Christianity's Image Problem

November 1st, 2011

Christianity has an image problem.

However you define the image problem, it's huge. If Jesus' public relations committee were working for anyone else, they'd have been fired long ago. Anyone else with such a bad image problem would disappear. The campaign would be over, the bus tour cancelled, the public appearances would stop.

And many of us assume that it is this image problem that is leading to Christianity's slide in influence. If only we could get our act together and show the people the real Jesus, then people would come back to us.

But maybe Jesus' PR problem isn't as simple as we think.

If you are a Christian, you probably fall into one of three groups when it comes to Jesus’ PR:

Part of the Problem

Jesus' image problem is ambiguous and not quite defined. It's just that many of us know it when we see it.

Is it the Americanization of Jesus?

The riffs on pop culture or the endless Jesus commericalization?

The televangelists and arenas full of rich Americans who lap up a prosperity gospel like they are the ones actually dying of hunger and thirst in a third world country?

Is it "missionary tourists" with matching t-shirts?

Is it the most zealous and misguided prophets who make the news?

Is it the Christians who use Facebook to publicly proselytize their (undoubtedly few) friends, or better yet, set up Christian alternatives to Facebook and Twitter?

There are a hundred definitions of what is wrong with Jesus' public image. Ask a hundred Christians and you’ll get a hundred answers. If you aren't part of any of these groups, you may be a part of the next group...

Christianity Fail

A good chunk of the internet's power is dedicated solely to mock and ridicule the failure of others. Whole sites dedicated to "fails" in wardrobes, family photos, parking cars, sports, dancing, singing, and every other conceivable human endeavor crowd the internet, if only to make viewers feel better about themselves momentarily.

And like a typical riff on pop culture, there are whole sites dedicated to mocking Christians who are part of "the problem." Some are run by non-Christians, some by Christians.

Of course, Christians often make themselves easy targets for non-Christians, in the same way that hillbillies attempting to "truck surf" make themselves easy targets of internet ridicule, as the dozens of Google results will show you.

I can't be certain of the goal of Christians mocking other Christians though. Maybe they are trying to point at the Christians that everyone else is taunting and say, "Hey, not all of us are like those freaks!" The funny thing is, in our hipster era, where everything can be labeled "ironic," we've probably all done something sincerely in the name of Jesus that another Christian would openly mock.

I'm Not With Them

Last, there are the Christians who are really sincerely trying to fix Jesus' image problem.

Maybe they're trying to show people the "real" Jesus with compassion and love. They're trying to help people strip away all the commercialism and culture and politics that cloud his face.

What if this last group succeeded? What if we brushed all the dirt off of Jesus and restored his image, just as it was when he walked around Israel?

Jesus would still have a major PR problem.

Jesus himself created a lot of problems for his PR team in three years. His disciples asked him more than once if he even knew how offensive, how socially unacceptable his behavior in public was. They tried to keep Jesus away from the ridiculous people who would do embarrassing things in his name. They tried to exclude crazy people, but Jesus seemed to like weirdos too much. His disciples were constantly on damage control, until his rep was so bad that people would've rather seen him dead, and a guilty man go free.

Getting Jesus out of the way didn't really help his image. People quickly assumed that the new Christian "cult" was full of incestuous ceremonies and cannibalism (thanks to ambiguous language like "love feasts" and "body and blood of Jesus.")

Jesus' PR problem isn't going away. It's a problem over two-thousand years old. And no amount of mocking other Christians will solve it. Ironically, the more you strip away Jesus' modern PR problems, the more you discover the original PR problems Jesus made for himself.

So what box are you in? Are you part of the problem, part of the solution, or part of the peanut gallery, chuckling at passersby? Hey, I know I've been all three. I can't say any of it has helped Jesus' PR.

Matt Appling is a pastor and school teacher in Kansas City, Missouri.  He blogs at

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