I remember once leading a leadership retreat for small church. We were discussing ways that they could better reach out to their community and help newcomers really connect to the message of Jesus. We were talking about how they were perceived by their neighbors. There was some amount of dissension in the room because some of the leaders were not happy about the way others were describing the perceptions outsiders had about their church. They were using words like unfriendly, cliquish, closed minded, outdated and even fuddy-duddy. Some of the members hearing these descriptions objected saying, “We are not like that!” I remember interrupting at some point and saying, “It doesn’t matter if you are like that.” Then I wrote on the big piece a paper I had hanging on the wall “perception= reality.” I had that piece of paper hanging in my office for the longest time. It reminded me of what I was trying to get across to them: when you are trying to invite others to join you and others don’t really know you, what people think is true about you is even more important than what is really true about you. In other words, when it comes to trying to reach out perception=reality.
“Perception is Reality” stood out as a heading in the afterward of unChristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. Kinnaman is president of the Barna group a Christian based research and development group. The book began as a research project into the perception outsiders have of the Christians faith. It has ended up as a reflection on these perceptions and a call to action to address them.
The authors add some good vocabulary to the ongoing conversations. I like their use of the word “outsider” to replace all our different terms like non-Christians, seekers, etc. It is hard to find a word that does not sound pejorative, but this term is pretty helpful to the conversation.
The term unChristian is pretty interesting. It is not used to define outsiders but rather to describe the perceived attitudes of Christians from the perspective of outsiders. The authors’ defined six themes of negative perceptions. An overwhelming number of respondents, especially in the age group of 16-29 felt the church was: hypocritical, too focused on getting converts, anti-homosexual, sheltered, too political and judgmental.
While I believe research like this is useful and necessary, I must admit it is always suspect. While proper data collection can minimize margin for error, the answer you get will always reflect the question you asked. There may be a bit of that going on this book, but that is beside the point.
This book is likely to be unsettling for some. You may not agree with every point it makes. But, I believe the point of a book like this is to foster conversation. If you looked at that list of perceptions of young outsiders that the church is hypocritical, too focused on getting converts, anti-homosexual, sheltered, too political and judgmental; and say, “That’s not true. We are not like that!” you should definitely read the book. Remember, perception=reality.
If you have read the book or read it in the future, I hope you will post your comments.
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