Friday, November 14, 2014

Unchristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons (Book Review #108 of 2014)

Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity...and Why It Matters


This book was informative yet very frustrating to read. I think I would rather have just read charts of the survey data with a few quoted comments from the interviews.

The Church has been struggling with its identity and the issues covered in this book since Constantine. Kinnaman makes some recommendations that appear contradictory-- being unChristian is difficult. He's quite young himself, so one gathers he lacks some scholarship and knowledge of church history that would help him in forming both his opinions and prescriptions. This book looks at attitudes of Americans only, so it's also very focused on U.S. culture and politics. Each chapter concludes with a hodgepodge of quotes from various pastors and authors that relates to information presented in the chapter. Some of these quotes contain description of the authors' attempts at countering the negative trend, or contain some exhortations. These are somewhat contradictory. Conservatives will point out that Brian McLaren and Jim Wallis are quoted a few times while other more conservative thinkers are not quoted at all. Are these the standard Kinnaman and Lyons are holding up? It's not clear.

That said, I highlighted many of the survey results. What is most interesting is that surveys taken by Barna in the 1990s showed Americans held Christians in significantly higher esteem than they do now. Christians are now seen by Mosaics as part of the problem, at least politically, rather than a potential force for good.

We are still a nation of spiritually-interested people. Most adults in this country say they have made a "personal commitment to Jesus Christ" and nearly half are relatively active churchgoers, but attitudes about church vary tremendously from the younger generation to the oldest. The authors focus on Busters (born 1965-1983) and Mosaics (born 1984-2002) to show the widening differences even between these two generations. The majority of Busters and Mosaics at least attended a church during high school but less than 10% see faith as a top priority. Kinnaman uses the term "outsider" to describe the relatively unchurched, non-Christian population and "insider" to desribe those in the holy huddles.

"By a wide margin, the top life priorities of eighteen- to twenty-five- year-olds are wealth and personal fame (48)...Only one-fifth of young outsiders believe that an active faith helps people live a better, more fulfilling life" (130). One out of every six young outsiders has very negative perceptions of Christianity and the church.

The book explains various reasons for the negative perception you probably already know: Heavy political involvement by Christians, outward "judgemental" pride of evangelicals, a widespread belief that church is boring, and a sense that Christians aren't genuine in their concern for people, among others.

But Kinnaman makes a good point that it's too easy to blame peoples' rejection of Christianity on spiritual darkness and "hardening of hearts" (Ephesians 4:18). Nor is it the typical claims about hypocrisy and scandals in the church turning people away. (In fact, Mosaics are fairly forgiving and understand that people make mistakes. What they reject is the lack of transparency and openness about it.) Similarly, outsiders are not all united in their objections and politics, something you might forget when listening to Albert Mohler's daily podcast. 
"Outsiders have far less political unity, consistency, and commonality than Christians might assume. They are not uniformly antagonistic toward Christians. Their political views are not neat and simple. This has an important implication for Christians: political activism on the part of outsiders is not dead set against Christianity...It is easy to assume that society is divided into 'us-versus-them forces. The reality is much less clear-cut" (169).

"Christianity’s image problem with a new generation is not due merely to spiritual resistance on the part of outsiders, although sometimes this plays a role...But you would be dead wrong to conclude that people discard Christ for a simple set of factors or just to avoid feelings of spiritual guilt (32)."

"Outsiders told us that the underlying concern of Christians often seems more about being right than about listening" (35). This shows up both in how the church evangelizes as well as gets most visibly involved in politics.
"We found that only 9 percent of young outsiders describe Christians as 'people they trust a lot.' As we probed the reasons for this, the most frequent answer was our involvement in politics" (178).

Kinnaman lays out a few Myths and Reality according to Barna's research. Some of the Myths were taught to me in the event-driven Southern Baptist church I was raised in. For example:

Myth : The best evangelism efforts are those that reach the most people at once. Reality : The most effective efforts to share faith are interpersonal and relationship based. When we asked born-again Busters to identify the activity, ministry event, or person most directly responsible for their decision to accept Jesus Christ, 71 percent listed an individual—typically (76)

Myth : Anything that brings people to Christ is worth doing. Reality : When you’re talking dollars, there is no price too high for a soul. But the problem isn’t just cost. In our research with some of the leading “mass evangelism” efforts, we found that often these measures create three to ten times as much negative response as positive. (77)

This is huge because the negative response is not usually measured by churches. Mass evangelism efforts largely fail to make disciples. The Gospel is an incomplete one if it is only about an individual "getting saved." The Gospel includes God's redemption of mankind and nature, it's a life-changing reality to be part of the Kingdom of Heaven. If the focus is purely on an individual "fire insurance" decision, then the person sees no need for greater community. "A get-saved approach ignores the fact that most people in America have made an emotional connection to Jesus before; now they need much more than a one-dimensional (Gospel)" (83).

The authors lay out some responses of people who were hostile to street evangelism, essentially saying Christians had not earned the right to question them.
"We heard no favorable comments about so-called street witnessing."

Myth : People embrace Christianity because of logical arguments. Reality : Most people, by personality, are not logical thinkers and are not likely to change their beliefs because of elegant argumentation or apologetics...Mosaics and Busters are more likely to possess a nonlinear, fluid way of processing life, they are increasingly comfortable with subtlety, nuance, ambiguity, and contradiction. So even if you are able to weave a compelling logical argument, young people will nod, smile, and ignore you" (78-79).

