Christianity’s Image Problem
A recent Fermi Project and Barna Group study shows that young Americans think most Christians aren’t very Christlike.
By Robert Cornwall
It seems like young people have always been ditching traditional religious life in an attempt to explore either hedonistic excess or nontraditional religious experiences. Remember the Jesus People and the Hare Krishnas, to name a few? In time, though, many put their dresses and suits back on and embraced normative religious life.
Not everyone returned, however. Mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics have noticed the conspicuous absence of 18 to 30 year-olds for some time. The strange thing is, now even conservative evangelicals, who seemed to be doing a better job of hanging on to their young people, have begun to notice a decline in their numbers and are none too happy about it.
As reported in a number of media outlets in recent months, Barna Group head David Kinnaman and Fermi Project founder Gabe Lyons have been doing some research into the changing mores, habits and beliefs of the 18 to 30 crowd. They’ve disclosed their findings in their new book, “unChristian,” which was commissioned by Lyons, who wanted to find out how younger Americans perceived Christianity so that the Fermi Project could better minister to these upcoming generations.
The authors say the title refers to the fact that young people by and large perceive Christianity to be not Christlike but “unChristian.” In the words of a young “outsider” from Mississippi:
“Christianity has become bloated with blind followers who would rather repeat slogans than actually feel true compassion and care. Christianity has become marketed and streamlined into a juggernaut of fearmongering that has lost its own heart.”
Such observations should grab our attention. If they are representative of significant sectors of young Americans, institutional Christianity is in trouble. And that’s the basic point. Research shows that the church is in danger of losing the younger generations, who see modern Christianity as not only irrelevant but hostile to their identity.
Being a pastor of a Mainline Protestant church and the father of a teenager who isn’t all that excited about church, I came to “unChristian” with high expectations. I hoped it might provide me with some insights that could help me to minister to the younger generations without being perceived as out of touch and irrelevant. I was especially intrigued by the book’s suggestion that 91 percent of the targeted study group—younger adults outside the church—found Christians to be “anti-homosexual.” It would seem that how the church answers the question of inclusion of homosexuals has significant implications for its future viability.
While the book’s data and title are provocative, the authors’ interpretations and suggested applications of their research are disappointing and inadequate at best. But then, neither Kinnaman nor Lyons is a trained sociologist a la Robert Wuthnow or Clark Roof. Their conclusion—that “Outsiders” (their term for persons outside the Christian faith) see Christians as hypocritical, concerned only with getting converts, anti-homosexual, sheltered, overly political, and judgmental—is useful information. But the authors don’t seem to know quite what to do with it. Kinnaman, for instance, continually expresses his amazement at this discovery:
“A new generation thinks of Christianity as devoid of spiritual vibrancy, parochial, small-minded, and ignorant. This ‘sheltered’ impression of present-day Christianity is surprising for a number of reasons. [First of all,] Jesus is the legitimate path to a dynamic spiritual world that exists beyond our five senses. [Secondly,] Christianity offers a sophisticated, livable response to the nature of the world and how we ‘work’ as humans. And finally, it’s only quite recently that Christians have been seen as sheltered.”
Kinnaman and Lyons’ call for the church to listen more and be more engaged with the broader world is good advice, but for what purpose? After acknowledging that young people see Christians as only interested in them as converts, the book proceeds to confirm their suspicions. The issue, according to the authors, is not so much to learn from these straying generations, but to learn how best to bring them into the fold.
Part of the problem with “unChristian” is the authors’ penchant for equating “Christian” with “conservative evangelical.” While they observe that only 9 percent of Americans are evangelical, no other position is recognized as legitimate. Kinnaman and Lyons worry that the church will respond to its disaffected youth by “hijacking Jesus” and “promoting a less offensive faith.” They’re concerned about balancing a “kindler, gentler” Christianity with one that remains staunchly true to their understanding of the “biblical worldview.” That worldview is narrowly evangelical, fixated on things like the absolute accuracy of the Bible, the perfection of Jesus, and the existence of a personal Satan. Nothing in this definition speaks of God’s love or how we treat one another.
As a result, Kinnaman and Lyons reduce the group we’re supposed to engage compassionately to the insulting level of moral relativists who simply don’t know the Bible. The chapter on homosexuality, for instance, maintains that homosexuality is still a sin that must be opposed. It seems that this younger generation is telling the church that they want to hear a different message than the one they’ve been hearing, and that churches that open their doors to gays and lesbians may stand a better chance of attracting them. This, however, is not an eventuality the authors are willing to embrace. As for politics, Kinnaman and Lyons seem to bemoan the loss of support for a “Christianized” nation. Kinnaman notes with disappointment that young adults are embracing a “worldview at odds with Scripture.”
While “unChristian” isn’t the groundbreaking book it claims to be, the authors are on to something. The world is changing and young people are more inclined to walk away from organized religion. How we choose to view them and engage with them will influence the future of the church. “unChristian” raises questions, but answers will have to be found elsewhere if the church is to remain relevant.
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Robert Cornwall is pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc, Calif., editor of “Sharing the Practice” (Academy of Parish Clergy), and the author of “A Cry from the Cross” (CSS Publishing), a forthcoming book of sermons on the seven last words of Christ. His last piece for SoMA was Darwin Matters.
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