Unchristian – What a new generation really thinks about Christianity … and why it matters

While teaching a “Saline Solution” conference in Denver recently, one of the attendees recommended I read a recently released book: Unchristian — What a new generation really thinks about Christianity … and why it matters. The book is written by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. Kinnaman is president of The Barna Research Group and Lyons is founder of the Fermi Project, a network of social entrepreneurs working to make positive contributions to culture. In addition to the results of extensive research on the perspectives of church ‘outsiders’ born between 1984 and 2002 (the youngest Busters and the oldest Mosaics), the book includes the reactions from more than two dozen Christian leaders. It explores six broad themes of objections raised by church ‘outsiders.’ Reflection on this information, I believe, has the potential to help us as Christians see ourselves and our faith more clearly.

 More Information:

Before I tell you what the book says, I want to let you know that for the last 15 years I have seen these same trends and have developed materials to help caring, loving Christians address and overcome these obstacles at work and in our neighborhoods.

The first curriculum I developed, along with long-time friend and pastor, William Carr Peel, was called “The Saline Solution.” It’s a live conference and a video-curriculum designed to assist healthcare professionals in becoming fruitful salt and light in the professional arena of healthcare. You can learn more about The Saline Solution here.

Then, Bill and I wrote a book and developed a video-curriculum for those Christians who wish to be salt and light in their professional worlds. It’s called Going Public with Your Faith: Becoming a Spiritual Influence at Work.  

The book was honored as a Christianity Today Book of the Year winner and it was also awarded a Silver Medallion Award. The video curriculum was nominated for a Gold Medallion Award and received a Silver Medallion Award.

Both are being re-released the summer of 2009 under the title of Workplace Grace: Becoming a Spiritual Influence at Work.

Anyway, all of my writing in this area predicted and is designed to help you deal with the issues raised in the new book Unchristian – What a new generation really thinks about Christianity…and why it matters.

The book was reviewed by David Mays of The Mission Exchange (formerly EFMA). You can learn more about David here. The number in parenthesis indicate the page of the book from which the quote was taken.

1. The Backstory – Seeing Christianity from the outside

“Christianity has an image problem.” (11) “What people think becomes their reality….” (13) “Yes, the issues are complex. No, it is not always ‘our’ fault. However, if we do not deal with our part of the problem, we will fail to connect with anew generation.” “Often Christianity’s negative image reflects real problems, issues that Christians need to own and be accountable to change.” (14)

UnChristian “reflects outsiders’ most common reaction to the faith: they think Christians no longer represent what Jesus had in mind, that Christianity in our society is not what it was meant to be.” (15)

Christianity has enormous influence in America and that is partly why people agitate against it. (19)

2. Discovering Unchristian Faith

Young people are different from previous generations. They are skeptical and challenge the rules, irreverent and blunt. For them there is a “growing tide of hostility and resentment toward Christianity.” (24) 

Most outsiders are familiar with Christianity, have been in church, have heard the message of Christ, and are familiar with the story. (26) 

“We have become famous for what we oppose, rather than who we are for.” (26) “We are known for having an us-versus-them mentality. Outsiders believe Christians do not like them….” “The three most common perceptions of present-day Christianity are antihomosexual (91%), judgmental (87%), and hypocritical (85%). (27) 

The six common negative perceptions are:

  • hypocritical, 
  • too focused on getting converts, 
  • antihomosexual, 
  • sheltered, 
  • too political, and 
  • judgmental. (29-30) 

Perceptions have been formed by a huge amount of firsthand experience with Christians and the church, by a wide range of inputs from various sources, by the secular media (but less than you would think), and by painful encounters and hurtful experiences with Christianity. (31-2) 

They see an undercurrent of arrogance, Christians more concerned about proving themselves right than listening. (33) Even many young churchgoers express similar frustrations. (34-35)

Should we Christians care? And, what if they are right about us?

“If we have been unChristian, then we bear responsibility for the problem–and the solution.” (37)

3. Hypocritical

“Perception: Christians say one thing but live something entirely different.” (41)

Although those studied see Christians as hypocritical, it doesn’t bother them a lot. They don’t care. They expect to be disappointed. (43) They are hyper-individualistic and are adept at shaping their own version of reality. (43) Their top priorities are wealth and fame and hypocrisy is just a simple reality of life. (44) 

Remember, it was the most religious people that Jesus labeled hypocrites! (45) Like them, our lives don’t match our beliefs. “In many ways our lifestyles and perspectives are no different from those of anyone around us.” (46) They measure us by our own standards. To them the primary way of being Christian is “being good.” (49) 

