unChristian: A Book Review

Unchristian_open book
So why are Christians thought of as judgmental… hypocritical… antigay… boring? David Kinnaman's 3-year research study through the Barna Group aims to answer some of those questions in his book unChristian. I have read the book, and have some thoughts on his findings. Remember: this is only a brief post trying to cover an entire book on a touchy subject. I will do my best to be concise!

At first I couldn't wait to dive into the book. At last! Someone speaking some reality! Immediately, however, George Barna sets the tone for him in the introduction by deriding written works relying on personal anecdotes (p.8). 

Great.

Another research snob.

If it isn't logically studied through the lens of the scientific method, it is of little worth.

Don't get me wrong! Solid research has its place and is valuable, but not at the expense of other sources of knowledge, insight and wisdom.

Okay… Barna's bias is set, but to be fair this is an attitude of many-a-statistician, Christian or not. Press through it and move on. Kinnaman seems to truly have done a thorough and solid work in his research — interviews, anecdotes (qualitative); and tools gathering statistics (quantitative). Over a period of 3 years, using population samples crossing ethnic and socioecnomic lines, as well as religious differences, it appears the foundation is well set.

Definitions:

Outsiders: those claiming to be looking at the Christian faith from the outside in (p.17)
Insiders: those claiming to be of the Christian faith looking at it from the inside out 
Busters: those born between 1965-1983
Mosaics: those born between 1984-2002 

I appreciated Kinnaman pointing out that using lanaguage such as "pagan" or "the lost" labels outsiders in such a negative light that these people are immediatley put on the defensive. He refuses to use traditional labels, nor does he "name names" — Christian leaders, churches or groups who have 'done wrong'. His discretion is well taken.

However, Kinnaman's bias does ring out almost as quickly as Barna's with such as phrases as how we "hijack Jesus" by "softening or re-shaping the Gospel" (pp.32-33). I would agree but Kinnaman is coming at this research as a conservative Christian addressing Christians (p.27). Here, I sighed… Okay, he and I are looking at the same issues from quite different parts of the Christian continuum. For example, when the author repeatedly includes buying a lottery ticket as a form of sin, I disagreed completely. So I had to really scrutinize those actions Kinnaman labelled as sinful, because this would obviously affect his numbers. Bear in mind, numbers are as easily manipulated as words. Furthermore, I disagreed with his definitions of things like discipleship ("learning about Christ, learning about the Bible", p.50), or lifestyle ("doing good and not sinning", p.50). This could be left for a different post entirely, but suffice it to say that discipleship is far deeper than helping someone memorize Scripture, and lifestyle can be far richer than just a moral compass.

So as I read through the pages, I realized I was reading through the lens of an outsider still on the inside. Many of his findings I have found to personally apply to me, and yes… I am one who would really rather not "bring a friend to church". So there's my bias.

Moving on.

Kinnaman focuses on the 6 top areas respondants said evangelical Christians were being destructive towards people to. Now, this is the spot where some evangelicals will say: "But even Jesus said THEY will hate us because of Him!" Rightly, Kinnaman addresses this issue stating "we have become famous for what we oppose rather than what we are for" (p.26). Christians are not being repelled because of our radical love for Christ and others, but because our version of 'love' has been to beat people down with their sin, get converts, demand repentance, and then… leave them. If this is how people are experiencing church, then absolutely attention needs to be paid to what outsiders are saying! They are not hating Jesus… they are hating US!!!

Unchristian_graph of main issues
Kinnaman digs into 10 broad areas that repeatedly announced themselves in the results he took from respondants (6 of which he focuses on in the book). He focuses mainly on the 16-29 age group. I was not surprised in the least when the author said the top 3 reasons people leave the church or refuse to become part of one are: 1) we're antigay; 2) we're judgemental, and 3) we're hypocrites. He begins each chapter with how the thousands of respondants perceive Christians, and then proposes a new perception whe could work towards.

Hypocrisy:
Perception: Christians say one thing but live something entirely different.
New Perception: Christians are transparent about their flaws and act first, talk second (p.41).  

Kinnaman claims that as much of a perception as this is, Mosaics and Busters aren't always bothered by hypocrisy because at some level, everyone is a hypocrite, and our generations apparently are okay with living this kind of dissonance. I'm not sure I appreciate his take on all of us being okay with hypocrisy, but I did appreciate his pointing out that Jesus called only the religious leaders of the day "hypocrites!"… guess who's taken on that role today? Us. 

