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Sunday, January 3, 2010

unChristian: Perception is Reality (Luke 6:43-45)

No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.

If you have done much traveling outside the United States, no doubt you know that there are some negative perceptions about Americans in many parts of the world. Several years ago in Europe, I witnessed numerous episodes of stereotypically ugly Americans acting like stereotypically ugly Americans, and I cringed each time. I listened to one woman from somewhere in Texas who was having difficulty communicating with a Belgian taxi driver. Her solution was to yell loudly and slowly at the man – in English – in the hopes that he would understand. Though I usually wanted to apologize to these locals and say, “Not all Americans are like that, I promise!” usually I just ended up pretending I was Canadian.

If you have done much traveling outside the Church, no doubt you know that there are some negative perceptions about Christianity in many parts of our culture. Today we are beginning a six-week series entitled “unChristian.” We will be taking a hard look at what a new generation really thinks about Christianity, and why it matters. The themes of our messages over the next six weeks are going to come out of a book called unChristian. It is based on some research by the Barna Group among 16-29 year-olds about their perceptions about Christians and the Church. The Barna Group is sort of like the Gallup Pollsters, except they focus exclusively on trends and issues within American Christianity.

Their research backs experiences I’ve had over the last several years. I have encountered an increasing number of young adults who are turned off from Christianity. They aren’t necessarily turned off from Jesus, but they are frustrated with Christianity. I find this not only in my friends outside the Christian faith, but even among those within the Christian faith. In many ways, they are like Ghandi, who once said to E. Stanley Jones, a great Methodist missionary, “I like your Jesus, but I find so few Christians who look like him.” May we pray.

I realize that today we probably have a good mix of people here. Some of us are lifelong Christians, and some of us are here with our questions and our doubts and thinking, “I’m not sure I really go along with any of this,” and a whole lot of us who are somewhere inbetween these two positions. I realize that throughout this sermon series, there will be things I say that will make some of you want to cheer, and there will be things I say that will cause you to want to write a letter to the District Superintendent. His name is Dr. George Thompson, and his mailing address is 4108 Park Road, Suite 101, Charlotte, NC 28209.

My hope, however, is that you’ll do neither of these things. My hope is that these messages allow us to see ourselves as others see us, even when we don’t like or even agree with the perception, and that we all have the open-mindedness to see the places where we still have room to grow, and that all of us would be a little more Christlike tomorrow than we were yesterday.

If you’re here as someone who is skeptical or hostile toward Christianity, or if you have negative perceptions about Christians, first, let me just apologize on behalf of Christians everywhere for whatever negative experiences you’ve had. And, thanks for joining us today – I’m honored you’d be here.

Last week, a friend of mine had to see an eye doctor while he was vacationing on an Alaskan island. I asked how he found him, and he said, “I simply looked in the Yellow Pages under ‘Optical Aleutians.’”

Perception is reality. What we see is reality as we know it. Perhaps you’ve heard it said that someone sees the world through rose-colored glasses, meaning they see everything in its best possible light and never even see the possible negative things around them. Their perception is their reality.

Or, consider the social phenomenon known as “Beer Goggles.” Beer Goggles is a condition whereby the excessive consumption of alcohol causes one to flirt with, hit on, or otherwise be attracted to a person one would never look at twice were one sober. For the person affected with this condition, their perception of the attractiveness of said person becomes their reality, until the condition has worn off.

Perception is reality. This is true for each of us. Unfortunately for Christianity, many young adults today have perceptions of Christianity that are not favorable. Regardless of how we feel we are being perceived, we must recognize that people’s perception are their reality. Sometimes these perceptions come from the media, and sometimes they come from experiences in particular churches, sometimes they come from encounters with Christians, sometimes they are a conglomeration of these different influences. But, the perceptions are out there, and the perceptions are reality.

The growing hostility toward Christianity is very much a reflection of what outsiders feel they receive from believers. They say their aggression simply matches the oversized opinions and egos of Christians. One outsider put it this way: “Most people I meet assume that Christian means very conservative, entrenched in their thinking, antigay, antichoice, angry, violent, illogical, empire builders; they want to convert everyone, and they generally cannot live peacefully with anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe.”

This week, I attempted to collect some field research through facebook. I asked people to respond to the question, “What do you think of Christians?” Has it ever happened to you that you put one thing up in your status update thinking it was going to go one direction, but the thread related to your status was promptly hijacked by people heading in a completely different direction? I was hoping my nonChristian friends might respond, but instead, many Christian friends chimed in to share their two cents, which ended up cutting off the discussion from my nonChristian friends who might have responded. In fact, a few people emailed their responses directly to me so their thoughts weren’t out there in front of everyone to be attacked. They were scared of the Christians, because experience taught them that Christians were confrontational and defensive.

Inevitably, someone will say, “Who cares what nonChristians think about Christians? We’re not supposed to be making ourselves popular to the heathens.” That’s an almost verbatim quote from someone I had a conversation with along these lines in the last year, thinking this was too much cultural accommodation that was diluting the Gospel. Basically he said, “Who cares?”

Well, I do. Many of you do. I’m pretty sure God does, too. After all, we Christians are supposed to represent Christ to the world. So we have to ask ourselves – these perceptions, do they accurately sum up who Jesus is? Do they show a picture of Jesus we’re happy with?

One crucial insight pops up through this discussion. From thousands of outsiders’ impressions, it is clear that Christians have become famous for what we oppose, rather than who we are for. We are known for having an us-versus-them mentality. Outsiders believe Christians do not like them because of what they do, how they look, or what they believe. They feel minimized—or worse, demonized—by those who claim to love Jesus. Is this a picture of Jesus we’re happy with?

