Christianity Has an Image Problem

by Gabe Lyons


This Short explores the top six major perceptions revealed from our research and the most common points of skepticism and objections raised by outsiders.

Those six major perceptions are as follows:


Outsiders consider us hypocritical — saying one thing and doing another — and they are skeptical of our morally superior attitudes. Whether we like it or not, the term “hypocritical” has become fused to young people’s experience with Christianity. Eighty-five percent of young outsiders have had sufficient exposure to Christians and churches and they conclude present-day Christianity is hypocritical. They say Christians pretend to be something unreal, conveying a polished image that is not accurate. We are not known for the depth of our transparency, for digging in and solving deep-seated problems, but for trying to project an unchristian picture of having it all together.

A significant antidote to hypocrisy (in addition to integrity and purity) is transparency. On one level, hypocrisy is failing to acknowledge the inconsistencies in our life. It is denial. It is, as the Bible describes it, trying to remove a speck from someone else’s eye when you have a log in your own. Living with integrity starts with being transparent.

Young people talk these days about the need for authenticity, for “keepin’ it real” — not pretending to be something you are not, being open about your faults. Young people are searching for this type of person, this kind of lifestyle. In one survey we found that “doing what you say you are going to do” was among the characteristics young people most admired.

Does your life point people to a life in Christ that bursts with freedom to love, restoration, purity, and transparency? Or are you burying people — insiders and outsiders — under the weight of a self-righteous life?


Outsiders wonder if we genuinely care about them. Even if our intentions seem pure to us, outsiders often feel targeted, that we merely want another church member or a new notch in the “getsaved” belt. While we are trying to convey the most important message in human history — that Jesus offers a new life through faith in him — something gets lost in translation.

Statistics that reinforce this perception: only one out of seven outsiders describes Christianity as something that seems genuine and real; and just one-third believes that Christians show genuine interest in them. To change the perception that we are focused only on converts, we have to embrace a more holistic idea of what it means to be a Christ follower. This requires us to focus our attention on spiritual transformation. Most people do not have a clear sense of what spiritual transformation is or what it should look like. This is partly understandable because it is an elusive topic. By definition, spiritual formation is about depth rather than simplistic formulas. Yet it is hard to pursue something that is not defined.

According to Dave Kinnaman, One way of looking at spiritual formation, though certainly not the only way, is to examine the passions that should define a Christ follower.

“In our work at Barna, we examine these seven elements:

  1. worshiping God intimately and passionately
  2. engaging in spiritual friendships with other believers
  3. pursuing faith in the context of family
  4. embracing intentional forms of spiritual growth
  5. serving others
  6. investing time and resources in spiritual pursuits
  7. having faith-based conversations with outsiders

The truth is that when a person makes a commitment to Christ, it is just the first step into a much larger reality. When people become Christians, we must describe appropriate expectations for them; engage them in significant, accountable relationships; and fashion environments where deep life change can take place. How well does your life and ministry embrace this perspective? Are you focused on scoring converts or making disciples?”


In our research, the perception that Christians are “against” gays and lesbians ( or any LGBTQ+ persons_ — not only objecting to their lifestyles but also harboring irrational fear and unmerited scorn toward them — has reached critical mass. The gay issue has become the “big one,” the negative image most likely to be intertwined with Christianity’s reputation. It is also the dimension that most clearly demonstrates the unChristian faith to young people today, surfacing a spate of negative perceptions: judgmental, bigoted, sheltered, right-wingers, hypocritical, insincere, and uncaring. Outsiders say our hostility toward gays — not just opposition to homosexual politics and behaviors but disdain for gay individuals — has become virtually synonymous with the Christian faith.

Out of twenty attributes that we assessed, both positive and negative, as they related to Christianity, the perception of being anti-gay was at the top of the list. More than nine out of ten Mosaic and Buster outsiders (91 percent) said “antihomosexual” accurately describes present-day Christianity. And two-thirds of outsiders have very strong opinions about Christians in this regard, easily generating the largest group of vocal critics. When you introduce yourself as a Christian to a friend, neighbor, or business associate who is an outsider, you might as well have it tattooed on your arm: gay-hater, homophobic. I doubt you think of yourself in these terms, but that’s what outsiders think of you. Our biblical stance must be uncompromizing, but our awareness of how we are perceived and how we minister must be effectively addressed.

