It has nothing to do with our denominational preference.
And it has less to do with our theology than I wish it did.
Do they like the Christians they know?
After all, no one wants to hang around people they don’t like. And becoming a follower of Jesus means hanging out with other followers of Jesus.
In his important book, unChristian, David Kinnaman cites an overwhelming number of stats and stories about this phenomenon. The primary reason young people are no longer going to church like they used to, has nothing to do with their commitment levels or their understanding of Jesus. It’s because the Christians they know are unlikable. 87% of young nonbelievers “said that the term judgmental accurately describes present-day Christianity.”
Sad, but not surprising. We don’t need studies to tell us what our eyes can plainly see.
We’ve all watched people start coming to church because they were invited by a Christian they like.
And we’ve all seen the opposite, too. People who leave the church, or never show up in the first place, because too many of the Christians they know – or know about – come across as mean, judgmental jerks.
I Wish It Wasn’t True
I’m not saying likability is more important than biblical truth. Of course not. Especially for mature believers. But likability is more important than biblical truth to immature believers. And to nonbelievers. That’s reality.
So let’s not fight reality. Let’s adapt to it. Not by downplaying biblical truth. But by turning up the likability.
I wish it wasn’t this way. I’d feel much better if people made their initial decisions for Jesus based on theology. But they don’t. Unchurched people aren’t waking up on Sunday morning thinking “gee, I wish I knew of a church near me that preaches a biblical message about sin, judgment and hell. And wants my money.”
But people do bump into us in the neighborhood. And on Facebook. And when we show up at City Hall once in a decade to complain about city zoning laws for our church. And they make decisions about church, faith and Jesus, based on their interactions with people who go to church, have faith and say they know Jesus.
The Likability of Jesus
No, we should never compromise our message in order to be nice.
Not long ago, I saw a Facebook post that read “I’d rather be obedient to God and divisive than disobedient to God and agreeable.” OK… But those aren’t our only choices.
The best option is to be obedient to God and agreeable. Most of the time, especially in western society, we can do both at the same time.
After all, that’s what Jesus did.
The main criticism hurled at Jesus by those who hated him was that he was a “friend of sinners”.
In other words, sinners liked him. The drunks, the prostitutes, the cheaters and the thieves. They liked Jesus before they believed in Jesus.
The same was true of the early church. Acts 2 tells us that one of the factors in so many people coming to faith in Jesus in the aftermath of the Day of Pentecost was that the disciples enjoyed “the favor of the people.” In other words, people liked them.
But that likability never came at the expense of compromising the message. Instead, it enhanced the message. It can do the same today.
How Likeable Are You, Pastor?
Given that my ministry is mostly to Small Church pastors, I need to add this.
In a Small Church, friendliness and likability matter even more than in a bigger church – especially for the pastor.
This may the #1 factor in whether-or-not people choose to stay in a Small Church. The likability of the people and the pastor. After all, a likable pastor attracts a likable congregation.
Are you likable, Pastor? Do people want to spend time with you?
No, you don’t have to be a constant, toothy grinner. I’m not. You won’t find me blowing kisses to the congregation even on my happiest of days.
But a lot of us could use an attitude check before we interact with others from the pulpit, in the church hallway or online. In addition to asking “are the words I’m about to speak true and biblical?” we also need to ask, “is my attitude positive, encouraging and helpful?”
No, it’s not about people people paying attention to me. It’s about turning their attention to Jesus. Unlikable people draw more attention to themselves than likable ones do.
As always, Jesus said it best. “By this all men will know that you are my disciples…”
Not when we have unimpeachable theology. Not when our church has the latest programs. Not even when and if we win the so-called culture war. They’ll know we’re his disciples…
I’m aware that being loving and being likable aren’t the same thing. But they’re close enough to be family. We should be, too.
So what do you think? Have you seen likability or unlikability affect people’s response to Jesus and/or the church?
We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
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