But for us to assume that these are simply misperceptions of Christians would be a huge mistake. These perceptions are based on real experiences nonChristians have had with Christians.

One helpful way to reflect on this conclusion is through the lens of a brand. Scott Bedbury, creator of both the Nike and Starbucks brands, defines a brand as a collection of perceptions in the consumer’s mind. For example, what do you think of when you hear the word Starbucks? You may think of the round green logo. You may think of the taste of a javachip frappachino. You may think of a comfortable place to meet friends and have a conversation. Or, you may have a completely different, negative collection of perceptions based on experiences you’ve had at Starbucks or things you’ve heard about it.

I last ate at a Shoney’s in 1996. The plates on the salad bar were dirty, and this experience forged a set of perceptions in my mind about Shoney’s. I have judged every other Shoney’s restaurant since then based on this experience 13 years ago. The point is, when presented with a brand name, you immediately summon all of your past experiences and interactions with the product and form an instant opinion.

To outsiders the word Christian has more in common with a brand than a faith. Some longtime church members may not like this perception that speaks of us in terms of product, brand, marketing, and other related concepts. Nevertheless, it is reality. The shift of meaning in recent decades has been magnified by the increase use of the term Christian to label music, clothes, schools, political action groups, and more. Sadly, Christianity is a bad brand in the minds of tens of millions of people.

Here in North Carolina, 22% of the population attends church on any given weekend. Of the 23,000 people who live within a mile and a half of this building, that means 17,940 were not in church this past weekend. It would be easy for us to start saying, “What’s wrong with these people? Why weren’t they in church?”

Where Christianity has come to represent hypocrisy, judgmentalism, anti-intellectualism, insensitivity, and bigotry, it’s easy to see why the next generation wants nothing to do with it. If this is the way we are so widely perceived, it’s no wonder that only 22% of the population in North Carolina attends church. In fact, we should be amazed that 22% actually do show up despite these popular perceptions!

Jesus said a tree would be known by its fruit. We, and the Jesus we represent, will be known by the fruit produced in our lives. We must constantly ask ourselves, based on the fruit being produced in our lives, particularly in our interactions with our friends and neighbors outside the faith, do we like the view of Jesus being portrayed? We need to allow the character of Christ to root itself deep in our being, that the fruit our lives produce may be that which points back toward Christ. Christians must recapture and live out a holistic view of our calling in the world. If we do, new perceptions will follow.

Many modern-day Christians have lost touch with the all-encompassing Gospel that goes beyond personal salvation and reaches every corner of society. When conversion growth is the single measure of success, the hard work of discipleship gets ignored. When Christian faith is relegated to a personal, private, spiritual decision about where you will spend the afterlife, the here and now matters less and less. When being a Christian can be determined by whether you “prayed the prayer,” the focus shifts easily to who is in and who is out. As a result, Christians can be found out on the edges of society, pointing their finger at the outsiders, judging and condemning them. Many have separated themselves from the world and mimick the actions, attitudes, and behaviors of the Pharisees for whom Jesus had the most contempt when he walked the earth.

Hear me carefully. I know that these perceptions are based on the attitudes and actions of perhaps only a small fraction of the Christian family. I realize that many of the longtime Christians here in the room may not be directly responsible for these perceptions. I realize that one of my personal faults is that I am intolerant of people who are intolerant. I am frustrated by other Christians who I perceive to be responsible for our negative image in society. I look at Christians who are close-minded, or insensitive, or judgmental, or hypocritical, and I wag my finger and say, “Shame, shame, shame,” and fail to realize that I am doing to them just what I perceive they are doing to those outside their particular way of thinking.

As a Christian, I am just as responsible for the negative perceptions of Christianity as those I would want to blame. Surely, I have been close-minded, insensitive, or judgmental over a whole host of issues other than the ones I am upset about, and I am also responsible for whatever negative connotations exist about Christians. Even if I were not personally responsible for any of the negative perceptions about Christians—and trust me, I know my own faults and shortcomings well enough to know that I have messed up plenty—any who claim the name “Christian” or belong to this organization called “Church” get painted with the same negative brush. Perhaps that’s not fair, but it’s reality.

However, I can also be partly responsible for the solution to the problem. Friends, there is only one way to change a perception. You have to consistently prove the perception wrong.

The church must recover a theology and practice of common grace; we need to focus on discipleship as well as conversion. When we no longer know what it means (much less care) to be salt and light among those in our culture and to be an influence for good we forfeit our role as agents of Christ’s kingdom. As I study Scripture, current culture, theology, and church history, it seems abundantly clear that the source of negative perceptions of Christians is a poorly understood and lived expression of Christianity.

It comes down to this: we must become Christlike again.

At first glance, this may seem an oversimplified solution, but friends, there is no other task to which the followers of Jesus should be devoted. If we are not about being Christlike, about being the hands and feet of Jesus in the world, I honestly don’t know what we’re still doing here. Being the presence of Christ in the world is our business, and we have no other. And though it is a simple solution, it is far from an easy one.

We must commit to doing the hard work of recapturing Christianity’s essence in our own lives. It’s easy to point out the imperfections of others, but it takes much more humility and grace to confront the faults and shortcomings within ourselves. Being unChristian is easy. Being Christian, however, is hard work. Putting the needs of others above your own, loving your neighbor, doing good to those who would do evil to you, exercising humility, suffering with those less fortunate, and doing it all with a pure heart is nearly impossible. But it is Jesus’ model and call.

There is a challenge here for all of us. There is a challenge here to become the kind of Christ-followers who are full of love, grace, and compassion. There is a challenge to imagine what could happen, and then commit to being the change we want to create. We must exhibit an expression of Christianity that is quick to listen and slow to speak, that seeks out the best in every person we encounter and point them toward their loving Creator.

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