The central teaching of the Bible, however, is that all sin is, at its core, rebellion against God. No one sin is worse than another. Pastor Shayne Wheeler makes this observation: “There is not a special judgment for homosexuals, and there is not a special righteousness for heterosexuals.” Another pastor put it simply: “The struggle of gays in being attracted to the same sex is no different than my struggle in being attracted to the opposite sex.”

We are all sinners. No one is any more likely or less likely to receive God’s free gift of grace. All have fallen short of God’s standards. The Bible says while we were still enemies of God, he made peace with us through the cross (Rom. 5:19). Because he loved the world, he sent his Son to die (John 3:16). Everything hinges on what a person decides to do with Jesus — commit to him or reject him. Regardless of the sin we commit, he still loves us. If this is true for you and me, then it’s true for the homosexual as well.

Let me drive this point home as it relates to homosexuality. It’s true that sexual sins are particularly destructive in people’s lives, but this is true of all sexual sin. And frankly, when we recognize this, it should engage our concern and compassion on the issue of homosexuality even more.

Christians, and particularly evangelicals, have relied primarily on two methods of dealing with the threats they perceive from the homosexual community: preaching and politics. Over the last twenty years or so, there has been a substantial increase in the percentage of churchgoers who have heard a sermon about homosexuality, with more than two thirds of attendees in evangelical churches recalling such sermons. The second solution has been political engagement. Among those born-again Christians who have cast a ballot concerning same-sex marriage, nearly nine out of ten recall voting against it.

Most revealing, perhaps, is the comparative absence in the Christian community of any other approaches to addressing homosexuality. Although most Christians say they are concerned about homosexual lifestyles, just 4 percent of Americans (and 10 percent of born again Christians) say they have engaged in any other nonpolitical means of addressing what they perceive to be a problem. Only one percent of Americans say they pray for homosexuals; a similarly miniscule proportion say they address the issue by donating money to organizations that help people dealing with the lifestyle or that they try to have meaningful discussions with people about it. This information was derived from a random, representative sample of 1,007 adults, among whom more than 600 said that the homosexual lifestyle is a problem facing America. As people described what they thought would help, just one respondent offered the word love as a potential solution. One other survey participant suggested, “being sympathetic.” Simply put, Christians think there is a problem but have no idea what to do besides voting and listening to sermons about it.

The biblical response to homosexuals should be to deal with the fundamental needs that all men and women have. We must acknowledge that everyone, regardless of age and history, has sexual baggage but also has the potential for sexual wholeness.

Develop a process within your church or within your life that allows people to work through sexual issues in a context of accountability, respect, and transparency.

Life is not about easy answers, even if God is predictable in his moral character. How well are you dealing with the best and worst aspects of human sexuality? How are you dealing with the complexities of sexuality in your life and those of others?


Boring. Old-fashioned. Unintelligent. Confusing.

Outsiders think Christianity is out of tune with the real-world choices, challenges, and lifestyles they face. Only one-fifth of young outsiders believe that an active faith helps people live a better, more fulfilling life. Three-quarters of Mosaics and Busters outside the church said that present-day Christianity could accurately be described as oldfashioned, and seven out of ten believe the faith is out of touch with reality and confusing.

Many outsiders believe Christianity insulates people from thinking. Often young people (including many insiders) doubt that Christianity boosts intellect. Outsiders describe Christians as living in their own world. Even though outsiders generally have friends who are Christians, one of their complaints is that Christians are not speaking on the same level as everyone else. Nearly one-quarter describe Christians as using special words and phrases no one else can understand. And half of all young outsiders said that Christianity seems like a club only certain people can join.

Being perceived as sheltered makes Christians seem aloof and insulated.

We are responsible to engage the world. Jesus uses many metaphors for this. We are the light of the world (that is, we offer guidance that points people to restoration); we are the salt of the earth (we help preserve people); and we are a city on a hill (we offer protection and hope for people) (see Matt. 5:13–16). Yet calling ourselves Christians does not mean that guiding, preserving, or protecting are easy and automatic. It’s not easy but it is our duty to help remedy a broken world, and this takes effort. Our responsibility is to embrace this task with humility and energy, without expecting the world to come to our doorstep.

