What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity

By Vin Sparks

I was invited to see Christianity from the outside. The thought of it intrigued me, so I accepted the invitation – to read David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. The book, Unchristian*, is actually based on the research of the Barna Group, located in Ventura, CA, a leading research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture.

The first chapter of the book starts simply by saying, “Christianity has an image problem”. Well, unless you’ve been living in Tatooine, Tunisia for the past few decades, this comes as no surprise. What may raise an eyebrow is how deeply that sentiment goes and among whom.

The image of the Christian faith has suffered a major setback in the eyes of those outside of Christianity – particularly among young adults. For instance, nearly 40% of these twenty-somethings say they have a “bad impression of present-day Christianity.” One third say that Christianity represents a negative image with which they would not want to be associated and 17% indicated that they maintain a “very bad” perception of Christianity. These statistics may show a minority holding our faith in an unfavorable light but, according to Barna, these data represent a group that is three times larger than that of just a decade prior, and the book was published 13 years ago. If we’re still trending in the same way, we have issues.

So, how did we do that!? How did we manage to take the greatest story ever told and reduce it to a public relations disaster? Thousands of interviews, conducted over a three year period of time by the Barna Group became part of this research project. Some of the perceptions held in common by these young adults are not very flattering of the church.

Outsiders view Christianity in our society as “not being what it was meant to be” – that Christians “no longer represent what Jesus had in mind”. In their eyes, we have become “a church infatuated with itself” and they feel as though we have “lost our heart for those outside the faith”. These are disheartening remarks and perceptions. Kinnaman concedes, the issues are complex and it may not always be our fault but, if we don’t deal with our part of the problem, we will fail to connect with a new generation.

Our part of the problem – some of it anyway:

  • We have become famous (or infamous) for what we oppose rather than what we are for. Abortion, end-of-life issues, homosexuality, gay marriage, and capital punishment are all issues over which we have gone to war, in a manner of speaking. Demonstrators holding up hurtful signs, ministers spewing hateful rhetoric to gain interviews, and Christian candidates for office using press conferences to denigrate their opponents are all acts of a cultural war.

I am wondering what would happen if every individual wearing the name of Christ would respond to their friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors with genuine love and care. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against spiritual forces of darkness. It’s not your gay neighbor with whom the fight is against. The enemy is the evil that grips the world. The weapons that we bring to bear are not demonstrations and signs – they are prayer and genuine love and concern for that neighbor of yours.

  • We may have become too political? The perception is that Christians are primarily motivated by a political agenda and to promote right-wing politics. Our Christian candidates for office scare outsiders. They’re fearful that we will attempt to legislate morality. Do we remember the temperance movement and Prohibition? It was a disaster – giving rise to an empire of organized crime the impact of which we are still feeling today. We do not change behavior by demanding it with laws.

Peter counseled the leaders of the early church about placing the yoke of the law upon the neck of the people that neither they nor their ancestors were able to bear (Acts 15:10). It seems that the church’s inclination today is the same as it was back then. We can’t bear the weight of our own rules. We preach traditional family values and half the marriages in the church end in divorce, that’s problematic. We take a stand against sexual immorality and half the Christian men surveyed said that they look at pornography. Behavior is changed when there is a change of heart. A change of heart doesn’t take place as the result of a heavy hand but of a soft touch.

  • We are afraid to show our humanity. Our churches, for many outside, are filled with people that they can never be like. But the truth is we are not perfect ourselves, we come up short all the time. What is being seen is the façade of righteousness we construct because we are afraid of being seen as sinners. But that is just refusing to address the problem in a meaningful way. Instead, Christians who are found to have or even perceived to have fallen short are stigmatized and it is very difficult to be restored to fellowship. It has been said that the army of the Lord is the only one to leave it’s wounded to die on the battlefield.

People outside the church seem to be having conversations that we inside should be having but are afraid to do so. Let’s talk about doubt. Why don’t we get the issues of human sexuality out on the table? If we start talking about what scares us, what we’re doing behind closed doors what goes on in the world of our thoughts, maybe we’ll begin to be honest about a lot of things we’re not honest about now. Maybe then we’ll begin to confess to one another and we’ll discover that we all struggle with the same stuff. The fear of being ostracized at church will give way to a spirit of openness and forgiveness. You know what, that is one thing we are desperately in need of – forgiveness, and there is nothing unchristian about that.

What are we willing to do to clear the way for spiritual renewal and revival?

*Kinnaman, Davis and Lyons, Gabe, Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, ©2007