Point taken.

We have such a holier-than-thou attitude, with a few doctrines of grace and love thrown in that we seem like lying snakes (p.51… the snake thing I added). Remember: perceptions are important here. We are not being seen as relational and approachable, but aloof. I know I can't live up to the moral standards set out by this flavour of Christianity. It turns my stomach. Yet… I pause here and look inward to see where hypocrisy is rearing its ugly head in my own life.

Get Saved!
Perception: Christians are insincere and concerned only with converting others
New Perception: Christians cultivate relationships & environments where others can be deeply transformed by God (p.67) 

Ummm… why aren't we creating environments and cultivating relationships where we all are deeply transformed? I was put off immediately by the well-intentioned new perception, but it still had the air of pomposity to it: we create the places, we cultivate the relationships, we are Christians and we draw people in. It is still reductionist dogma, consumer-driven "God is just for ME" individualism. I saw where he was coming from but it fell short. Yes, we do need to create sacred spaces of healing, reconciliation and restoration, but thinking that it is always for 'the other' still perpetuates the us/them myth.

As one astute young man who came into our drop-in centre so aptly put it: "You Christians don't give a shit about me. You just want to convert me so I'll think like you. You don't love me at all. Even if I did convert, you wouldn't love me until I acted like you."

Ouch.

I can't blame the guy. I am sick to the teeth of this "Repent or go to hell!" message that excludes a holistic magnificence in the Gospel. It's wrong. That's my interpretation, I guess. But after living nearly 20 years with the fear of hell gripping my life, driving me to near psychosis, and the love of God so far away, I can say as an evangelical reject (as Kurt Willem's would call me!) that reducing the Gospel to a heaven/hell issue is an afront to all of who Christ is and why He came.

Antihomosexual
Perception: Christians show contempt for gays and lesbians
New Perception: Christians show compassion and love to all people, regardless of their lifestyle (p.91) 

Now I know with a limited amount of space, Kinnaman couldn't address ALL aspects of his research in depth, but the attiude of "We all KNOW it's wrong, but we're going about expressing it the wrong way" attitude was another put off. Again, it seemed like a veiled attempt for another evangelical stance to come at "the problem" in a nicer way. Was there any discussion as to whether or not Scripture has been misinterpreted? Was there any intentional attempt to dialogue with the LGBTQ community to learn new perspectives? It was hard to swallow the "hate the sin, love the sinner" merry-go-round when it still sounded so arrogant. What about gays who have been "born again" (as Kinnaman describes it) and still struggle? What about Christians who discover they are gay? What about gays who have been abused by the church?

However I did appreciate that Kinnaman pointed out the complexity of the LGBTQ community, its experience with the evangelical church, and vice versa. It is not a black/white issue. So while I perceived the author's attempt to elevate the conversation to fall somewhat short, it was not entirely without merit. For a great resource about conversations and really elevating the conversation between gays and Christians, check out Andrew Marin's, my friend and former classmate, book Love is an Orientation. You won't find black/white, yes/no answers. But you will find some of your questions posed there, and how others have addressed things. The Marin Foundation is doing some great working building bridges between churches and the LGBTQ community where others have certainly feared or disdained to tread. Unchcristian_david kinnaman

Sheltered
Perception: Christians are boring, unintelligent, old-fashioned, and out of touch with reality
New Perception: Christians are engaged, informed, and offer sophisticated responses to the issues people face (p. 121) 

What greater evil force is there than hate? Rejection. When Christians deign not to associate with outsiders, we are perceived as snobby, arrogant, fearful, in our own little worlds, too good for others, etc., etc. We've all heard it before. Kinnaman (shown left) makes a distinction that there are times when we pull back from the world (for example, not letting a child watch innappropriate videos), yet our isolationism in the name of not being of this world has hampered our rep. 

Yup.

Bring out the torches and pitchforks, because I cringe when believers yank their kids out of every activity where perceived demonism or sin might be lurking. Sin is everywhere. It certainly won't hesitate to be in your home (if we're going to go that route). Hiding is cowardice. Conforming is also a risk, but Jesus took that risk & faced conformity by acting radically amongst the untouchable classes. 

