Christianity in the U.S. has an image problem, and it stands to lose an entire generation of young people if things don't change dramatically and soon. That's the conclusion of a three-year study by the Barna Group examining attitudes toward Christianity expressed by Mosaics and Busters, those in the late-teen-to-30 age group. Barna's findings should give evangelical Christians pause, but only briefly. Given the seriousness of the situation, believers can't pause for too long, because it seems they have a lot of work to do.
Here's one finding that shows just how negative an image we project to the world around us: "The primary reason outsiders feel hostile toward Christians, and especially conservative Christians, is not because of any specific theological perspective. What they react negatively to is our 'swagger,' how we go about things and the sense of self-importance we project. Outsiders say that Christians possess bark --- and bite.
Christians may not normally operate in attack mode, but it happens frequently enough that others have learned to watch their step around us. Outsiders feel they can't let Christians walk over them." That's pretty devastating stuff, though it really should come as no surprise to any Christian who has been listening carefully to outsiders under 30, and even some insiders over 30, in recent years.
The short version of the research findings is this: Mosaics and Busters most often expressed disenchantment (or outright hostility) toward Christians because they perceive them as hypocritical, only interested in people as potential converts, uncharitably anti-homosexual, sheltered from cultural and societal realities, too political, and judgmental. Before you get defensive, David Kinnaman is quick to remind Christians that this is how they are perceived. Your perception may differ, but that doesn't change the fact that outsiders often reject Christianity because of the image it projects.
The long version is what makes this book a must-read for...well, for all of us. It always sounds hyperbolic to say that "everyone" should read a particular book, but trying to narrow down the audience for this one is difficult. Let's just say that any thinking evangelical Christian with an open mind --- even half open --- would do well to read UNCHRISTIAN. It's vitally important for anyone in leadership to do so, but even those who are not leaders need to share some of the responsibility for giving Christianity a bad image.
One case in point is Christians' attitudes toward homosexuality --- and homosexuals. The "hate the sin, love the sinner" attitude so often expressed by Christians just doesn't wash with Mosaics and Busters. They see little love and compassion toward gays. From what they've observed, Christians hate both the sin and the sinner. Again, this is the short version and hardly does justice to the detailed, compelling and convincing research results.
And lest you think this is a dry read, full of statistics that will make your eyes glaze over, let me assure you that this is not the case. Yes, there are lots of numbers to wade through, but the authors did a masterful job of surrounding those numbers with eye-opening anecdotes and highly accessible analysis. And they included sidebars featuring commentary from other authors who have their ear to the ground on all this, including Rick Warren, Andy Crouch, Brian McLaren and FaithfulReader.com reviewer Margaret Feinberg. Their insights help enliven the chapters and put a human face on the stats.
Despite the depressing statistics, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons offer hope that we can change the way outsiders perceive us by changing the way we live out our faith. Chapters end with a "Changing the Perceptions" section that offers practical steps we can take to turn the situation around. The book also includes an appendix on the methodology of the research and a short but helpful glossary of terms.
There is little question that the authors are correct in saying that Christianity has an image problem. But the problem is far more serious than mere image. The reality is this: evangelical Christianity has an attitude problem. And until that is corrected, until we begin to live out our faith more authentically, until we lose our swagger, the image --- the negative image --- will remain in the minds of outsiders.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on October 1, 2007