Jesus Has an Image Problem

November 2, 2011

Maybe you’ve noticed.  Jesus has a bit of a major image problem.

Yep, if Jesus’ public relations committee were working for anyone else, they’d have been fired long ago.  Anyone else with such a bad rep would disappear.  The campaign would be over, the bus tour cancelled, the public appearances would stop…except for maybe Sarah Palin.

And we 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 in 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 crappy riffs on pop culture or the endless Jesus accessories?

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 this guy the problem?

Is it “missionary tourists” with matching t-shirts?

Is it the most zealous and misguided Christians 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.  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 clog the internet, if only to make viewers feel better about themselves momentarily.

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

Of course, Christians often make themselves easy targets for ridicule, in the same way that hillbillies attempting to “truck surf” make themselves easy targets of internet ridicule, as the dozens of Google results on such a query will show you.

Maybe the goal is to point at the Christians that everyone else is taunting and say, “Hey, not all of us are like those idiots!”  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.  There you go, you are part of problem.

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, got the idiots away from him, and restored his image, just as it was when he walked around Israel?

Jesus would still have a major image 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 people who would do embarrassing things in his name.  They tried to exclude crazy people, but Jesus seemed just seemed too intrigued by weird.  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 just like Trekkies and Ron Paul supporters, mocking weird or stupid Christians won’t make them go away.  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?  Who do you think is the biggest part of the problem?  Hey, I know I’ve been all three.  I can’t say any of it has helped Jesus’ PR.

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29 responses to Jesus Has an Image Problem

  1. Hi Matt,

    Isn’t there an old hymn that prays, “Let the beauty of Jesus be seen in me”?


  2. I’m part of the problem and the solution I’d say. We all have our circle of influences at work, family, and etc as we are Jesus’ PR in that group.

    But then again, does Jesus need our PR? Didn’t he say that even if we kept our mouths shut he’d make the rocks cry out? I’m not saying that’s an excuse not to live a godly life, just something to think about.

    I’m getting tired of all the mockery of Christianity lately. I’ll post some Jesus pics on my FB if I really believe they can make us think. But like I said in another comment, God has convicted me not to post stuff on FB because I know it will rile other Christians up.

  3. Great post. You’ve really hit on the many angles we need to consider. You’re right in saying that Jesus did have an image problem, it just wasn’t the kind of image problems his followers have created sometimes!

    I’m all for creating redemptive alternatives. It’d say culturally speaking, the shift has become defining ourselves by what we are not, and that can lead to nowhere if you don’t figure out some kind of substance for your identity. I see this in blog posts, book projects, you name it. I’d say the sermon on the mount is a good place to begin sorting out what we do stand for when it comes to creating a new image for Jesus.

    • Good idea. The sermon starts with the beatitudes, which Jesus uses to show people what they are NOT, but then he gives alternatives – what they ARE. When you are cursed, you are not really cursed, but blessed.

      • Hi again, Matt,

        I’ve noticed something about the Sermon From The Mount: The word “blessed” occurs a few times at the beginning; the word “you” occurs 207 times. That’s second person singular “you” meaning, I think, John Cowart.

        Jesus never tells me what somebody else ought to do. He never said how somebody else ought to treat me; only how I should treat them.

        No wonder He has an image problem.


        • Wow, John. That’s just…wow. Jesus never told me what someone else ought to do. Cool.

        • John, may I quote you on this please?

        • Great post, Matt. I like how you tie it up by saying that bad PR has been plaguing Jesus since his birth and he doesn’t care a snap about it. My thoughts lately have been that people who aren’t interested in following Jesus could judge our most selfless acts done totally in the Spirit and determine us to be jerks and all of Christianity with us, just like the Pharisees did with Jesus. It all depends upon your frame of reference and what you are determined to believe. So whatever we do, whether we eat or drink (1 Corinthians 10:31), whether in word or deed (Colossians 3:17), work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord and not for men (Colossians 3:23).

  4. I was praying this morning “Hallowed be Thy name.” I was asking God to overcome all the ridiculous things His name is attached to and allow me/ us / the church to make His name famous and honored and respected and powerful again in our corner of the world.

    Jesus rose from the dead and freaked everybody out and started something that has been and is unstoppable. On the day of pentecost the Holy Spirit allowed the message to be heard in many languages and freaked everybody out and the church has been unstoppable since. The church was born in the most anti Christ, ignorant, clueless culture and world and won that same world.

    I guess I am saying that IN SPITE of the bad PR God is still working everywhere. God has a plan that can’t be stopped, even by Benny Hinn!!

