Mean Christians and the Importance of Likability

niceThe #1 factor that determines whether-or-not someone comes to faith in Jesus has nothing to do with the size of our church.

It has nothing to do with our denominational preference.

And it has less to do with our theology than I wish it did.

It’s this.

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.

No one wants to spend their time with 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…

“…if you love one another.”

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?

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(Make It Nice photo from Kyle Van Horn • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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13 thoughts on “Mean Christians and the Importance of Likability”

  1. The people, and their lack of kindness, is the number one reason why unchurched Christians won’t go to church. They expect to be judged, and struggle to believe that any church is an exception.

  2. This article is ABSOLUTELY RIGHT ON! We were just discussing this very topic last night at our bible study. I pastor a church in a small community where not only is it critical that I am nice and approachable and friendly in our community but so is our church family. In our town, most everyone knows everyone and has for a very long time. That makes our approach to people who we want to invite to church that much more important! We too have had people that left because of who’s in the church and those who wouldn’t come because of who’s in the church. We’re turning that tide and recreating our perception in the community to be one of friendliness, acceptance, and reaching out INTO our community rather than just sitting in the pew and waiting for them to come to us.

  3. The problem is that even nice people are prone to act not nice on occasion. And ten instances of ‘nice’ are quickly overcome by one instance of ‘mean’. I recently had a conversation with a man in his eighties who gave up on church thirty some years ago in a time of grief and stress because he perceived the elders of his church as mean spirited in their critique of a church Christmas program. I have no idea if his perception was accurate or not, but I do know it affects him today. A few weeks ago I had another conversation with a person from my community who is friendly to our church but does not attend. He related that a friend of his was deeply offended by a conversation he had with one of our church people who was abrupt in his comments. I know the gentleman from the church very well, and know that he is a gentle, caring man, but I also know as he has aged he has become very direct and abrupt in conversation, occasionally to the point of rudeness. I worry that I might easily offend someone unintentionally in a similar fashion

  4. I’ll be starting a new series entitled “Let’s Love One Another”. I am just finishing a series entitled Let’s Serve God”. This article gave me some great ideas for an in-between catalyst. Thank you!!!

  5. Small church enthusiasts spends lots of time describing what they DO NOT LIKE about structure. They look to the little households of hope and love that we find in Acts. They want the honesty of transparency in family of faith and the luxury of enough time to explore together. All good points. But remember that worship and the Word come first. Fellowship is somewhere else down the line. Certainly the Holy Spirit is able to make this happen…Doug

  6. An important topic to tackle: actually being nice in church. Thank you, Karl. I agree, right on!

    At the same time we all have bad days and too many times in our struggle to put on a good face we can be inauthentic in church…pastor’s too. Even here, though, it is possible to not feel happy and yet be nice. I wonder if we often miss opportunities to be nice by not being humble and modeling forgiveness for new believers and nonbelievers enough. I remember in college having a discussion with my pastor on a sensitive theological issue and was basically demeaned for my perspective. The next Sunday before the service he took me into a side room and sought my forgiveness sincerely as his friend. That was a profound moment for me as a young person to see humility and forgiveness modeled in such a personal way from my pastor. One of the nicest acts anyone has ever done for me and one that’s stuck with me all these years later.

    Again, thank you Karl!

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