Christianity has an image problem.David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, unChristian1
That succinct understatement opens David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons’s controversial 2007 book unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity—and Why It Matters. Working from survey data done with 16- to 29-year-olds, the authors discovered that words like “hypocritical,” “insensitive,” and “judgmental” were consistently used to describe Christians—the community of people who are meant to represent Jesus Christ to the world.
The church and Christians in general are widely perceived to be too narrow-minded, anti-homosexual, and sheltered. In short, to many of those outside the church, the followers of Jesus appear to be “unChristian.” Whether they know much or nothing about Jesus and his teachings, those outside the church sense that Jesus’ followers often fail to measure up to his life and example.
Is this the best that can be expected? Did Jesus offer people an impossible example to follow? Can Christians really not do any better at reflecting Jesus’ own life?
What to Expect
Actually, those judging the church in this way have every right to do so. Jesus himself taught that you can know a true follower from a false one the same way you can know a good tree from a bad one—by examining the fruit it produces:
By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.2
Essentially, Jesus gave all of us the right to be “fruit inspectors.” On another occasion he said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”3
Jesus says flat-out that Christians should be set apart by their love for one another. Yet this doesn’t appear to be the case, does it? Love doesn’t always seem to be the result of subscribing to the Christian faith.
A New Way of Life
So what is the “fruit” that followers of Jesus ought to be producing? Paul, one of Jesus’ early disciples, described a follower of Jesus—one who is led by the Spirit—as bearing “the fruit of the Spirit.” He wrote, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”4 Clear enough, don’t you think?
Paul believed that God himself (the Spirit) should be working in the lives of Jesus’ followers in such a way that these qualities would become increasingly evident in the way they conducted their daily lives. The concept of “the fruit of the Spirit” underscores a truth about Christian faith that is often overlooked in the contemporary church: Jesus did not come to persuade us to assent to a new set of beliefs. He came to offer us a new way of life.
Christians believe that Jesus came to the world to make it possible for human beings to live in relationship with God now, in our real, day-to-day existence. Through living in that relationship, we begin to be transformed to be more and more like him in our character and in the way we live.
In fact, it would be easy to substitute “Jesus” for “the fruit of the Spirit” in Paul’s statement above: Jesus is love, joy, peace, etc. The fruit of the Spirit is the life of Jesus being made increasingly manifest in the lives of his followers.
The Fruit of the New Life
The analogy of these qualities as “fruit” is helpful. Fruit is produced by the life of the tree; a fruit tree is adorned with beautiful fruit produced by the life within it. Much like this, the fruits of the Spirit are the products of the new life within the follower of Jesus—new life that God gives.
But fruit does not appear overnight. It takes time. The tree or vine must be nurtured and pruned; time must be allotted for growth and development. In the same way, the character of the Christian develops incrementally into the character of Christ—who, in fact, sometimes referred to himself as the vine.5
Character is shaped by seeking and meeting God in life’s difficulties.6 Life is transformed and enriched by spiritual practices, such as prayer, worship, service, and study.7 Through the pruning of life’s challenges and the nurturing of spiritual practices, the fruit of the Spirit will increasingly appear in the life of Jesus’ followers.
Such a life is not something we naturally produce, but one that depends on God’s work in us—that’s the “of the Spirit” part. On our own, we often bear something far less attractive. Paul contrasted the fruit of the Spirit to the ordinary behaviors we often display when we are not living our day-to-day lives in relationship with God—behaviors he called “the acts of the flesh.” He wrote: “The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.”8
When Jesus’ followers fail to live in relationship with him in their everyday lives, they may find themselves bearing the wrong kind of fruit—contributing to the Christian image problem.
Overcoming the Image Problem
It is possible to live a life in which all that we do in relation to others is marked by genuine concern for what is best for them. A life in which we find ourselves deeply contented regardless of our circumstances. A life in which we live with a profound sense of peaceful assurance that we are loved, accepted, and protected by God.
We can imagine a life in which we live with steady patience when things are difficult, treat those around us with kindness, and choose what is good and right. We can imagine a life characterized by faithfulness to God and to our promises to others, a gentleness in word and deed, and a self-control that prevails in every circumstance.
Paul’s encouragement is simply this: “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”9 This would be a life whose fruit bears witness to Jesus’ reality. This would be a life without an image problem. Let us all work to keep in step with the Spirit.
- David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity—and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012), 11.
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Matthew 7:16–20.
- Ibid., John 13:34–35.
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 1984, Galatians 5:22–23.
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, John 15:1–8.
- See The Holy Bible, Romans 5:3–5; James 1:2–4.
- Ibid., 1 Timothy 4:8.
- The Holy Bible, Galatians 5:19-21.
- Ibid., Galatians 5:25.
- Photo Credit: Sergio Foto / Shutterstock.com.