This was thought-provoking for me since I study a lot of apologetics, always refining arguments in my head. I also read a lot of behavioral economic research so I should know that people have logical inconsistencies and cognitive biases. If simply arguing logically worked, the whole world would have responded to the Gospel. New Atheists make illogical arguments against orthodox Christianity and it is effective even if it is quite frustrating to great logical thinkers like R.C. Sproul.

Being a "mouth" instead of a hand or foot has also hurt the church. 
"One of our weaknesses is that we’re far more concerned with being right than being righteous" (210).

Instead of a complete Gospel, we've simply taught that following rules are the Gospel.

"Based on our research, Christians are not defined by such transparency but by adherence to rigid rules and strict standards" (63).
Two-thirds of churchgoers said, “Rigid rules and strict standards are an important part of the life and teaching of my church.” Three out of every five churchgoers in America feel that they “do not measure up to God’s standards.” And one-quarter admitted that they serve God out of a sense of “guilt and obligation rather than joy and gratitude” (56).

We also have gotten so comfortable using militaristic language in our church culture that we don't realize we're scaring visitors.
"when a Christian talks about being engaged in a battle, this type of metaphor stems from the scriptural references that describe the spiritual world as an epic struggle (see Eph. 6:10–17). Yet outsiders hear this language and become alarmed by the militaristic talk" (170).

So, what's the key to regaining the church's positive influence?

"Be my friend with no other motives. Outsiders say they sometimes get the feeling that Christians have befriended them with the ulterior motive of getting them into church. They like having Christian friends, but not with those who have a not-so-hidden agenda. Outsiders said, for instance, they generally don’t mind being prayed for or being served in some way, but they get uneasy when they sense that these efforts are part of a scheme to “warm them up” to go to church someday. Friendship ought to be real, based on genuine interest in one another" (206).

Genuineness also means living out an active Christianity, not just being satisfied by having the best doctrine. Jesus didn't pray in the Garden of Gethsemane that our doctrine would be pure, but rather that we'd be "one." Kinnaman and pastors he quotes (from places like XXXchurch) urge Christians not to shelter themselves and build their own institutions but to engage their community where they're at. This jives with Thomm Rainer's research that "friendly churches" are ones where the members are active and influential in their community-- they have friends outside their holy huddle.

"Two-thirds of young outsiders said the faith is boring, a description embraced by one-quarter of young churchgoers as well. The image of being sheltered means the Christian faith seems dull, flat, and lifeless" (130).

"When Christians shelter themselves, letting 'someone else' answer the world’s doubts and address its problems, they abdicate their biblical role to be spiritual influencers. It is incumbent on us to develop our hearts and minds so that we can fulfill our destiny as agents of spiritual, moral, and cultural transformation" (141).

It also means involving young people in the heart of church life from an early age. Reggie Joiner (of the Rethink Group) is quoted: "If a young person is not challenged by hands-on personal ministry, their faith will likely be sidetracked and even sabotaged. For some, that hands-on experience is a mission project across the ocean. For others, it’s a role in a family production or a place behind the ladle at a soup kitchen" (151)

Besides looking at outsiders' perceptions of the church, Kinnaman paints a dreary picture of what young evangelicals believe. What does it mean to be a Christian to Mosaics?

"Based on a study released in 2007, we found that most of the lifestyle activities of born-again Christians were statistically equivalent to those of non–born-agains" (52).

"(A) majority of born-again adults in their twenties and thirties currently believe that gambling, cohabitation, and sexual fantasies are morally acceptable...The only two areas of statistical similarity between older and younger born-again Christians are views on abortion and using the f-word on television" (58).

"How many do you think possess a biblical worldview? Our research shows only 3 percent of Busters and Mosaics embrace (essential biblical world view beliefs)" (82).

"young Americans were the least likely age group to say that the Bible ought to be the most significant influence on the laws of the country, instead favoring the “will of the people” as the best way to determine legal boundaries" (172). (In other words, Millenials haven't been taught that laws necessitate reasoning based on absolutes.)

That is a pretty depressing picture. The authors give some examples of "hope," however. There has been an attempt recently by groups to engage the culture by working within institutions, such as developing scholarship programs for Christians at Ivy League schools.

"At Princeton alone, close to 10 percent of the student body is regularly involved in one or more of the Christian groups on campus. And the number of students involved with the Harvard chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ has increased fivefold over the last two decades. Similar developments can be seen at Stanford, Duke, and Yale" (156).

In this review, I've quoted mostly from the research rather than regurgitate the quotes from various authors and Christian leaders at the end of each chapter. What does a better church look like, according to the book? One that is active in loving the community both at home and domestically, cares about the environment, genuinely befriends its neighbors, does not loudly engage in politics or in "Christian Soldier" type language or confuse Christianity with American patriotism. A church that is open to everyone serving, including youth, and not boring, yet is led by people with Biblical theology and a Biblical world view.

Practically speaking, this is difficult. It takes intentional theological training to create leaders with a Biblical world view and who are able to argue logically and lead their congregations and deal with all the sin and confusion Mosaics and Busters bring into the church in a loving fashion. That necessarily excludes certain people. The "healthiest" churches I see are often among the most "boring," hour-long sermons and a ton of time in Bible study but much less activity demonstrating what the Bible teaches in its community. The most educated leaders tend to be the ones with podcasts and giving interviews complaining about the demise of our culture and criticizing the current President. These tensions are never resolved in the book. Again, if McLaren and Wallis are held up as good examples, then that's a problem for many in trying to accept the book's advice. I give this book 2.5 stars out of 5. Useful information but frustrating in its presentation.

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