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If it's true that we evangelical Christians have a pretty ugly reputation in today's culture-and the newest figures from the Barna Group suggest strongly that such is the case-then it's certainly appropriate to be asking with increasing urgency: Whose fault is that? Who's to blame for our bad press?
I spent several hours last weekend with Barna's president, David Kinnaman, and he assures me that the numbers are accurate. And it's not just the pagan outsiders who are skeptical about us. We don't even see ourselves all that positively. Our own children share with unbelievers some of the same questions about what they see as flaws in our character.
For example, 91 percent of non-Christians "out there," in the 19-26 age bracket, see us evangelicals as "anti-homosexual." But 80 percent of those in the same age bracket who are regular churchgoers have the same perception.
An overwhelming 87 percent of outsiders see us as "judgmental." But 52 percent of church-going young people make the same judgment.
The table on this page aligns those same Barna figures with others in the same survey on a variety of other topics, showing how we are seen by both outsiders and insiders.
If you're anything like me, you'll need a little time to sort out all these figures. In some cases, you'll wince and say: "How sad! How embarrassing!" In others, you may actually be cheered a bit and see the numbers as a sign of faithfulness. Because here the glass is indeed at least partly full and partly empty.
Throughout, thoughtful evangelicals need to ponder all such issues while asking themselves seriously and perceptively: When is it that our own clumsiness and klutziness leaves people alienated from the truth that we think should be so attractive? And when is it that the very essence of God's truth drives people away?
Self-serving and self-forgiving creatures that we are, our tendency is not just to overlook the foolish things we say and do that make the truth of God repulsive to people, but even to congratulate ourselves for being "so faithful." "The reason people see me as judgmental," we tend to rationalize, "is that I am so diligent in my pursuit of God's truth." "If the world hates you," we like to quote from Jesus Himself in John 15, "know that it has hated Me before it hated you." What better company could we have?
And some people-including our own kids-see us evangelicals as "boring"? "Well," a friend said to me not so long ago, "the Bible never claims that God's truth has to be exciting. Isn't it enough that it's just true?" To which I have to say: It might be enough if your God is nothing but a theoretic concept. But if He is in fact the Creator and Sustainer of everything that exists, you'd better work hard to portray Him as "exciting" as well as "true." After all, that's how He portrays Himself.
So I'm bold to suggest here that our default position should be an assumption that we are the guilty ones. We're too often the ones whose offensive ways have made God's good news seem other than good. Of course, we're anti-the-sin-of-homosexuality; the Bible couldn't be clearer on that issue. But then we have to examine our hearts and confess we're not very good at holding that perspective while also lovingly sharing God's truth with men and women caught up in such a lifestyle.
Yes, there's a profound sense in which God's truth, even when sweetly portrayed, is an offense to many. And that recognition leaves us inching with great care across a very high tight wire-"speaking the truth in love." Sadly, the history of God's people is that we find ourselves constantly falling off not just one side, but both. We get so carried away with speaking God's truth that we forget the love assignment. Or we get so enamored of loving people-even including our enemies-that we forget the truth assignment. We have a hard, hard time doing both at once.
But if my main response to this newest survey from Barna is to congratulate myself on what a good job I've done of portraying the truth of the gospel of Jesus, then just maybe the survey should have checked me out on still another issue. It's called smugness.
If you have a question or comment for Joel Belz, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.