  5. Good thoughts – I never really thought about Jesus’ bad PR when he was here on earth.

    At the same time, a quote from Catalyst pops into my mind. When did we ever start thinking Jesus wasn’t enough?

    “Jesus and ….” <– the problem starts with the "and"

    it should just be "Jesus." The problem comes in when we start thinking that his story isn't enough, we have to jazz it up a bit to appeal to people, etc. Then we screw it up.

  6. I can’t help but think if we live Jesus’ great commandment– “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it,’You shall love your neighbot as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (NIV)–we would be doing what Jesus wants us to do. The PR problem is a man-made deal; those who contribute to it will be held accountable. Meanwhile, if we just do what Jesus said and ask for His forgiveness and grace for everything else, that’s about all we can do. I tend to simplify things, though; it’s easier for me to understand and follow.

  7. Some of the best PR about Jesus is expressed by Max Lucado: It’s not every day that you find someone who will give you a second chance, much less someone who will give you a second chance every day. In Jesus, we have both.

  8. I don’t know, Matt. The Truth is still the Truth as it has always been. And Jesus is God, who does not need any one of us to accomplish His purposes, although He has graciously invited us to participate. He knew we were all going to act like this anyway. So I still wonder (and I am NOT an expert in any way) if it is Jesus that has a PR problem (the Word does not go out and return void) or if it is just Christians who have a PR problem. It is said that they will know US by our love. Not that they will know HIM by our love. So I am wondering if those are two separate things. In the knowing-us-by-our-love department, we – as a church universal – suck pretty badly. It is my goal very day to suck less. And if today I suck at it a little less than yesterday, it is a good day. So maybe I am just off my rocker here. Does anyone else see them as totally separate issues?

    • Well, I don’t know what you mean when you say that “the Word does not go out and return void” — maybe not in your perception, but I can think of lots of ways in which promises made in the Bible are patently not true in the real world. But I came by to leave a very similar comment to yours. I wanted to ask: how is it conceivable for Jesus to have an image problem? Wouldn’t he (or God, or both, or however you think about the trinity) intervene to make sure that his followers understood him properly?

      The fact there are so many different types of Christians each trying to spread the “right version” of Christianity is definitely one of the many reasons I think it is exceedingly unlikely there is any divine, supernatural force behind Christian beliefs.

      • Ah, but NFQ, we live in a Western context and our communication mindset is very much communicator oriented. We believe the burden is on a communicator to ensure that the message is understood clearly. But any eastern culture is the opposite. The burden is on the receiver to ensure that he is understanding what was intended by the communicator.

    • Carolyn, I have to admit that I did not know where you were going at first but I think you might be making a subtle but valid point.

  9. easy way out. Love your neighbour as you love yourself.

  10. I read a description of the definition of Glorify that said to build the rep of God. Kinda like one of those old school ticker tape parades for a returning war hero.

    I’m thankful God is getting His reputation from more people than just me otherwise His klout number would be going down. I have been considering dropping the whole “Christian” moniker altogether. Maybe I’ll go with follower or some other trendy name that doesn’t evoke such discontentment in the public at large.

    What do you think?

  11. Great post Matt. I try to fall into the last category as much as possible but certainly have served in all. I want to at least try to clean up the parts that are not directly caused by Jesus/the offense of the gospel. Those parts I’m okay with:)

  12. I have been in all three for sure. This would have made an interesting guest post on Jesus Needs New PR

  13. This is a great post – and some fair questions!

    What bugs me the most are people eager to tell me they are Christians 😉

    “Jesus has left the building!”

  14. loool I am a christian JC:))

  15. Thoughtful article I admit but JESUS (Jehovah’s Eternally Saving Unmatched Salvation) does not have an image (character) problem. We (Christians) do! We have been intentionally and sometimes unintentionally co-conspirators with Satan in maligning the character of God and His Son–Jesus. Not simply by our unrighteous acts but by our unrighteous thoughts and feelings that lead to unrighteous acts/behaviors. The former by misrepresentation and the latter by lies/deceit.

    To define the Christian Church’s PR problem by blaming its founder is tantamount to the selfsame character assassination that you have identified as done by others. To be honest let’s make sure we point the finger at ourselves and confess, “God is true and every man a liar.”

    The Church does indeed have a PR problem but don’t worry for Habakkuk 2 and verse 20 says, “The Lord is in His Holy Temple, let all the earth keep silence before Him.” Jesus will soon clean house and solve the PR problem–He will see to it.