“Outsiders think of our moralizing, our condemnations, and our attempts to draw boundaries around everything. Even if these standards are accurate and biblical, they seem to be all we have to offer. And our lives are a poor advertisement for these standards.” (52) 

“In our studies we discovered young Christians currently embrace the acceptability of many behaviors older believers staunchly reject. For example, a majority of born-again adults in their twenties and thirties currently believe that gambling, cohabitation, and sexual fantasies are morally acceptable. There are also huge gaps between young believers and older Christians when it comes to the acceptability of sex outside of marriage, profanity, drunkenness, pornography, homosexual sex, and illegal drug use.” (53) “Young people–even in churches–are reshaping moral and sexual rules.” (54)

4. Get Saved!

“Perception: Christians are insincere and concerned only with converting others.” (67)

Young Christians are reluctant to be pushy or share their faith because many of the old models of evangelism are, simply put, not Biblical.

“Only one-third of young outsiders believe that Christians genuinely care about them.” “Showing genuine interest in someone is hard to fake.” (69) More than 80% think Christianity teaches pretty much the same ideas as other religions. (69) “We heard no favorable comments about so-called street witnessing…” (69) 

“The most effective efforts to share faith are interpersonal and relationship based.” (70) Most people are not logical thinkers and do not become Christians based on logical evidence. The most important factor is whether it “feels right” to them. (72)

“The opportunities that outsiders have to hear about Christ and know Christians are nothing short of astounding.” “The vast majority of teenagers nationwide will spend a significant amount of their teen years participating in a Christian congregation.” “The vast majority of outsiders in this country, particularly among young generations, are actually de-churched individuals.” Two-thirds say they made a commitment to Jesus Christ at some point in their life. (74) 

“Out of ninety-five million Americans who are ages eighteen to forty-one, about sixty million say they have already made a commitment to Jesus that is still important; however, only about three million of them have a biblical worldview.” (75)

Even among those who have never made a commitment to Christ, nearly half (45 percent) said they have considered becoming a Christian before…” (77)

“Most people in America, when they are exposed to the Christian faith, are not being transformed. They take one step into the door, and the journey ends. They are not being allowed, encouraged, or equipped to love or to think like Christ.” (82)

5. Antihomosexual

“Perception: Christians show contempt for gays and lesbians.” (91)

“…the perception that Christians are ‘against’ gays and lesbians–not only objecting to their lifestyles but also harboring irrational fear and unmerited scorn toward them–has reached critical mass. The gay issue has become the ‘big one’….” (92)

“When you introduce yourself as a Christian to a friend, neighbor, or business associate who is an outsider, you might as well have it tattooed on your arm: antihomosexual, gay-hater, homophobic. …that’s what outsiders think of you.” (93) “When most of us engage homosexuals, we come across as arrogant, self-righteous, and uncaring–the opposite of how Jesus engaged outsiders.” (93) 

“It’s true that sexual sins are particularly destructive in people’s lives, but this is true of all sexual sin. And frankly, when we recognize the complexity and significance of sin and sexual sin, it should engage our concern and compassion on the issue of homosexuality even more.” But it is unChristian “to let your disagreement with their behavior spill out in your feelings and words toward them as people.” (96) 

“A new generation of adults has significantly shifted its view and now accepts homosexuality as a legitimate way of life..” (99) “Now most young adults endorse the idea of same-sex marriage, and a majority favor the legal rights of gays and lesbians to adopt children. Also they generally believe that laws should be changed to provide more rights and protections to homosexuals. Most older adults soundly reject these alternatives.” (100)

“Mosaics and Busters are intensely loyal to their ‘tribe,’ which is their network of relationships. …their peers become a filter for decision making. … To their way of thinking, illegally downloading music is just peer-to-peer ‘sharing.’ Giving away products or services to friends, even if that would technically be stealing from their place of employment, is simply labeled ‘hooking up’ their pals with free stuff. Being more accepting of gays and lesbians is the same thing as being loyal to the people they know best.” (103)

“Mosaics and Busters really work at putting acceptance of people and lifestyles into practice. And they are very attuned to people’s hearts and motivations.” (103)

“If we don’t work at developing meaningful relationships with our co-workers, whether gay or straight, how can we expect them to respect us and our beliefs?” (105)

“Nothing that we despise in the other man is entirely absent from ourselves. We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or don’t do, and more in light of what they suffer.” (107, quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

6. Sheltered

“Perception: Christians are boring, unintelligent, old-fashioned, and out of touch with reality.” (121)

Christianity is perceived as separated from real spiritual vitality and mystery. It seems like rules and standards disconnected from the supernatural world, a social club. (123) Christians are not thinkers. They live in their own world, not speaking the same language as everyone else. (123)

