"um, well, it depends on what you mean by 'Christian'"

In the earlier days of my faith, knowing who was and wasn’t a “Christian” was a big deal to me. There was something attached to it that was comforting, familiar, certain. When I look back on those years, “Is he/she a Christian?” would come up in countless ways–related to teachers, doctors, family members, auto mechanics, friends, you name it.

Now, if I hear it, I often feel myself tense up and my skin get a little itchy.

I feel weird about my reflexive response because I am, indeed, a “Christian.” Despite how much has unraveled related to certainty, doctrine, and a host of other things, I just couldn’t shake Jesus.

Yet, if random people ask me “Are you a Christian?” my first response is always, “Um, well, it depends on what you mean by ‘Christian.'”

I wonder how many of you respond the same way?

The loud, divisive, judgmental, harsh, mean voices are often the most-associated with Christians.

And like so many others, I don’t want to be associated with that. I don’t want to be misperceived. I don’t want people to assume what I believe or don’t believe and be slotted into a groove that leads to all kinds of false conclusions.

Years ago, I remember reading about a study where people were asked, “When you hear the word Christian what does it make you think?” and people responded with so many loaded words–judgmental, mean, critical, cliquey, and exclusive. Then, they asked the same people–“When you think of the word Jesus, what comes to mind?” The answers were what we might expect–compassion, mercy, grace, forgiveness, peace.

I once did the same experiment on my Facebook page related to “Christian” and “church” and “Jesus.” The identical basic themes emerged with a few deviations. What many think of related to Jesus is not the same association they have with his followers or his church.

No question, despite how much baggage and misperception the words “church” and “pastor” carry, the word “Christian” continues to become even far more loaded.

For good reason. The voices people most often hear are often the most harmful.

This week with the Liberty University president’s awful did-he-really-just-say-that-and-that-many-people-cheered comments added on top of so much painful Islamaphobia, political bizarreness, “important messages for the LGBQT community,” and discouraging online rhetoric, I know so many deeply dedicated “Christians” who are pained by the association.

I also know so many formerly-dedicated-to-all-things-Christian who now don’t call themselves that anymore but are living out their faith with renewed freedom.

And I know many others who are not working hard at holding on to the word Christian but are definitely struggling to hold on to their faith, and this kind of craziness is unfortunately making it extra hard for them.

A few weeks ago I was at an interfaith retreat with other leaders from Denver. A huge takeaway continues to be the importance of us each bringing our faith to the table in all its strength, in all its weakness. We talked about how diversity is about being fully “us” in the contexts we are in–and honoring and loving others fully, too. For me, it means owning when I show up to those meetings that I am indeed coming as a Christian, with all its baggage and beauty. Other faiths are obviously in the same boat, too.

No matter how we shake it off, no matter how much we might want to avoid it, no matter how much we try to add some different language to it, “Christian” these days is just going to continue to be loaded with misperceptions.

In the same vein, as much as “Christ followers” or “Followers of Jesus” has its merits and I often use them, I’ve come to accept that no one on an airplane–when they notice me writing something on my computer with the word God and Jesus in it (in big type they can read from two seats away since I can’t see and my font is set on 200%)–is going to ask, “Um, are you a follower of Jesus?”

No, they are going to ask me–“Are you a Christian?”

And I’m going to have to internally sigh and start with “Um, well, it depends on what you mean by ‘Christian’.”

This is why while I continue to wrestle with the word after all these years, I’m going to live with it with the most integrity I can.

The bigger question for me personally, and I think for many others is this–how can we be a better representation of it to a world aching for Peace, Hope, Mercy, Meaning, Healing, Restoration?

Instead of trying to out-volume the hate with more rhetoric could we out-volume the hate with more practice–more moments of nonviolence, peacemaking, compassion, and surprise, where people expected one thing and got another?

It makes me think of Richard Rohr’s wise words–the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.”

One of the things I love about what’s emerging right now in the midst of so much despair and division is this: Despite the hate, despite the horrid misrepresentation of the Christian faith so publicly, there’s also a strong and beautiful current of often-so-under-rated-because-it’s-happening-by-all-kinds-of-brave-people-all-over-the-world-not-looking-for-spotlights-or-platforms-or-power who are dedicated to practicing the better.

Who really want to reflect Jesus in a beautiful way not just individually but corporately, too.

Who are going to drown out hate with love.

Who speak less and listen more.

Who will subversively topple systems of power not with words but with actions that foster equality and justice.

Who are strangely known as those “wild, crazy, brave people who enter into the darkest, weirdest places that no one else wants to go.”

Who embody more corrective experiences for people that heal and transform.

Who won’t let their distant cousins who are carrying the same name be the ones who define their entire family’s values.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • Thanks so much Kathy for this powerful post wrestling with the issue of being a Christian in today’s thorny territory. I left a church recently after getting exhausted walking through minefields. It wasn’t worth it. I became a ‘Christian’ 8 years ago, but became perplexed and angry about many of the things you mention in your blog..I stuck with it for years, trying to focus on the good..but minefields get tiring. Thankfully, grace, mercy, compassion, kindness and love transcend words, religion, walls of church buildings. We’ll keep on keeping on. But it’s good to talk about all this, so we don’t feel all alone. There’s many of us scrambling together on the internet and in coffee shops. Blessings. Thank you.

  • “What many think of related to Jesus is not the same association they have with his followers or his church.”

    Years ago I watched an interview with John Cleese about the Monty Python film, “Life of Brian”. He said they’d talked about doing a film about the life of Jesus, but after reading all four gospels they decided there was nothing funny or worthy of ridicule about his life – in fact quite the opposite. So instead they decided to make a film about the folly of religion.

  • We try to avoid the term most of the time. I can’t remember the last time I used it when talking to anyone who I thought probably was not following Jesus. I do not want to be identified with many of the people who use the term. For the most part, the only time I use the term is when I’m writing posts online on “Christian” blogs, where presumably most of the readers have a general idea what it should mean.

    For us “Christian”is not synonymous with conservative, Evangelical, Republican, anti-gay, anti-feminist, complementarian, inerrantist, and many other terms. We often use “follower of Jesus”, but even that term does not mean the same thing to everyone. Labels often mean very little. Spend some time with a person. Then you’ll have an idea of who they really are.

    • it’s sad how it has become so misrepresented…and yeah, it makes me think of maya angelou’s words–“you’ll never remember what a person said, but you’ll always remember how they made you feel…”

  • Love the thoughts Kathy. The word “Christian” is so hard to be proud of these days. I don;t really like the word because it is often defined by a lot of stuff that has almost nothing to do with love.

  • Re.: “…Richard Rohr’s wise words– ‘the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.’”
    Actually he’s quoting Francis of Assisi. But Rohr is a great example of someone who tries to emulate Francis’s habit of following the gospel _his own unique way_, while avoiding confrontation whenever possible.


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