According to the latest byFaith survey, PCA members tend to live transparent lives, their behavior reflects well on the gospel, and—far more often than not—they’re quick to extend grace to others.

The survey, the first in a series of five, was inspired by the book UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity (Baker Books, 2007). Authors David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons found, based on extensive research, that there is “an increasingly negative reputation of Christians, especially among young Americans.” According to the authors, “Christians are best known for what they are against, rather than what they’re for. And they’re perceived, among other things, as being ‘judgmental, anti-homosexual, and too political.’”

The findings below, informally gathered from byFaith readers, reflect the thoughts of PCA members about how their churches might be perceived.

In this first survey, mirroring the UnChrisitan research, byFaith asked readers about hypocrisy. Specifically we asked: If your church were the only one that young, un-churched adults had ever known, would they believe there is a gap between what Christians say and what they do?

According to UnChristian, 85 percent of un-churched young people (16-29-year-olds) believe such a gap exists. But half of those who replied to our survey say those impressions could not have been based on churches like theirs.

Many participants insist that their fellow members strive to live righteously. “They’re fallen creatures,” many explained, and they’re dependent on “Christ’s grace and “imputed righteousness,” but anyone who’d take the time to look close would find a congregation striving to live godly lives.  “We are sinners, yes,” one respondent admitted, “but visitors and new members consistently remark at the love and Christ-centeredness they experience [here].”

On the other side of the question, some believed their churches preach “moralism” rather than the gospel. And this, they told byFaith, leads to legalism, which leads to hypocrisy. Others were discouraged by their churches’ lack of involvement in the community. Even while they applauded the truthful proclamation of the gospel, they lamented the church’s absence in the public square, its lack of presence in church neighborhoods, and the failure of members to be a force for change in the secular workplace. 

Throughout the survey, respondents emphasized the importance of leadership. Time and again they expressed gratitude for godly men whose lives were consistent with the gospel. One respondent noted, “We are blessed with … men who live out … the profession they claim.”

Another, whose experience was less positive, complained that: “Our senior pastor and the majority of the session do not show others the grace God has shown to them. They are quick to condemn, [and] do not practice servant leadership.”

Young people, according to UnChristain, believe the church strives to put its best foot forward. The church, they told researchers, would rather look good than be honest.

Nearly 60 percent of PCA members see their churches differently. Participants in the byFaith survey spoke warmly of the humility they observed. Their friends were, they said, aware of their own sin and ready to confess it. That being the case, one respondent said flatly: “Nobody [here] is trying to look good.”

The importance of leadership was mentioned again, repeatedly. Respondents talked about sermons emphasizing mankind’s weakness and fallen nature. Their pastors, they explained, never shy from preaching about God’s grace and Christ’s atonement, causing us to point others to Him and to Him alone. Others were moved by the public prayers of elders who have confessed their sins and sought God’s mercy.

The message in PCA churches is consistent, respondents reported: The gospel is for broken people, including those in “our pews.”

A sizeable minority disagreed. One respondent summed up the feelings of many, noting: “We have such a lack of honesty about our brokenness.”

UnChristian reported that young people see the church as being less than transparent. In their view, the authors say, the church tries too hard to project a “we’ve-got-it-all-together” attitude.

But nearly 70 percent of the byFaith respondents believe these young people need to look closer, to peek behind the scenes—in Sunday school classes and small groups—where they’d discover God’s people living authentic lives, being honest with one another, and revealing a kind of transparency that might not be evident during a Sunday worship service.

Again, respondents showed their appreciation for pastors willing to confess their struggles, thereby making it easier for everyone to be more open. In a number of cases, members of smaller churches noted that when the congregation itself struggles—with finances, with attracting new members, with gaining the momentum needed to survive—it’s easier for individuals to shrug the pretense.

But again, a sizeable minority—some thirty percent—saw things differently. One respondent told byFaith: “This is the biggest single problem with the church.” Another said: “Our church is located in a very wealthy suburb. No one can afford to be truly open and honest about their sin and messiness.”

UnChristian cites hard evidence that many of these perceptions are based on facts.  The authors cite disturbing research that Christians are just as likely as non-Christians to visit pornographic Web sites, gamble, drink excessively, and lie.

But, according to byFaith respondents, this isn’t the case in their churches.

Many pointed out that even though Christians sin, they seek God’s help, they rely on the Holy Spirit to help them work through these problems and out of harmful lifestyles. Others observed that, “[Our sin] is the reason we’re in church.” “We’re there to repent,” many told us, and that’s the distinguishing characteristic the un-churched need to see: Christians confessing and actively seeking God’s grace and forgiveness.

Illustration by Claire Fraser