UnChristian: What a new generation really thinks about Christianity …and why it matters
by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons
Barna Research asked over 50,000 people who aren’t Christians what they thought of Christianity. This book is the result of the research. It highlights the most common responses, as well as what proper responses are. The most common responses were: Hypocritical, Conversion-Focused, Antihomosexual, Sheltered, Too Political, and Judgmental. After some introductory chapters, lengthy chapters focus on each word, giving ample time for those outside Christianity to explain what they mean and why they say it. Each chapter then concludes with reactions from Christian leaders. The book then wraps up with a summary chapter pointing the way ahead.
There are two bad ways this book could have gone. It could have wrung its hands saying, “Look how terrible it is for the church! We need to change the way we do everything or we’ll be forgotten!” It could also have brushed off the complaints: “Clearly these people have no idea what Christianity is, so we need to double down on what we do.” Instead, it walks a narrow middle ground: “If this is their perception, we need to deal with it. And is this an opportunity for us to do some soul-searching? Are their perceptions accurate?” And rather than turn to popular opinion, the book urges us to turn to Christ to see the way to go.
I appreciated the balance a great deal. The book take a look, for example, why Christians are regarded as “hypocritical,” giving several examples of why outsiders view Christians that way. It then warns that outsiders will never understand Christians fully, as they do not know Jesus. And then – gasp! – the book asks the reader to evaluate their actions in the light of Christ, and rather than do what a congregation might want, see what Jesus would do.
Unfortunately, the book doesn’t then urge us to flee to the cross for forgiveness and new life. At least, not directly. It does talk about their definition of Christian, and how it’s someone who depends on Christ for forgiveness and eternal life, so there’s that, I guess.
The value in this book isn’t the theology, though, but in the well-researched perceptions our world has of Christians. The book points out that deserved or not, when people have these perceptions, they act on them. It is difficult to share the Gospel with someone who thinks you hate them.
For instance: “Still, the important insight based on our research is that Mosaics and Busters rarely see Christians who embody service, compassion, humility, forgiveness, patience, kindness, peace, joy, goodness, and love. … What people think about Christians influences how they respond to us” (37). Why should I listen to someone talk about love and a changed life if their life isn’t changed? The book also points out that this crisis of perception infects not just people who aren’t Christian, but many younger Christians. I’ve heard it from many younger folk: If we’re called to love… why aren’t we loving [insert group here]? And… their criticism is not necessarily wrong, either.
One of the perceptions that struck a cord with me was that Christians are sheltered. They don’t interact with the world, but instead put themselves in bubbles. Within those bubbles, jargon develops. “Even though outsiders generally have friends who are Christians, one of their complaints is that Christians are not speaking on the same level as everyone else. Nearly one-quarter describe Christians as using special words and phrases no one else can understand” (123). OK, yeah, this is something I’ve harped on in the past. Our worship language in particular is so alien that it can be hard to see Jesus through the jargon.
The book offers some answers: “And so, to move from unChristian to Christian, young people need to see Christianity rejecting self-preservation and insularity and embracing true concern and compassion for others. … The initial research we have done on this subject suggests that igniting passion for outsiders in the lives of Mosaics and Busters is one crucial means of making faith relevant, real, and lasting” (215).
UnChristian is relatively old for a research book already, being published in 2007. That said, I don’t think the perceptions have changed. I think a lot of congregations could benefit in reading the book and asking some deeper questions: “If these are the perceptions, have we earned them? If so, we need to confess. If we haven’t, how can we combat these well?”
And in the end, the book gives solid advice: It’s not about managing image. It’s about relationships. As we reach out in love and have honest friendships, we can share Christ organically. And in doing so, we can surprise people. As we grow in Christ, we will step away from being judgmental to being loving, while not compromising any of Christ’s teachings. (For instance, we can show love like Christ did to the woman caught in adultery, John 8.)
I encourage church leaders to take a look at this book and ask the deep questions. Don’t get defensive. Don’t blame outsiders. Ask: Is this us? I don’t want it to be, but is it? And if so… oh, run, run back to the cross. Jesus died for us because we needed that forgiveness. Yeah – I am that bad. My leadership within the congregation is stained with my sin. I need Jesus. I need that forgiveness.
What shame is there in admitting what God says is true?
And see what Christ has done even for Christians like us: He died to make us his own.
I’m not better than any outsider. Why should I be judgmental? I am that sinful. Why should I try to hide it and be a hypocrite? Instead, let’s listen to those outside, reach out in love, and show them Jesus.