When asked by The Barna Group what words or phrases best describe Christianity, the top response among Americans ages 16-29 was “antihomosexual.” For a staggering 91 percent of non-Christians, this was the first word that came to their mind when asked about the Christian faith. The same was true for 80 percent of young churchgoers. (The next most common negative images? : “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” and “too involved in politics.”)
In the book that documents these findings, titled unChristian, David Kinnaman writes:
“The gay issue has become the ‘big one, the negative image most likely to be intertwined with Christianity’s reputation. It is also the dimensions that most clearly demonstrates the unchristian faith to young people today, surfacing in a spate of negative perceptions: judgmental, bigoted, sheltered, right-wingers, hypocritical, insincere, and uncaring. Outsiders say [Christian] hostility toward gays…has become virtually synonymous with the Christian faith.” – Click HERE for Ms. Evans’ blog article
It is difficult for me to describe how heart-breaking these facts are for me. I have spent my whole life deeply involved with the Christian community, first with the United Church of Christ and then The Episcopal Church. The Christianity with which I grew up was not any of the terms that have now become descriptors of the faith in the minds of most people: “anti-gay, judgmental, bigoted, sheltered, right-wingers, hypocritical, insincere, and uncaring.” The faith which nurtured me, and which I, in turn, have tried to nurture in others, is something else completely. And yet most people seem unaware that one can be Christian and support gay people and their rights. Most people seem unaware that following Jesus doesn’t require you to judge others, to be bigoted, to live within a sheltered world closed off to the insights of science or other disciplines. Christians don’t have to be right-wingers, and insincerity and lack of care and compassion do not mark out who we are. I suppose all of us are hypocritical from time to time, but we don’t aspire to be.
There is much discussion these days about the decline of the churches and the many reasons for it. But as the findings of this recent study make clear, part of the reason is that Christianity is increasingly known by its most conservative, most reactionary examples. Those of us who hold a different sort of Christian faith must work harder to make that alternative known. Rather than keeping our lights under bushels, we must take them to places where they can be seen by others. We cannot allow the Gospel of Christ to be seen as the very opposite of the love which it proclaims. We must embody that love and proclaim it to a world which increasingly suspects that Christianity is more problem than solution, that it has nothing to offer the world except venom.
The ancient Rule of St. Benedict, which came to inspire the lives of most Western Christian monastic communities, contains a great deal of wisdom. One nugget is this: “the Spirit often reveals what is better to the younger” (Rule, Chapter 3). That younger Christians perceive that the preoccupations and viewpoints of so many of their older brothers and sisters in the faith are unfair, ungenerous, and, well, unchristian toward gays, lesbians, and others is something that should indeed be listened to. For among the young who still wish to take Christianity seriously as a spiritual path, I think the Spirit is revealing something better. I think the Spirit is seeking to call us back to the compassionate heart of the Gospel in which the world’s marginalized are God’s beloved; in which stoning of those we like to define as ‘sinners’ was annulled; in which people are to love others as they themselves would wish to be loved.
People are forgetting, and young people are not learning, that while some Christian people and churches have indeed stood in the way of social transformation, other Christians and churches have been active agents of change. The civil rights movement in this country was, in many ways, a religious movement, and most if not all of its leading figures were religious, and most of them Christian. That is a glorious heritage which we who seek social transformation in our own time should not forget.
It is time to stop using Christianity to hurt others; it is time for us to stop sitting idly by while others use Christianity to inflict pain; it is time for us to insist on the proclamation of God in Christ as the One who seeks not to hurt, but to heal. It is time for us to insist that there is no truth to any sentence that begins with the words, “God hates…..”