The lion’s den made Daniel famous, but it wasn’t just his being in the right place at the right time that determined his place in history. He was prepared. As a young man, Daniel had significant characteristics and readiness that enabled his rise to prominence. He was “showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace” (Dan. 1:4 NIV). He grew up in a Babylonian kingdom that was rebellious to God and self-indulgent (sound like America today?). But Daniel didn’t hole up in his spirituality. He learned what lessons he could from an impure society, and through his abilities and his faithfulness to God, he became influential, eventually administrating much of the Babylonian empire.

When Christians shelter themselves, letting “someone else” answer the world’s doubts and address its problems, they abdicate their biblical role to be spiritual influencers. It is incumbent on us to develop our hearts and minds so that we can fulfill our destiny as agents of spiritual, moral, and cultural transformation. When you see a broken and offensive world, are you provoked to do something to remedy those spiritual and moral fractures? Or do you run and hide?


Another common perception of Christians is that we are overly motivated by a political agenda, that we promote and represent politically conservative interests and issues. Conservative Christians are often thought of as right-wingers.

My goal is not to suggest that Christians should neglect or ignore politics. The political arena is a crucial setting for influencing culture and an important domain for expressing a Christian worldview. On the other hand, we must not be defensive or dismissive about this issue.

Christians need to be aware of their reputation in this arena, not only because it influences their political engagement, but because it affects their ability to connect with new generations who are innately skeptical of people who appear to use political power to protect their interests and viewpoints. This perception may not always be accurate, but it contributes to outsiders’ mistrust of Christians.

You might ask, “Since every group seems to have a political presence and agenda, why should Christians be subject to special criticism?” “Are outsiders asking us to stay out of politics?” According to our research, not exactly. Many outsiders clarified that they believe Christians have a right (even an obligation) to pursue political involvement, but they disagree with our methods and our attitudes. They say we seem to be pursuing an agenda that benefits only ourselves; they assert that we expect too much out of politics; they question whether we are motivated by our economic status rather than faith perspectives when we support conservative politics; they claim we act and say things in an unChristian manner; they wonder whether Jesus would use political power as we do; and they are concerned that we overpower the voices of other groups.

How do we overcome the perception that Christians are too political? We do not simply change our principles to accommodate people who disagree with us, but we should be willing to look at ourselves in the light of Jesus. We must ask if our political engagement is Christlike. If we are perceived to be unlike Jesus, in what ways could our politics reflect his life and priorities more clearly?

Possibly you are feeling led to address the rampant access to and use of pornography, issues of justice in the United States or in developing countries, the plight of the poor in our community, educational policy or curricula in our schools, the moral perspectives exhibited in today’s media, the care and nurture of the environment, the need for more Christians to adopt and provide foster care to children in need, exposing more Christians to the international church, increasing awareness of human trafficking around the world. Being involved could range from working for a campaign to serving on the school board. Rather than being known for criticism, let’s learn to step in and work toward a solution for the problems we see.

As the renowned artist Michelangelo said, “Critique by creating.” How could you and your community be creating solutions to deepseated and complex issues?


“You know what really bothered me?” the young woman, Lisa, confessed during a recent interview.

“Well, you’re asking how Christians come across to me. I’ll tell you. A few weeks ago I visited a Christian Bible study at a church. Every once in a while I go because I know a few of the women. You know, I am still trying to figure out this Jesus thing. After the speaker talked for a while, we started a conversation at our table — about eight or nine of us women just chatting away. I was probably the youngest one there, but some of them were about my age. We got along pretty well.”

“So, what happened that bothered you?”

“We were talking about sex, intimacy, and pregnancy, stuff like that. I told them about a friend of mine who was considering an abortion. I told them her entire situation, a twenty-year-old, boyfriend left her. She’s feeling really alone. I made some comment about really empathizing with my friend, that I could understand that abortion might make sense. I guess that shocked them. I know the women there are pro-life and all — I don’t know what I am, pro-life or pro-choice or just myself. But the conversation shifted at that point in a really weird way. Instead of having a dialogue, I was put on the defensive. They were nice enough about it, but the ladies just kept talking at me, trying to fix my attitude about abortion.”

How do non-Christians perceive us? We have to understand their perceptions if we are to reach them with the message of Christ. We must boldly proclaim the truth, but we must do so with understanding and love. Used by permission.

This article was a collaboration between Gabe Lyons and Dave Kinnaman.

Order Unchristian by Gabe Lyons and Dave Kinnaman. Used by permission.


This article was a collaborative effort with Dave Kinnamen.

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