What do Chuck Colson, Margaret Feinberg, Rick Warren, Andy Stanley, John Stott, Brian McLaren, and Jim Wallis have in common?
Though Christians all, not a lot, you say? Until now.
Over 30 Christian leaders, including those above, have come together from all spectra of Christianity to offer insights and assessment to the research of Barna Group president David Kinnaman and his co-author Gabe Lyons, founder of Fermi Project. Their new book unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity… and Why it Matters (Baker Books, 2007) is a project that has arrived at a critical time in American Christianity.
A recent story in The Christian Post cites how “the line dividing evangelicals from progressives blurred as members from both parties joined in a new mission to erase long-held stereotypes of one another and seek commonality on polarizing issues… Both sides agreed the 'civil war' between evangelicals and progressives needs to end and common ground be pursued…”
Christians unified represent Christ to the world. How are we doing? “According to the latest report card,” write Kinnaman and Lyons, “something has gone terribly wrong...”
The authors recently sat down with Crosswalk.com to talk about it.
Crosswalk: If you had to peg the religion of today’s generation – the generation you’re talking about in unChristian – what would you say that it is, and what are some ways God can move within that belief system to still impact the world?
David Kinnaman: If you look at religion over the last 100 years, it’s been very monochromatic. One size fits all. It’s very one-dimensional, with Christianity and everything else in America. I think what you look at when you see young people’s religion is it’s a rich palette of colors, some of which are very antithetical to Christianity, some are in fact very hostile to Christianity. That’s partly what this book is about.
But there’s a rich diversity of religious perspectives. There’s a hunger about spirituality, about meaning… It’s very self-oriented (that’s very characteristic of this generation), the negative reality is that they’re very narcissistic. But there’s something about wanting to have meaning, about being transparent, about ditching just regular old religion and tradition as the motivating factors. And I think there’s some real great hope for this generation. They could actually become really pointed to God’s purposes in ways that we haven’t seen in our lifetime, because all the conditions are ripe for this being a spiritual heyday of biblical ministry.
How has the reputation of Christians become so increasingly negative? It’s not just this generation. We can even go back to Gandhi who said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” So we’ve had this problem with hypocrisy in the past, but why now is this the generation that’s picking up on that and saying, “I’ve had it”?
Kinnaman: Well I think the biggest issue is they are a no-nonsense generation. They’ve been marketed-to to death. Some different executives in the television industry say that things have changed so drastically over the last couple of decades that when they do their programming, they bring young kids in, and the kids are able to articulate why the network is making [certain] decisions – why you put one program here and put the other program there – so they are incredibly savvy. So when they see the lack of depth in Christianity in America today, where only eight percent of Americans have a biblical worldview, and 83 percent – 10 times that amount – call themselves Christians, it’s like they’re probing and testing our faith. In a country that calls itself not only religious but Christian, they’re saying that we don’t want anything to do with a superficial, inert form of Christianity. It hasn’t worked.
And that’s what we actually argue for. If you don’t have the deep truths of Scripture – it’s not easy or simple to understand – but if you don’t probe it, and understand it, and have a holistic perspective about Scripture, you can’t respond to the doubts of this generation. That’s what’s true of the research we did.
Gabe Lyons: Like you said, it’s not a new problem. I mean, think back to Jesus’ day and the Pharisees, they were the ones who claimed to represent God, yet they were also the ones who were hypocritical, judgmental, carried a lot of the same perceptions that this research turns up. It still exists. I think it’s always going to be a problem that when people who feel like they’ve found the answer, or found the way to God, start to look down on everyone else, they start to live that out.
So I think our goal with getting this research out is for people to start to wrestle with the complexity of being perceived this way. Then they in their own life can start to remove barriers to people, to connecting with Jesus, connecting with His love for them. Over time these perceptions could change and become more and more positive as Christians start to live out a biblical worldview, live out a way of life that’s sensitive, compassionate, loving, caring, authentic, and engaged. Which is what we’re seeing with the next generation; that’s what we’re most encouraged about, is actually these perceptions are changing. It’ll be a while before it starts to show up, but a new generation is really living out some of these ideas in a fresh way, it’s pretty exciting.
