The Emperor Has No Clothes

Recently released research by the Barna Group sheds an interesting light on the perceptions of the average person toward Jesus and his followers. The research, involving a survey of just over two thousand U.S. adults and late teens in December 2022, revealed an overwhelmingly positive attitude toward Jesus but a deeply negative attitude toward Christians and the church. When asked if they had a “positive view” of Jesus, 71% of people surveyed indicated that they did, while positive perceptions of various categories of Jesus’ followers rated extremely poorly by comparison:

Attitude Toward Megachurches: 16% positive

Attitude Toward Celebrity Pastors: 17% positive

Attitude Toward Christian Celebrities: 26% positive

Attitude Toward Evangelicals: 26% positive

Interestingly, when respondents were differentiated according to whether they professed to be Christians themselves, the opinion of Christians toward many of these categories wasn’t much better than the general population. For instance, only 17% of those professing to be Christians had a positive opinion of megachurches, compared to 16% within the entire population. Similarly, only 19% of Christians had a positive view of celebrity pastors, compared to 17% of the general population.

There are several surprising elements to these results. Firstly, the overwhelmingly positive regard for Jesus within the general community (71%) is very encouraging. Of course, these results do not delineate what people specifically believe about Jesus in terms of his divinity and resurrection, but at the very least they reveal people’s warm regard for him as an historical figure whose life and teaching are considered wholesome and appealing. This is good news. It means that the secular juggernaut that has rolled through contemporary society in recent decades has not been able to significantly tarnish the image of Christ nor undermine a general belief in his historicity. And while this survey was conducted in America, where Christian beliefs are more culturally embedded than perhaps in other Western nations, similar results would probably be obtained if the survey were to be conducted in other parts of the world. Jesus continues to have a good reputation among the general population.

But the disturbing aspect of the survey is how poorly the Christian church is regarded, particularly large, high-profile churches and celebrities. The results indicate a profound disillusionment with Christianity, especially the polished, mass-produced, consumer-driven version of it that has gained traction in recent decades. People are now seeing a profound disconnect between the humble, gracious teaching of Jesus and the shallow, glitzy version of Christianity that is sometimes marketed in his name. The Hollywood franchise of Christianity that has gained increasing traction within the Christian landscape for several decades has lost its shine. People are now seeing it for what it is; a performance-based production that often borders on the profane in its adoration of celebrity leaders and its infatuation with a self-focused message that is almost the antithesis of what Jesus taught.

The all-too-public fall from grace of a steady stream of celebrity pastors and high-profile Christian leaders has hastened this disillusionment. The most common reason given by those surveyed for their low regard for megachurches and celebrity pastors was “hypocrisy”.

Most people have well-developed ‘phony snifters’. They can smell phonies a mile away. The ostentatious lifestyles, moral failures and abusive behaviours of an alarming number of celebrity pastors has led to the growing awareness within society that “the emperor has no clothes”. For those unfamiliar with this phrase, it refers to a Hans Christian Andersen story of a whole kingdom that is fooled into thinking that their revered emperor is wearing a magnificent set of clothes when, in fact, he is entirely naked. The appallingly hypocritical behaviour of too many high-profile Christian leaders has revealed their ‘nakedness’; that they have failed to be clothed with the character of Jesus and transformed by his grace.

Most surprising in these survey results is the indicated disillusionment of the Christion population with megachurches and celebrity pastors. Only 17% of Christians now regard megachurches positively, and the percentage of church-goers who regard celebrity pastors positively is not much better – only 19%. The shine has worn off, even within the Christian population. Too many moral failures have taken their toll and the showbiz style of Christianity that pervades many megachurches has ceased to impress. The glitz and glamour of a well-polished production that offers concert-quality music, professional sound and lighting, multi-million-dollar facilities and a message that appeals to our modern preoccupation with success and fulfilment has failed to deliver what it promised. And when the leaders of this Hollywood franchise fail to be transformed themselves, what hope does the average person in the ‘audience’ have?

Increasingly, Christians are beginning to see the huge discrepancy between the humility and godliness of Jesus and the rampant narcissism, greed and abusive authoritarianism that characterises many celebrity pastors. In some ways, this disparity is an echo of the stark ecclesiastical contrast that existed in the first century. Today’s celebrity pastor movement can be seen as a reincarnation of the elitist, arrogant leadership of the Jewish Pharisees and Sadducees; self-inflated, ostentatious religious leaders who were revered by the masses. Jesus, however, was not fooled by their pomposity and ‘showiness’. He was scathing in his criticism of their hypocrisy and rampant pride, calling them “children of hell”, “whitewashed tombs” and “snakes” in Matthew 23. In contrast to these ostentatious, elitist leaders, Jesus lived a life of such humility, simplicity and compassion that he was deeply loved by the masses. They saw the difference. It was the difference between the fake and the real.

Perhaps people are starting to spot the difference again today. In Australia, we are now starting to see a marked drop-off in people’s affiliation with big-production megachurches – a decline that cannot completely be attributed to post-Covid factors. For instance, 2021 Australian Census data indicates that affiliation with Hillsong Australia, the flagship megachurch, declined by 2% during the reporting period, and reliable reports are now indicating a marked decline in attendance since the recent fall from grace of some of its leaders. The superlunar has been badly holed and people are abandoning ship. Their ‘phony snifter’ is at work.

Of course, this does not mean that every large church is shallow and led by narcissists. There are large churches led by godly leaders who are faithfully proclaiming the gospel. But it is fair to say that the megachurch movement, generally, has been plagued with dysfunctional leadership and has all too often served up a candy-sweet spirituality that has left a sour taste in the mouths of Christians and non-Christians alike. The Barna Group research shows this.

But lest we become too disheartened, the survey results also give us cause for hope. Jesus is still warmly regarded within the general secular population. The moral failings of celebrity pastors and the shallowness of their performance-based productions have failed to tarnish the image of Jesus within society. This is incredibly encouraging. It shows that most people have seen through the glitz and glamour of the megachurch movement and perceive that it doesn’t truly represent the humble, gracious teachings and character of Jesus. In their minds, Jesus stands in stark contrast to the megachurch movement. He is the real thing, whereas the multi-million-dollar Hollywood franchise is a highly sweetened version that, when consumed for a sufficiently long time, leaves one feeling sick and dissatisfied. Even those on the outside, who do not identify as Christians, can see this.

Now, perhaps more than ever before, people are looking for the real thing. They are no longer impressed by Hollywood-styled religion that promises much but delivers little, apart from lining the pockets of the superstars. People are no longer looking for a slick show. They are searching for something deeper.

The Christian church has a window of opportunity that may not last. People are still interested in Jesus. They are impressed with him. They may not fully comprehend the profundity of who he really is, but they sense that there is something intrinsically attractive about him. They sense that he is not like the megachurch emperors who parade before us with their transparent suits of ostentation and pride. He is humble. He is gentle. He is compassionate and gracious. And perhaps – just perhaps – he may even be the King we are looking for, under whose gracious reign we might find the meaning and purpose our hearts desire.

Our emperors have been shown to have no clothes. But perhaps this King is different, clothed as he is with love and humility, compassion and grace.

The world is impressed with Jesus. They like him. So let us give them Jesus, while they are still interested.