Why America Hates the Church

When David Kinnaman (president and strategic leader of The Barna Group) set out to research America’s current perception of Christianity and the Church, he found some disparaging information. Along with his research partner, Gabe Lyons, he compiled the data in a new book that looks at why so many people have a negative view of Christianity and what the Church can do to reverse the trend. We recently talked with Kinnaman about UnChristian: What a New Generation Thinks About Christianity … and Why It Matters and how the research can change the way people think about the faith.

The book is raising some difficult questions and serious concerns about the Church. What was your influence and motivation for writing UnChristian?

It was a three-year process, and at first it wasn’t meant to be a book. But as we started to understand the reputation of Christians and started to understand where that reputation is not accurate (and other places where the negative image is accurate), we felt like we had to talk about it in a bigger audience, and a book seemed like the best approach to that. The information started to work on us, and we felt like we had to explore it in a broader way.

So did it just start out as research with The Barna Group?

It did. My partner, Gabe Lyons, asked me to do the project, and it started out as a project for his organization (cultural outreach program, Fermi Project) to help provide a clear sense of what the problem was so that he could, in some ways, raise money and talk about what his mission was. And the more and more we started to explore it, the more and more we started to realize that it was a substance problem with the way that Christianity in America is expressed, that the critics weren’t always right, but that they had some significant points that we had to deal with, that we have to deal with.

How did the impressions of those outside the Church compare to young churchgoers?

One of the big surprises for us was how negative many young churchgoers actually feel about Christianity in the present-day context. A lot of them are saying, “From all the things that we hear, you’re asking us to judge and become the kind of people that we’re not really sure Christ would want us to be.”

What do you think in our society has been the biggest influences in shaping the perceptions that are negative?

Well, certainly media has a role, as well as the fact that we’re in a very diverse culture where everyone has a lot of different perspectives. One of the really big surprises was that young people said one of their primary shapers was conversations and how significant it is when you’re in a deep relationship with somebody to, in fact, point them to a different kind of perspective. And it’s not simply an apologetic thing where you’re trying to win an argument, but simply to catalyze them to think, and really, again, it’s like St. Francis of Assisi said: “At all times witness, and if necessary use words.” And so many of the times when people were saying, “Yeah, I had a positive experience with a Christian,” it wasn’t because of some amazing mental argument. It was because of the kind of selfless, sacrificial, below-the-radar kind of lives that these people are living.

The study reported on the Mosaics (people born between 1984 and 2002) and the Busters (people born between 1965 and 1983). Are they reacting negatively because older people are living a flawed form of Christianity, or is it the younger generation that’s living a flawed way?

I think it’s a combination. It’s easy to say, “Well, it’s the young people who are getting more [immoral].” Or people could just say, “Well, old people are judgmental.” I think it’s both. It’s a combination of people at the edge of a cultural shift and two generations living in two different worlds—the end of a Christianized America and the beginning of a post-Christian America. And for Christ followers, the real questions are, “Does that matter?” and “Should we care?”

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Every Christian will have a different response to that information because they have different opportunities, different skills and different relationships, but the truth is to live in a healthy tension between being aware of how significant this problem is and how much is going to change our culture in the next 20 years, but also realizing that God’s in control, and we, as representatives of life’s most important message, actually have something to say something about that. We can actually help shift the reputation of Christianity by doing the kinds of things that Jesus talks about—being known for our spiritual fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control.

The book is definitely opening up some great questions for Christians to tackle.

It’s one of those things that’s really easy to live in denial about—the state of the problems—but also, it’s important to think about what the potential solutions are. The real question isn’t whether we should debate about the problem, but turn to God. If you look at the Old Testament prophets, they always said, “Here is your spiritual condition. Here is a way out. Now it’s your turn to respond. God wants you to return to Him.” And in our culture, a very small percentage of people have a biblical world-view, have much spiritual depth or however you want to define it, and the consequence of that is that our culture looks mostly like any other consumer, secular culture. So the real question isn’t about how we save the reputation of Christianity so that it looks good to everybody, but it’s how can enough of us start to truly do the sacrificial things that Christ would do in a broken culture and in a world of broken, sinful people?

He Himself said He came to work with the sinners, to set the captives free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, not to help the self-righteous people. And so many of us, as Christians, whether we’re willing to admit that or not, are really in that camp.

To read more of our interview with David Kinnaman, you can check out this week’s 850 WORDS OF RELEVANT newsletter.

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