Christians in Culture: Perception (Image) is Reality

WHAT WILL HAPPEN IF CHRISTIANS CHANGE THEIR IMAGE?

What, exactly, will happen if Christians change their “image”? Christians cannot change the destinies of unbelievers by changing their own behavior: We are not responsible for outsiders’ decisions, but we are accountable when our actions and attitudes—misrepresenting a holy, just, and loving God—have pushed outsiders away.

Christians certainly must preach the gospel to others in order for them to be saved, but the Bible asserts that finally God saves whom he wills (Jn. 3:8, Rom. 9:16).

IS IMAGE-MANAGEMENT REALLY THE GOAL?

if image is to be a chief concern of the Christian, our predecessors—Christ, Stephen, Paul, and many others—have done a pretty poor job of burnishing the brand.

As a counter-cultural movement in the world our central question is not “How do we manage our image in this world,” but “How do we represent our Lord and obey his radical call on our lives?”

WHAT’S THE REAL PROBLEM?

Even with radical self-examination of the most helpful Kierkegaardian kind, we should be skeptical about the ability of believers to avoid unbelievers’ condemning caricatures and stereotypes. Unbelievers, we learn in the Bible, are not prevented from faith in God by the people of God, but by the human heart, which is “desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9). While our “good works” are to be “conspicuous” (1 Tim. 5:25) before the lost and so demonstrate the transforming power of the gospel, unbelievers hate the gospel and, in many cases, the people who believe it. In an image-obsessed world, we must keep ours in proper perspective.

Bottom Line of Message: Actions drive perceptions, and the perceptions that outsiders have of us aren’t very good.

Introduction

• Give a personal illustration of when you have been misunderstood by someone. Did your own actions contribute to being misunderstood or was it merely a case of mistaken perception? It was probably both.

• Christians in general are misunderstood by culture at large. What are some of the perceptions that our non-Christian friends, neighbors, and co-workers have of Christians?

• It’s no wonder that Christians are misunderstood because Jesus, too, was misunderstood. Biblical Text: Luke 15:1

• Study the background on the Pharisees and teachers of the law and their expectations of a religious person or rabbi like Jesus.

• In that time, as in ours, perceptions were important. If one was perceived as keeping  the Jewish law, maintaining purity, and avoiding contact with “sinners,” he or she was considered a righteous person. But Jesus seemed to break all these rules. He didn’t keep to the letter of the law (such as healing on the Sabbath), maintain purity (he touched lepers and impure people), or avoid contact with “sinners.”

• Study the background on the tax collectors and “sinners” of Jesus’ day. (Explain the story of Matthew or Zacchaeus as hated tax collectors and/or the woman at the well as a sinner.)

• Who are the “tax collectors” and “sinners” in our own day?

• How did Jesus act toward the tax collectors and “sinners” and how did it impact perceptions about him?

• As a result of Jesus’ teaching and actions, new perceptions arose about him. He was considered a breaker of the law, unclean, and a “sinner” himself. In a sense, Jesus was misunderstood.

• Was Jesus okay with being misunderstood? Yes—because his actions and the resulting perceptions were driven by his mission to bring God’s love and grace to all people.

• This begs a question: are Christians today misunderstood and are the perceptions of us driven by our mission to bring God’s love and grace to all people?

Conclusion /Application

• Unfortunately, the perceptions of Christians today are not very similar to those of Jesus. We are not known as people of unconditional love and grace toward outsiders.

• Instead, here are six of the dominant perceptions of Christians by young outsiders

— Judgmental

— Anti-homosexual

— Hypocritical

— Sheltered

— Only concerned with getting people saved

— Too political

• Are these surprising? Are these really the perceptions we want people to have of us?

• More importantly, are these perceptions based on our mission to bring God’s love and grace to all people?

• Perceptions are not bad; they actually reflect reality because they are often driven by our own actions. Actions drive perceptions. The problem is not the negative perceptions of us. The problem is us.

• This week, consider how your actions—the words you speak, the people you engage, the ideas you communicate, the posture you present—drive people’s perceptions about you.

• If our mission is to be judgmental, anti-homosexual, hypocritical, sheltered, political, or only concerned with getting people saved, then we’re doing a good job— we’re creating the right perceptions of us. But if our mission is different—bringing God’s love and grace to all people—then we must make some radical changes.

Bible Study

CHRISTIANS IN CULTURE: PERCEPTION IS REALITY

1. Do you know any “outsiders”? Would you consider them to be friends? What do you think their perceptions are of Christianity?

2. When a young Christian interacts with the world, they are much more likely to live within a truly pluralistic generation . . . that is, many of his or her friends are not likely to be Christian. What should change, if anything, in the way we prepare young Christians to live in a pluralistic, diverse world?

3. Some non-believers say, “. . . Christian means conservative, entrenched in their thinking, antigay, anti- choice, 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.” What is your reaction to this comment? Why do people come to these conclusions?

4. When Christians talk about being persecuted by today’s American culture, do you think they are accurate or not? How does Jesus teaching about being persecuted line up with what people experience today? What is the biblical response to being “hated” by the world? What does this mean for the way you live the Christian life?

5. Do outsiders’ views matter to you? Discuss the unfavorable and favorable perceptions of Christianity and how they compare with your experiences engaging outsiders.

6. There is a movement of young Christians who are reluctant to admit they are Christians. They are not simply trying to be cool or popular, but they are concerned that the current way Christianity is expressed toward outsiders actually makes it more difficult to express what Jesus was about. Are you encouraged or troubled by this trend? In what situations are you more or less likely to say you are a Christian?

7. In what ways can your life help to redeem the term Christian? How can you be a Christian, rather than simply telling people you are one? What does a Christian who represents both truth and grace look and act like?

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