According to David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Research Group, young Americans are scathing in their view of Christians. Speaking at the Charleston Festival Leaders Rally on April 7, Kinnaman shared results from a recent Barna study that paint a less-than-flattering picture of Christianity.
The research included more than 10,000 interviews over three years with those known as Busters (born 1965-1983) and Mosaics (born 1984-2002). Kinnaman, along with Gabe Lyons, co-authored the book UnChristian, to elaborate on the findings.
“We decided we needed to write this book,” Kinnaman said, “because we need to help people understand the mental and perceptual barriers that keep people from accepting Christ.”
Implications for the church are staggering, according to the authors: a huge chunk of a new generation wants nothing to do with Christianity. The title of the book reflects their most common reaction – Christians no longer represent Jesus.
Even churchgoers aged 16 to 29 share similar negative perceptions about their faith. Many reject using the word “Christian” to describe themselves and disassociate themselves from anything that uses the label. “We have both an evangelistic and a discipleship problem,” Kinnaman told the audience in Charleston.
“Christians are known for what they stand against,” he continued. “We are famous for what we oppose, rather than who we are for. To outsiders, Christianity is more a brand than a faith. … It has come to represent hypocrisy, judgmentalism, anti-intellectualism and bigotry. It’s easy to see why the next generation wants nothing to do with it.”
Other perceptions revealed in the study show that non-Christians think believers are:
• Antihomosexual: Christians show contempt for gays and lesbians – “hating the sin and the sinner” as one respondent put it;
• Too political: Christians are primarily motivated by a right-wing political agenda;
• Hypocritical: Christians live lives that don’t match their stated beliefs;
• Insincere: Christians are concerned only with collecting converts;
• Sheltered: Christians are anti-intellectual, boring and out of touch with reality.
“I want you to understand,” said Kinnaman, “how this set of branding and perceptions are inhibiting us from sharing the gospel and helping people understand who Jesus really was.”
Part of the reason people in our culture have such a negative reaction is that we’ve forgotten what it means to follow Christ. What if there is a self righteous spirit that has descended into our churches and into our lives? We need to ask if the critics are right.
What’s the Solution?
“It’s harder than ever to be a Christian or Christ follower in this culture today,” Kinnaman admitted, “and I couldn’t be more excited about that. All of a sudden we have a chance like we’ve never had before to answer for the hope that’s in us.”
A skeptical generation is an opportunity, he pointed out. “We need to move from a fortress mentality of protecting our turf to a mustard seed movement that invests deeply in the lives of others. Are we so busy defending the fort that we’ve forgotten why we’ve built the fort in the first place?”
If you have been forgiven much, then love much, said Kinnaman. Love at a personal cost to yourself. People are wired to understand whether you truly, genuinely care for them. Jesus doesn’t want us going around calling out the sins of other people when, in fact, we haven’t realized the debt of His forgiveness to us.
Instead of simply talking about sin, help people affected by sin. Instead of picking out unrighteousness, feel Godly distress about self-righteousness. Instead of doing ministry for people, equip people to minister. Instead of viewing religion as a cultural artifact, move toward relationships and life together.
“We need to connect Sunday to Monday,” Kinnaman concluded. As Jesus said:
‘Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples’ (John 13:35).
‘May you experience such perfect unity that the world will know I sent you’ (John 17: 23).
We need to respond like Jesus, Kinnaman added. “We have to be the church. We have to be Christlike in order to change the reputation that we have and to go about the Kingdom work that Jesus asked us to do.”
When we are the kind of Christians God calls us to be, when we give up our seat on the airplane and sit in the middle row, when we mow our neighbor’s lawn, when they see us doing good to the world because that is what Jesus asked us to do, when we spend ourselves on behalf of the poor, that is a very different kind of picture.
“When you think about how to engage a skeptical culture, what’s your mindset? What’s your heart? Do you truly look to Jesus?”
by Janet Chismar