Kinnaman: The big problem is that there are not enough of us doing that yet. So that’s why we wrote the book. We think there are more people that need to hear this message. There are some of us who are really grappling with these issues. There are many other books that are in this tradition – many other speakers, writers, and artists who are saying, “We need to deal with how we relate to a culture where we’re not popular, where when you say to people you’re a Christian, immediately barriers go up, and how do we deal with that?”
Speaking of barriers, have you found it to be an obstacle that folks of this generation may look around and see people doing “good” in the world, being charitable, meeting needs, who are not necessarily Christian, or even religious? Why do I need the trappings of religion when I can still “do good”? Is that an obstacle to presenting the Gospel to people today?
Kinnaman: I think it is. It’s that idea that spirituality can be “my sized.” It can be customized. Or they think of themselves as “spiritual” because they’re doing good things, and that’s become more and more popular, obviously, with celebrities taking on different kinds of causes… And there’s this idea that you can divorce “Christian care,” and it’s true that anybody can do good things, but that’s what I think we’re trying to say: let’s redeem that impulse in the true, Christlike way, which is that Jesus takes this idea of service to a whole new level. It’s not just that you are altruistic, or you have the good of mankind in mind, but you are willing to sacrifice your life. “No greater love has a man than he lays down his life for another person.” Just like Jesus is our model, we actually take up our cross and serve people in the true selfless way that Christ portrayed. So we hope to redeem that social service impulse with something that’s much deeper than what the culture has to offer.
Lyons: Well, in the pluralistic society, I think that that story [of Christ’s sacrifice] wins, the idea of Christianity being a story that answers people's questions about why they desire to do good, why people who may not be of a particular faith still go out and work hard to do good or to serve the poor, or to love their neighbor, more so than many Christians do.
That’s one of the goals here – as we start to get beyond the perceptions, and people start to see seeds in Christians living out their faith, and being able to articulate why their faith actually drives them and motivates them, there will be more connection. People will start to realize the idea of Christianity for centuries has been at the core of social justice, at the core of these sorts of movements, even environmental stewardship. You know, Christianity historically has led on those issues, and we think over the next 30 years that could happen again.
One of the things you say as you begin the book is that Christianity has an image problem. When some groups have an “image problem” they hire a consultant or a spin doctor. Do we do that? Or do we change the culture, which is a much more daunting task? And if that’s the answer, then how?
Lyons: I would say Christianity has an image problem but it’s not something you can change superficially. The reason these perceptions exist – as the old quote goes, “perception is reality” – is that this is really how Christians live. This is really what we’ve been expressing. Therefore, the perceptions and the image will change when Christians start to embody sort of a fresh expression of Christianity, that, again, is loving, authentic, kind, compassionate, service-oriented… When we start being known for those kinds of things, over time, and people start to have new experiences with Christians, that’s how these perceptions will change.
Basically, [those in the culture] have to replace and catalog new experiences with Christians, where they go, “Oh, wow, I didn’t realize Christians really cared about this,” or would approach an issue this intelligently. The more logging of those experiences can happen one-on-one, this image will change over time, but we can’t just focus on changing the image. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about a core issue at the heart of what it means to be Christian. And we have to rediscover that.
Kinnaman: One of the things we argue pretty regularly throughout the book is that Christians are never called to be popular. Jesus says that all the time, the Scripture says that over and over. When you have a brand, and something goes wrong, then you solve it with spin doctoring and trying to figure out ways to reconnect with your audience. That’s not true in this particular case [of Christianity], we make that argument at different points throughout the book.
The goal of Christians is to be agents of spiritual transformation in people’s lives. We have to be a picture of Jesus to people. We represent Christ. We are an open book to our neighbors. John 1:14 shows Jesus as the perfect mixture of Grace and Truth. So when we talk about having an image problem, it’s because we haven’t represented that appropriate balance like Jesus had, of all grace, and all truth, all the time.
