STATISTICS! Okay, if you’re not already bored, please read on.
Our current series in the LOFT is titled “Resurrect Me”, and it’s all about evangelism. The lessons correspond to Pastor Chris’s current sermon series, and each lesson adds one more tool to our group’s arsenal as they learn to engage the people around them with the Gospel. Our first lesson was on Christ’s command to evangelize, and we’ll be moving through lessons on listening to others and learning to articulate the Gospel in your own words, but I want to pause a moment and reflect on last night’s lesson. To say that last night’s lesson was a little different would be an understatement, but our youth rose to the occasion in a big way. A normal lesson up in the LOFT lasts 20 minutes (leaving time for small group discussions). This one ran over 45, but the group stayed engaged the whole time and offered some incredible insights. Here’s a recap:
Right off the bat, we put in place a very strict “no church answers” rule. Youth were discouraged from giving what they thought was the “right” answer; rather, they were encouraged to speak their unfiltered thoughts, and this yielded some wild results when I asked the first question of the night:
What is your kneejerk reaction when you hear the word “Christian”?
Sure, we all sort of struggled with it at first, but then the answers began to flow forth:
“I get defensive, but I’m not really sure why.”
“I think of people being judgmental and holier-than-thou.”
“Exclusive and cliquey.”
“People who use Jesus’s name for political gain.”
It became clear very quickly that, even though we call ourselves Christians, we all have some startlingly negative associations with that word! We’re not the only ones either; the bulk of our lesson revolved around a set of data from the Barna Group first published in the book unChristian. This material is a little dated, but back in 2007, the Barna Group surveyed 440 church outsiders and 305 regular church-goers, all between the ages of 16 and 29 (putting the youngest participants in their early 20s today). The survey consisted of a simple set-up: “Could present-day Christianity be described as ________?” The survey-takers then supplied a list of common stereotypes about Christians to which participants could give a yes/no response, and the results were disquieting. Our youth group went through the list ourselves, spending a little time exploring each.
Outsiders: 87% yes
Churchgoers: 52% yes
While the 87% is certainly staggering, we were even more surprised by the second figure. 52%?! Wow, even we think we’re judgmental! Given that the sinfulness of all people and the open invitation of salvation are cornerstones of Christianity, we found the judgmental figures problematic. Scripture is pretty clear on the evils of judging one another. Check out James 4:12: “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you– who are you to judge your neighbor?” Still, the judgmental Christian is an image we all knew too well, and the data caused us to reflect on our own judgmental behavior as Christians.
Outsiders: 85% yes
Churchgoers: 47% yes
This one is hard because, as the group pointed out, Christian or not, everyone has at some point failed to practice what they preach. As Christians, we are held to a higher standard though. After all, Jesus instructed us not to wish harm on anyone else or even look at a member of the opposite sex lustfully, and what Christian has ever gone a single day without breaking those? Because we talk such a big game, people are less likely to cut us slack when we mess up, so that’s all the more reason to (A) be careful with our rhetoric and (B) always think things through and make sure we’re acting in a godly fashion.
Outsiders: 78% yes
Churchgoers: 36% yes
This one was tough because, as Christians, we advocate for a lot of traditional values that are falling out of style in the rest of the world. Additionally, churches are one of the few places in America where dialogue between generations is really encouraged, respect for elders is a basic value, and appropriate dress is still a pretty big deal. Some of our hymns are well over 500 years old, and our beliefs are pulled straight from the pages of a 2,000 year old book. I love that, as Christians, we stand on the shoulders of the saints and scholars who have gone before us; we have 2,000 years of collected wisdom at our disposal! This is all a very good thing, so our group was left with a question: how can we help church outsiders and new Christians understand the importance of tradition without it being misunderstood as simply “old-fashioned”?
Outsiders: 75% yes
Churchgoers: 50% yes
Guilty as charged. Unfortunately, there is a long history of people twisting the words of Scripture to suit their political agendas. The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, American slavery, the Holocaust– history provides us no shortage of examples where someone contorted the words of Scripture to defend a political maneuver, and that’s some difficult baggage for us to shed. At the same time, could the Civil Rights Movement have happened without the Church? How about the colonization of America or the cultural revolutions of Elizabethan England? Christianity in politics seems to be a very mixed bag! We also came to a hard truth: Jesus’ teachings are all over the map politically (especially if taken out of context), so Republican or Democrat, you can probably defend your beliefs with Scripture. The conclusion we ultimately arrived at was this: while the separation of Church and State has been a good thing for our country, Jesus doesn’t just sit and wait patiently for us outside the voting booth. Our politics need to be informed by our faith, but at the same time, we should take great care to make sure we’re not making our faith fit our politics.
“Could present-day Christianity be described as out of touch with reality?”
