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Christianity Has An Image Problem

As I have worked with my dad and seen a lot of the media response to Christianity, it has me really confused. The negative examples of Christianity on the news do not accurately reflect the God I know, nor the Christians I know personally. But, I do know that I used to perceive Christians the same way.
by Charis Hillman Brown


Have you ever noticed that most of the media attention Christians receive is negative?

As I have worked with my dad and seen a lot of the media response to Christianity, it has me really confused.  The negative examples of Christianity on the news do not accurately reflect the God I know, nor the Christians I know personally.  But, I do know that I used to perceive Christians the same way.  Why?  I had personal experiences with Christians who did not accurately reflect Christ.  But, I think it is high time for this to change.

Why do people perceive Christianity this way?

When my dad went to speak at the Harvard Transformation Conference back in 2011 at Harvard University, I couldn't believe the response. There were all sorts of groups who didn't want us to be there just because we said we were hosting a "Christian" conference. We might as well have been terrorists!

In fact, a LGBT group picketed our event. They had a sign with my dad's name on it saying, "Os Hillman, Take A Bow for Anti-Gay Violence In Uganda."

My dad had formerly been connected to someone who was currently supporting controversial anti-gay legislation in Uganda, but my dad was not involved, nor was he in support of the legislation. The group failed to get all the facts straight before they began to defame my dad and our event.

A friend of my dad's and I decided to hang around the protest and see what they were saying. They absolutely thought our main purpose there was to thwart them and tear them down. The only thing I was thinking was, "something negative must have been done to each of these people by a Christian in the past for them to be so upset about our meeting."

Toward the end of the conference, my dad and two other speakers invited some of the leaders of the protest to join in for a time of discussion with a Harvard professor as the moderator. Later on, one of the campus leaders said that the conference wasn't about what they expected it to be, and they retracted the negative remarks.

When people think of Christians, often the only reference they have is the media and perhaps a personal encounter. I would venture to say that most of these encounters with other Christians must be of a negative nature, due to the way Christians are portrayed in the news media today. But, in some situations, they hold truth. Reports like that of Westboro Baptist Church in the news make me cringe, because this is NOT the Jesus I know. Protests from members picketing and holding signs like, "Gays go to hell" at a military service member's funeral and other repugnant behavior like this is not a part of the gospel message I stand for.

However, I believe there is at least some positive press happening. Tim Tebow has (thus far) displayed his Christian beliefs constructively and with grace. He is an example of someone who has made a positive impact for Jesus Christ in the world. When he wrote John 3:16 on his cheeks for the NFL playoffs, the TOP SEARCH on Google the day after was "John 3:16." You can't get a better witness than that!1

A recent article in Relevant Magazine highlighted this phenomenon of negative media attention on Christians. Ira Glass, weekly radio show host for the NPR program This American Life often has Christian guests on his program, and was asked by author Jim Henderson about this occurrence of negative news attention on Christians.

Glass: Well, I feel like Christians are really, horribly covered by the media. Like Christians seem like a really ripe target of opportunity.

Henderson: You don't think Christians deserve this?

Glass: What do you mean?

Henderson: The political involvement, and the public stances that they take. You don't think it's well deserved at times?

Glass: That they're covered badly? No.

Henderson: You don't?

Glass: No.

"Glass goes on to say many groups in America feel the media covers them poorly, but Christians seem to get it 'especially bad.' He says while making This American Life, he noticed many television shows and movies would depict Christians 'as these hot-head, crazy people.' This depiction didn't match his own experience with Christians he knew personally."2


Is God Angry, Judgmental, and Mean?

I believe this misconstruction of who God really is goes back to our early lives: What kind of dad did we have, and consequently who do we think God is? When we're young, psychology has shown that we view our parents as God, until we develop the capacity to think for ourselves at 12 or 13 years old. As such, the memories we collect along our journey from childhood to adulthood are often our blueprint for figuring out who God is.

When I was a teenager, I viewed God as distant and judgmental. Looking back, this was the way my dad had been when I was young, so it made sense I viewed God that way. I also have a friend who grew up in a church, but tragically when her brother molested her sister and they brought it to the church, the church and her family did nothing. So, later in life, she viewed the church and God as a very unsafe place to be, even though God was not the author of that calamity. Because the people in a position of authority did nothing, her view of God was that He would do nothing in the case of any kind of wrongdoing. In her mind due to this experience, it made God and religion very much unsafe.


The Body of Christ Needs Maturing

"If you judge people, you have no time to love them." -Mother Teresa

In the book of Revelation, the Bible says that Jesus is coming back " present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless." (Ephesians 5:27) This tells me that we have a lot of work to do. It is not acceptable for us to be judgmental or disparaging - we must be the conduits of grace that Jesus talks about. "You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden." (Matthew 5:14)

The verse above would seem to indicate that people should feel better when they're around us. We need to "light up people's lives." They need to tangibly feel the love, light, and presence of God when we are around them.