That’s tension. We don’t give up on Truth – that certain things are wrong, but when we don’t have this perspective that Jesus had of reconciling the world to Him, and of pursuing grace in people’s lives, particularly those who are the most broken (“those who have sinned much are forgiven much”), [then we’re not showing the full picture]. We’re not suggesting there is some sort of corporate or nationwide brainwashing that goes on, or any kind of advertising campaign or any methods of man other than to be more like Christ, to more represent that perfect balance of Grace and Truth.
To generations that are older, or “in power,” why does it matter what the 16-29-year-old generation thinks of Christianity?
Kinnaman: I think the simple answer is because they’re our future; it also matters because so many things about our country are changing, and people aren’t aware of that. It’s almost as if we want to believe that things are the same, and they’ll be the same, and that as people get older they’ll become more “conservative,” or they’ll come back to church.
The real argument that we’re trying to make with this whole project is that without a biblical worldview, without the depth of what it really means to be a Christian (and even with that, we know that even a person with a biblical worldview has doubts and challenges and needs to learn), that this generation won’t last very long with simple cliché answers. A real great example is: 20 years ago, our research shows that atheism and agnostic perspectives were a very small perspective of the population, maybe one-tenth. Now we’re finding that it’s a much larger percentage, and it sticks with people for life. God can do anything in a life, but when a person becomes 18, 20, 21, they’ve got a perspective about life, and so we’re slowly seeing some of the core values of a biblical society, of a transformed life, slip away. So, simple answers aren’t going to work for a complex generation.
Lyons: I think the more we understand the next generation, the more we can learn about ourselves – learn how to connect, ministry methods… There are so many things in ministry specifically that would be changed if people really embraced and understood the context we’re living in. Just like a missionary goes into Cambodia and learns the culture, learns how to better connect there, this [book] is sort of a window into understanding missionally what our culture looks like, and what it likely could look like over the next 10-20 years as a mission field. No great missionary goes into a culture without reading everything they can on that culture so they know how to connect with it.
That’s why it’s important for every generation to know, because their kids, their grandkids – this is the life, these are the friends they’re interacting with. If they say they are Christians, announce it in their high school hallway, the reaction that immediately comes to mind for people is that they’re a judgmental, homophobic, bigoted type of person. So they’re already starting with a negative point of view, and we want to help elevate that to become at least a neutral conversation over the next several years. So the older generation plays a key role in helping the younger generation embrace some new methods and some new ways of connecting – they can really help advocate for it, if they have a better understanding of the reality of the culture.
Kinnaman: To pick up on something that Gabe was saying, it’s the responsibility of older adults. Some of our research that we haven’t released yet shows that older adults – whether it’s generational or just because they're older – have a hard time with having a loving heart, and understanding [the question of] “How can we reconcile a generation that’s different from us,” and esteeming young leaders who are doing things a bit differently but are still passionate about the gospel, saying we’ve got to engage our friends and neighbors differently.
I think the message of this book is like a mirror, saying, “Let’s look at what the future could look like,” and will look like based on this scientific polling. And for an older generation, let’s try to activate your love and concern for [today] in ways that are more visible, not less so. And for a young generation, we hope to also articulate some of the things that they’ve been feeling and sensing about how things have changed, why their friends and peers and co-workers are skeptical and hostile, and why, when they try to steer the conversation and seem to be hitting a roadblock, what some of the barriers are.
Jesus says this really fascinating thing when he talks about hypocrisy. He says, “Not only are you prevented from entering the kingdom of heaven, but you’re preventing other people from entering.” So this idea of “spiritual barriers” is very real, it’s a true factor of our spiritual world, and it’s something Jesus talks about in Matthew 24. This book is designed to help any generation understand what those spiritual barriers might be to seeing Jesus clearly, so that we can be a conduit, as Scripture describes it – a vessel – so that people can see and experience the real Jesus.