Outsiders: 72% yes
Churchgoers: 32% yes
The group flatly disputed this one. With the exception of yours truly, we all have school or jobs out in the world. Our daily routines are all firmly grounded in the reality outside the church building, so where did this stereotype come from? Could it be that many of our values seem quaint or optimistic by comparison to an increasingly cynical society? If that’s the case, great! We weren’t completely sure that’s what the question meant though, so we moved on.
Outsiders: 70% yes
Churchgoers: 29% yes
Ah, the twin of judgmental rears its ugly head. Looking at Scripture, Jesus is constantly sensitive to the needs of the people around him. He feeds and heals countless people and constantly adapts his teaching with the use of metaphors and parables that ordinary people would understand. He met people in their sinful states and even defended them against assailants. Jesus cared for everyone he came in contact with, so why have we fallen so short in this area? Yep, there’s room for improvement here. We agreed to work on it.
Outsiders: 68% yes
Churchgoers: 27% yes
Wow! More than a quarter of Christians surveyed said that Christians are boring! I wonder if those 27% had just gotten out of a systematic theology class or something. The Gospel is something that we ought to be excited about, so this statistic bothered the group. We agreed that it was likely based on the stereotype of the long, droning sermon that has been further promoted in TV shows, and we actually became quite hopeful since this should be an easy myth to dispel. By joyfully living a Christian lifestyle and proclaiming the Gospel with all the excitement that it rightly deserves, we can push back on this one easily.
Outsiders: 64% yes
Churchgoers: 39% yes
A core part of Christian doctrine is that Christ is the only avenue through which we gain life eternal, so yeah, I’d say we’re pretty exclusive as a basic part of our beliefs! Of course, you can disagree with someone and still be accepting. In fact, you can even want to lead someone to Christ but still accept them for who they are before they make that decision. After all, Jesus did that all the time (woman at the well, Zacchaeus, Nicodemus, etc.). We agreed to work together to attain this balance.
“Could present-day Christianity be described as confusing?”
Outsiders: 61% yes
Churchgoers: 44% yes
Honestly, with the myriad of denominations out there, all of which have subtly different takes on the teachings of Scripture, we were amazed that these numbers weren’t higher. Also, if we’re honest, there are plenty of passages of Scripture that we’re still trying to make sense of ourselves, so maybe one thing we can do is admit our own confusion and work/pray together toward clarity. Growing up, I was always taught that the Gospel is really quite simple: God loved this world enough to send His only begotten Son to save it, and whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. That part of the message is simple, and it’s something we should be able to rally around no matter what we make of the more confusing aspects of our faith. As we dive into the deeper questions, we should always have that simple message as our safety line. So is Christianity confusing? Yes. Does it have to be? No.
This set of data gave us a lot to think about, and it encouraged us to set a lot of new goals for ourselves: find new rhetoric for the importance of tradition, work on being accepting of others while still seeking to point them to Christ, remember the simplicity of the Gospel, etc. But perhaps the most convicting statistic was the one that we saved for last:
84% of church outsiders surveyed said they have a personal relationship with a Christian; of these, only 15% noticed any difference in that Christian’s lifestyle.
That should be an incredibly painful statistic to read. Faced with a number like that, it seems obvious: we’re failing. We’re completely failing to show people the love of Christ. If our lifestyles do not stand out from the rest of the world, how can we ever hope to point people to Christ? How can we ever hope to share God’s love with people if our daily actions do not reflect it? There should be something different about Christians. As Matthew 5 instructs, we should be salt and light to the world. We should be a breath of fresh air to the downtrodden and a soothing balm to the sick and afflicted. Our actions should be the greatest and most obvious tool in our arsenal when it comes to evangelism, and yet, we’ve let them become a liability. What can we do about that?
There are 613 laws given in the Old Testament, and when asked which was the greatest in Matthew 22, Jesus summarized them all in two sentences: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” This became the last parting instruction of our lesson last night: Christians must love God and love neighbor. How much of the baggage that comes with the word “Christian” could be dispelled if every Christian would simply pledge to live out these two commands through every thought and action? If we always stopped to ask, “Is this an action out of love for God and neighbor? Am I behaving in a way Jesus would want me to? Will this action point my friends to Christ?” how many of the negative stereotypes could we unseat? As a group, we pledged to do this to the best of our ability.
It had been a long lesson, and some of it was pretty painful (just as reading these numbers is likely painful for you as well). Still, we left the room last night feeling energized.
The Gospel is ultimately very simple: God is love, and Christ died to bring us fully into that love. We are called to spread this message far and wide, and based on what people seem to think of Christians, we haven’t been doing the greatest job lately. We need to shift our priorities. We need to evaluate everything through the lens of Jesus’s command to love God and love neighbor. As we do that, we will see change not just in our own lives, but all over the world.
Grace and Peace,