Book Review

I've lost several hours of sleep over David Kinnaman's and Gabe Lyons's book, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity ... And Why It Matters. James Emery White, in his Serious Times email newsletter, said* in response to this book, "Christianity has an image problem." With all due respect to Mr. White, one of the authors I most respect, I disagree. Christianity has a reality problem. The problem is shallow discipleship, and the rest of the world sees it for what it is. It's a disturbing picture. 

Reading this book has reminded me of experiences I had in developing "360┬░ Reviews" for our organization. These are something like performance reviews, except that you hear from people all around you: your supervisor, people who report to you, and peers and friends. Even though I developed and validated the questionnaire and the system, when I went through my own first review, I was apprehensive leading up to it, and I was surprised by some of what I heard. Not all of it was pleasant! But by adjusting to what I learned, I became a better leader. Good leaders say things like, "I like reality"--not that reality is always pleasant or good, but that we need to face it, study it, know what it is, and adjust accordingly.

I certainly don't like the reality that has been exposed by unChristian: a generation of young Americans, age 18-29, who hold overwhelmingly negative views regarding Christianity. But I like that it has been revealed. It needs to become very widely known and understood. My prayer would be that every church staff in the country would use this book as the basis for extended discussions on "what do we do about this?!"

The book is about perceptions of Christianity. To some extent the problem actually is image rather than reality. When people claiming to be Christians show up at public events with signs reading, "God hates fags," that's not real Christianity, but it sure attracts the media. Real Christians, in my experience, hover between nausea and tears over such outrageous distortions of the gospel. (For the record: God doesn't hate people who say "God hates fags," any more than he "hates fags." So even people who say things like this need love and compassion. On the other hand, Jesus stood in strong disagreement and direct conflict with that kind of judgmentalism, trying to shake people out of it, and I stand with him in strong disagreement and disgust.) If, however, there is a portion of the problem that is just image, created by false portrayals of Christianity or by the media, it is a limited portion.

According to Kinnaman and Lyons, young people see Christians as hypocritical, too much focused on "getting people saved" (and therefore inauthentic), anti-homosexual, sheltered, too political, and judgmental. There are nuances to these impressions that I do not have time to explore here. Now, Kinnaman and Lyons do not suggest that Christians back away from Biblical truth in the way we respond to these impressions. They urge us, rather, to see with clear eyes the culture to whom we are trying to introduce God's Kingdom. As such, the book stands squarely in the tradition of good missiology: to hold the truths of Scripture in one hand, and a thorough, respectful knowledge of the culture in the other hand; and to communicate the Gospel accordingly.

The greatest point of dissonance revealed in this book is over homosexuality. "God hates fags" signs certainly haven't helped; nor have pronouncements by some leaders that the 9/11 events, or hurricanes in Orlando, have been God's answer to America's growing toleration of homosexuality. Just in the past few weeks, one of my family members has been working through a very grievous misunderstanding with a homosexual loved one. This member of my family had said, "We believe everybody needs to follow what the Bible says." What the homosexual person heard was, "If you don't give up your homosexuality you're going to hell." That wasn't what was said, and it's certainly not what this person believes, but it's what he heard. Given the current climate the mistake was understandable. Christians have been portrayed as incredibly judgmental towards homosexuals, and the portrayal is based in reality.

The truth of the matter, as quoted in Kinnaman's and Lyons's book, is that "there is not a special judgment for homosexuals, and there is not a special righteousness for heterosexuals. For all of us, our only hope for the fracture in our soul is in the cross of Christ." So how should Christians respond to issues like this one, and the others raised in the book? By deepening our discipleship, our love, our service, our genuine, respectful engagement with the world.

And by learning our culture. One of my greatest life lessons came from listening to a homosexual describe the depth of his struggle, how he actually didn't choose his orientation, he would rather not have it be that way, but that he can't imagine how to change. It has caused him struggles all his life. Why should we wonder that many of them are urging their fellow homosexuals to accept themselves as they are? And how can Christians make blanket condemnations and glibly say, "It's all your own choice"? It's not that simple. Homosexual practice is not right. Neither are a lot of other things that we all struggle with. And it's not simple or unidimensional. This homosexual friend, by the way, wants to follow Jesus Christ, and I believe he is to the extent he knows how (which is all I can say for myself). Does he have it all right, or all figured out? Do I?

That's just one of the focal issues in this book. As I said, this book robbed me of sleep, revealing, as it does, how badly the church is disconnected from younger Americans, and how negatively we are viewed. The source of the disconnect, I'm convinced, is that our discipleship has been weak, sloganistic, not very thoughtful, not loving enough, shallow. Though 29% of Americans say they are highly committed to Jesus Christ, only 3% espouse a Biblical worldview, defined for research purposes as adhering to 8 basic doctrines of Christian religion (for example, that God is the Creator, that Jesus died and rose again for our sins, that there is objective morality based in the Bible). Our practice has been similarly shallow. (Christians could take much greater initiative in helping with HIV/AIDS, for example.)

"We consistently find that the vast majority of teenagers nationwide will spend a significant amount of their teen years participating in a Christian congregation. Most teenagers enter adulthood considering themselves to be Christians and saying they have made a personal commitment to Christ. But within a decade most of these young people will have left the church and will have placed emotional connection to Christianity on the shelf. For most of them, their faith was merely skin deep. This leads to the sobering finding that the vast majority of outsiders in this country, particularly among young generations, are actually de-churched individuals." (p. 74)

I find hope in several currents, however. One is the attention this book seems to be receiving: it's appearing in multiple news media, and it may just wake us up. The book includes, by the way, many responses by wise Christian leaders with suggestions on how to improve our discipleship, our reality (and thus the way we're perceived).

Another source of hope is the announcement this week by Willow Creek Church--one of the two most influential evangelical churches in America, along with Rick Warren's Saddleback Church--that they have recognized a significant need for a radical change to encourage deeper discipleship.

And another is very local--the youth in our church, who are seriously engaging the truth of Christ and living it out in our community. We're now in the middle of a unique series called "40 days of seeking"--40 days in a row of small group meetings in homes, inviting community leaders to help us understand youth culture. These visitors have included school principals, a judge, policemen, social services representatives, and others who are helping us wake up to the reality of the world we're trying to reach.

But we all have a long way to go. Read this book, pray over it, and see how God would have you adjust.

Related: From the National Conference on Christian Apologetics, and my newspaper article on this book, a follow-up post on November 10, 2007

*Note my update later the same day about James Emery White and about research sources.

unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity ... And Why It Matters, by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007. 256 pages. Amazon Price US $12.23.

Cross-posted at Strategic Christian. 

Posted: Sun - October 21, 2007 at 09:42 AM           |

© 2004-2007 by Tom Gilson. Permission is granted to quote up to two paragraphs of any blog entry, provided that a link back to the original is included or (in print) the website address is provided. Please email me regarding longer quotes. All other rights reserved.

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