Young adults thrive on diversity, friendships, passions, media, and the internet. They have been extremely protected and now they are experimenting with everything. They live in a relativistic world and are therefore comfortable with ambiguity, less rigid about perspectives, and resistant to simple answers. (125) 

“Their world is coming unglued and Christianity does not seem up to the challenge.” (126) One third were born to unmarried mothers. Forty percent admit to viewing pornography in a typical month. Substance abuse is more frequent. (127) “Their interpersonal skills are also unusually prickly.” “Young adults have significant needs, and they push the boundaries of conventional lifestyles.” (128)

“Busters and Mosaics need help.” (129) “…our choices to live a sheltered life often leave us unable or unwilling to help people who need Jesus.” (130) “Christ calls his followers to be active missionaries to the culture. This culture is offensive, but we cannot take offense.” (132)

“Being salt and light demands two things: we practice purity in the midst of a fallen world and yet we live in proximity to this fallen world. If you don’t hold up both truths in tension, you invariably become useless and separated from the world God loves. For example, if you only practice purity apart from proximity to the culture, you inevitably become pietistic, separatist, and conceited. If you live in close proximity to the culture without also living in a holy manner, you become indistinguishable from fallen culture and useless in God’s kingdom.” (133, quoting Mike Metzger)

7. Too Political

“Perception: Christians are primarily motivated by a political agenda and promote right-wing politics.” (153)

“Christians have made a concerted and coordinated effort to engage the political process in recent decades, their activity in the political realm can be hard to miss.” 

“We must realize that our political activism, if expressed in an unchristian manner, prevents a new generation from seeing Christ.” This reputation “affects their ability to connect with new generations who are innately skeptical of people who appear to use political power to protect their interests and viewpoints.” (156-57)

Being politically engaged is more important than ever. We should be “known as engaged, informed, and on the leading edge, offering a sophisticated response to issues.” (157) “Political involvement…is an important avenue of influence within our community, nation, and world.” (158)

Explanation of how evangelicals are classified by Barna Association, p. 159

Among the evangelical segment only a slight majority (59%) are registered as Republicans. (160)

When we talk about “warfare” we are usually thinking of a cosmic struggle, as in Ephesians 6, but outsiders may hear alarming militaristic talk. (161) The things we say end up in the internet world of blogging. We must be careful how we talk and engage in self examination, humility, and appropriate engagement. (162)

8 Judgmental

“Perception: Christians are prideful and quick to find faults in others.” (181)

“To be judgmental is to point out something that is wrong in someone else’s life, making the person feel put down, excluded, and marginalized.” “Being judgmental is fueled by self-righteousness….” 90% of outsiders say Christians are judgmental. (182) 

“Judgmental attitudes come across as overly simplified, old-fashioned, and out of step with their diverse world.” (183) 

“Are we more concerned with the unrighteousness of others than our own self-righteousness?” (184) 

“A critical distinction for Christians is the difference between condemning people (i.e., being judgmental) and helping them become soft-hearted–aware of, and sensitized to God’s standards.” (184) 

Four forms of judgmentalism surfaced:

  • wrong verdict, 
  • wrong timing, 
  • wrong motivation, and 
  • playing favorites. (187)

 “Pride fuels judgmental attitudes. Arrogance is perhaps the most socially acceptable form of sin in the church today.” (191)

 “Human beings are attracted to acceptance and genuine respect; they are repelled by rejection and an air of superiority.” (194) 

Guidelines suggested by outsiders:

  • Listen to me.
  • Don’t label me.
  • Don’t be so smart and pretend to have all the answers.
  • Put yourself in my place.
  • Be genuine.
  • Be my friend with no other motives. (194-95) 

9 From UnChristian to Christian

How will we respond? (205) Four suggestions:

  • Respond with the right perspective (like Jesus. He considered the below-the-surface issues.)
  • Connect with people. Jesus influenced people through relationships and friendships.
  • Be creative. Jesus attracted people in creative ways and connected with the heart. Look for new stories, parables and ways of communicating.
  • Serve people. Cultivate deep concern and sensitivity to outsiders. Learn to listen. Live a lifestyle of compassion. 

Afterward

“Putting the needs of others above your own, loving your neighbor, doing good to those who would do evil to you, exercising humility, suffering with those less fortunate, and doing it all with a pure heart is nearly impossible. But it is Jesus’s model and call.” (225)

“The perceptions of outsiders will change only when Christians strive to represent the heart of God in every relationship and situation.” (226)

To learn practical tips on how to be salt and light to pre-Christians, consider getting a copy of my book, Going Public with Your Faith: Becoming a Spiritual Influence at Work, and studying the Biblical principles we discuss with a few close friends.

 

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