Despite living in a world with more ways to stay connected than ever before, many people feel isolated and alone. And while the church offers a place where some can find love, support, and community through a relationship with Jesus, many others find plenty of reasons to stay away.
He Gets Us, a new campaign that invites people to take a fresh look at Jesus, conducted four months of research including two large quantitative studies and an in-depth qualitative study to discover how people felt about Jesus, the church, and Christians. The findings were powerful: in the US, 25 percent of adults would say they are skeptical about faith, but 50 percent would be open to learning more about Jesus. So what can we do, as a church, to welcome people who have doubts or questions?
Perhaps the best answers come from those who were interviewed. While the names have been changed, the sentiments they shared are unedited and illuminate how Christians can begin to better understand people who are seeking answers to life’s toughest questions.
Take the Defenses Down
Andrew, one of the interviewees, struggled with accepting the basic concept of Christianity: “The idea that Jesus was the Son of God, and that God created an offspring only to then have him die is too absurd.”
Melinda and Laura felt similarly. “I don’t know if he’s real,” Melinda said after watching a video depicting Jesus as a compassionate, kind friend.
Laura echoed these sentiments. “If Jesus was actually real,” she said, “that is how I’d like him to be.”
As Christians reading these remarks, we might begin to feel our defenses rising, responses at the ready:
Jesus wasn’t “an offspring!”
There’s historical evidence that he’s real.
Scripture says that Jesus was kind and compassionate.
True. According to the tenets of Christianity, these statements are factually correct. But are they helpful?
Too often Christians can respond to questions about faith in a way that leaves people confused or offended. When engaging with people who are seeking answers, argumentative posturing won’t help them feel comfortable asking tough questions about Jesus.
As church leaders, if we hope to address people’s uncertainties, it’s important to be aware of any defensiveness and even fear that may arise in us in response to challenging questions. But like Jesus, we can start by looking beyond the comments and questions to see the underlying need. People who are questioning faith are much more likely to engage if Christians emulate the gentleness of a Jesus who neither hid the truth nor weaponized it.
Start with Similarities
The market research also revealed that there are people who are skeptical across every generation. However, a disproportionate number of those who doubted and questioned faith were millennials and Generation Z.
For many of the younger respondents, the perceived aggressiveness of evangelical Christianity is a barrier that keeps them from attending church.
“Religious organizations tend to push their beliefs on people and force their thinking upon them,” explained Carly, one of the younger interviewees. “People under the age of 35 tend to be more open-minded and free-thinking.”
Additional research supports this idea, showing that the Generation Z population tends to be more accepting and permissive—qualities that aren’t necessarily associated with the church. As members of the millennial and Gen Z generations assume culture-making roles, church leaders can best show up by addressing their growing concerns about the judgmentalism and hypocrisy of religious institutions.
Many young people resonate with the core beliefs of Christianity, says Michael, a participant in one of the research groups, but they don’t really see the tolerance of Christ emulated in Christians. He offers a caution to Christians who want to engage about the values Jesus’ life represents: “Acknowledging that Christ was wrongly judged should cause the church to reflect on how it judges others’ life choices.”
Most notable was the positive response from many of the respondents to the notion of the Jesus who understands what it feels like to be judged. The Jesus who preached about love and radical acceptance. The Jesus who healed “untouchable” people instead of obeying religious rules. The Jesus who suffered criticism and chose to love unconditionally anyway. So how do Christians better convey this Jesus to the world?
Rebecca McLaughlin, author of Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World's Largest Religion, offers her expertise as a leader in coaching churches on how to deal with doubt. McLaughlin notes that listening–really listening–is perhaps the most essential response Christians can have when having these conversations.
“Hear the question or critique,” McLaughlin says, “and ask curious questions about it, because so often there’s a story behind someone’s question or skepticism. Even if it doesn’t change the answer that we ultimately give, it might change how we go about answering it.”
McLaughlin goes on to say that these relationships will not be easy–even if we do everything right. Even if we’re open and safe, even if we have all the tools and resources to pass on, “it’s intellectually hard, but it’s also emotionally hard,” says McLaughlin. “If we’re coming with humility and love to share the gospel with someone who is skeptical, we’re likely going to feel rejected and misunderstood.”
But that temporary discomfort should not deter us from pursuing these relationships. It is our greatest responsibility and privilege to engage with those who want and need to learn more about Jesus.
Ask Questions of Your Own
Despite the many barriers, people are still seeking ways to answer questions related to their own lives, including the tough personal and spiritual ones. Meeting people in their curiosity, uncertainty, and even skepticism through compassionate, ongoing dialogue can provide a beacon of hope for those floating in a sea of doubt.
While the market research from He Gets Us provides invaluable insight into the questions and concerns people have, none of this will exactly translate to your own church and local context. As you contemplate these insights, you can also do your own community research to get a clearer sense of the sentiments of those around you. By forming relationships, engaging with those who are curious and even skeptical, and meeting them where they are, you'll demonstrate Jesus’ abundant love through the process.
To learn more about the research, the campaign, and ways your church can get involved, visit HeGetsUsPartners.com.