly points out that “even if outsiders are wrong their perceptions drive their reality.”
It may be true that we are victims of our own self-righteousness and image management techniques to the point that “we have become famous for what we oppose rather than who we are for” and thus, we are rightly perceived as unChristian.
An ancient-future solution
If this is the problem, what is the solution? I found a good starting point for this discussion in Kyle Strobel’s book Metamorpha: Jesus as a Way of Life. I first picked this book up because I was curious as to why someone who grew up so close to the seeker movement (Kyle is the son of Lee Strobel) would write what seemed to be a corrective piece.
The younger Strobel argues convincingly that many of us have done a good job reducing Christianity to theological concepts and moral codes, which are adopted for “eternal fire insurance” purposes but result in little or no transformation in our hearts. If conversion is the big prize and the transmission of the correct information is the second, then perhaps it is no wonder that transformed living will be woefully illusive. Perhaps our disciple-making goals have been askew in that “we have found it easier to make churches that are exciting than to make disciples who are holy.”
I began to wonder if perhaps the gap is not so much a problem of image as it is a problem of praxis. Many of us (myself included) know the right things to do, or could check off the right answers on a theology test, but we may not be as actively engaged in the tough stuff of following Jesus as we think. We might believe in the Trinity but never tell our neighbours about Jesus. We might affirm that it is more blessed to give than to receive, except that our houses, shopping habits, and tithing practices give us away. In the language of Romans 12:2 (NLT) we need to “let God transform [us] into a new person by changing the way [we] think.”
Strobel advocates that lasting formation into the image of Christ (Galatians 4:19) will first involve a deconstruction of our worldview and then a rebuilding on three solidly historic foci. He counsels robust interaction with the Bible, the Holy Spirit, and community as the foundations of deeper kingdom life. There’s nothing novel here; yet, coupled with the online community both authors provide (seewww.unchristian.com and www.metamorpha.com), these two books put forward a healthy challenge to embrace the way of Jesus not merely as an image or slogan, but as a way of life. Perhaps if you and I and other Christ-followers in Canada did this, my friends at the discussion forum would notice a real difference.