And this can only happen when we as Christians develop our own relationship with God to a point where we see Him more accurately, and we in turn reflect His true nature. For two long we have preached a religious gospel versus a relationship gospel, and the two are completely contradictory. When we try to correct or disciple people before relationship is built with us and between them and God, this will always result in anger and resentment.

Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Community Church in Atlanta which draws over 24,000 weekly states, "Often, making a point undermines our influence rather than fueling our influence."

Instead of creating a conversation about why it's a good idea to consider Christianity and its benefits as a good and moral pursuit, a help in troubled times, and a confidence about our destination when we leave this earth, we seem to expect people to automatically live by our standards. This is like telling people how to speak Chinese when they'd never planned on going to China, and assuming they want to learn Chinese when we've never gotten a chance to know them and discover their interests.

"The Church has lost massive amounts of influence in culture by attempting to legislate the behavior of people who don't share our assumptions," Andy Stanley says. "And so it's pointless [and] works against your ultimate agenda to try and guilt people into or push people into behavior based on an assumption they never embraced to begin with."3 

This is not the "blessed are the peacemakers, for they will inherit the earth" Jesus I know. This is also not the "he who has no sin cast the first stone," "woman at the well," Jesus I know.

And so, as my dad Os Hillman has said, "God has an image problem," and in turn I say, Christianity has an image problem. God has an image problem because His followers are imperfect, and additionally, we have not "matured" enough in knowing Him enough to reflect Him accurately. At the end of the day, God is about love and grace, and a way into His eternal kingdom and His love and light. There is no true love without God. But, we've read Leviticus and not read the book of John. We've told people to behave as the Bible says to, before they've even had an experience with Jesus themselves. This is infringing upon people's God-given free will. And I am not for that.

What I am for is for people living their best life. For people to know that beyond a shadow of a doubt that God loves them, and because of that, He provided a way out of our sin nature through the sacrifice of His son, Jesus Christ.

What Is a Negative Influence?

With all of the negativity out in the world, I would wonder why we wouldn't want something more positive on our radar. With music videos like Kesha's "Die Young" having an extremely negative influence on our nation's youth, sending messages that promiscuous sex, orgies, dressing provocatively, animal sacrifice, and Satanism is not only okay, but socially acceptable - perhaps even socially expected, I would wonder which is actually detrimental - a message of life and hope - or propagating a partying, consequence-free lifestyle? (Which is not at all free of consequence...) I might argue that the agendas being pushed through the arts and media are perpetuating the messages that women are sexual objects, men are stupid and sexist, and children are supposed to be sexually active by middle school. I might argue that through advertising, people consider pharmaceutical drugs as the first option to solving their problems, rather than getting to the root of the problem through therapy or healthy nutrition. We are one of only two nations where it is legal to promote pharmaceutical drugs on television. Does any of this sound positive to you?

Christians are not perfect, I can tell you that. We are fallen human beings, and we often fall short. But, instead of looking to us for the answer, we want to invite you to look toward Jesus as the answer. And He is not out to control or manipulate the world... He wants to show others just how much He loves them, and to invite them to His heavenly "party."

"My Father's house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?" -John 14:2

If the news is really dedicated to divulging the truth of the matter, I would encourage them to look at the message of the gospel, and compare it with people who seem to be touting a much different version of it. (Don't we call that a misrepresentation?) In truth-seeking media where getting the "truth, and nothing but the truth" is the highest goal, examples like this that don't line up with the core message of Christianity should be thrown out as inaccurate, irrelevant, misrepresentative, misleading, and counterfeit.

Better Examples

I would like to see more Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandella, Martin Luther King, and much less Westboro Baptist Church (faulty teaching, extreme judgment), and on the other end of the spectrum much less Rob Bell (faulty teaching, extreme grace) highlighted in our culture. Both of these examples should be cited as inaccurate representations, as they do not represent the core of Christianity.

I'd like to see more emphasis on social justice actually happening, and less "having a conversation" about it. I'd like to see much less of a focus on the gay issue, and more of a focus on us fixing our heterosexual divorce problem in the church today. Paul said in Corinthians, "We live in such a way that no one will stumble because of us, and no one will find fault with our ministry." (2 Cor 6:3) For me, this has become one of my life scriptures because everything we do as Christians has a ripple effect.

If I've seen any kind of examples of this throughout history, I see Mother Teresa and not Hitler. I see the Jesus movement and not the Crusades. I see happy, free, fulfilled, colorful, generous people, and not religious, small thinking, stingy, scrunchy faced, angry people. I see a much different God than many people see. I see a God of life and color, who wants to be intimately involved in our lives as our Perfect Father, and our best friend and companion. I see people healed, lives restored, and souls set free from bondage.

Now this doesn't sound like controlling world domination like the Pinky and the Brain picture above, does it? It sounds like heaven on earth. And who in their right mind doesn't want that?






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