Too Political
Perception: Christians are primarily motivated by a political agenda and promote right-wing politics
New Perception: Christians are characterized by respecting people, thinking biblically, & finding solutions to complex issues (p.153) 

The Moral Majority… The Tea Party… Canada's conservative Right… traditional family values… anyone else feel like fingernails are being scraped over a blackboard? 

The author points out that conservatives are trying very hard to create a Christian government. I would agree, but add that we did that already — with disastrous consequences. We had power centuries ago and still do today whether we like to admit it or not, made policies that created genocides, slavery, poverty, disease and death. This isn't Jesus Christ. Why would we want that back? Are we that power hungry?

Should Christians back out of politics altogether? The author says "no" since the Christian influence needs to extend into every area of life. But advocating for things like making gay sex illegal is dangerous. Christians might be successful in gaining that policy (scary!), but they will effectively destroy any hope of creating relationships with gays and lesbians (and what is with our fixation on homosexuality anyway!?). Not only that, but policy will logically have to extend to YOUR bedroom as well. Do YOU want the government dictating your sex life? Thought not.

Judgmental
Perception: Christians are prideful and quick to find fault in others
New Perception: Christians show grace by finding the good in others and seeing their potential to be Christ followers (p.181) 

This one struck me hard. Not only because I've felt deeply judged and wronged, but because I know I've been judgmental too… towards conservative Christians especially of late. It's wrong and I know it. It's one thing to disagree on issues, but to truly dislike conservative ideology and let that trickle into the Body of Christ… well… let's just say a friend of mine and I have committed to each other that our jaded spirits do need healing FROM church, but we also need reconciliation WITH church. A sincere transformation of Love is in order… and wanted. It is so easy to slide into judgmentalism. As a wise professor once told me: "Hurt people hurt people." 

That being said, some days I think If I hear that the social gospel is not the "real" gospel one more time, I'll —!!!!!!! Remember, I'm looking at this issue being an outsider on the inside. When I am told that my faith is not real, it is not sharing the Gospel to enough people, that my 'conversion experience' was a false conversion, when it is not a real gospel, or that I'm preaching communism or nazi socialism, feelings do get hurt. I get jaded. I feel alone. 

And I'm not the only one.

I was waiting for the abortion shoe to be dropped, and here it is. Kinnaman describes an interview he conducted with a young woman named "Lisa" (p.162). An outsider, she attended an "insiders" women's group on and off. One day, the group was talking about sexuality, intimacy and those sorts of issues women do tend to wander off on at times. She joined in the conversation by sharing how she was empathizing with her outsider friend who had had an abortion. The conversation immediately changed in tone: it went from sharing with one another, to insider women preaching and condemning Lisa. It wasn't until Lisa had the chance to explain herself that she, herself, had once had an abortion and how badly it wounded her, no one really quite knew where to go from there.

Silence.

I can only imagine the pins dropping all over the place in that church.

Once again, I disagree with Kinnaman's broad sweep that Mosaics and Busters are morally relativistic and content be so. Newsflash: EVERYONE is morally relative (as my brother would say). Yet, the plain truth of the matter is that insiders' words and actions have done deep damage to outsiders. These outsiders are not "pagans" or "lost", but by and large people who have encountered church and Christianity already! But because of bad behaviour, and wounding judgments, they/we never go back. We give up. I mean, who wants to be speared week after week? Not me.

Kinnaman is correct in stating stereotypes must go if judgmentalism is to be demolished (p.191). They do kill relationships. Christians don't have all the correct lenses through which we see the world. Far from it. Just look at how entangled we are in insisting that our countries (US and Canada) are Christian nations, whose forefathers founded our great empires on godly principles, thus our definition of freedom, capitalism, and democracy are THE correct and godly ways to live. Where does it say THAT in Scripture?

From unChristian to Christian

The author sums up his book with ways insiders can change perceptions – resolve the image problem. It's true there will always be nay-sayers, doubters, and spiteful critics. However, it's also true that insiders can live better than how we are. 

~ respond with the right perspective
~ connect with people
~ be creative (evangelicals aren't known for their creativity or passion for the arts as expressions of worship, despite their being evangelical artists… we certainly can do much better here)
~ serve people (social justice IS a part of a whole Gospel! To denounce otherwise is to denounce major reasons why Christ came)
~ a lifestyle of compassion (pp.205-215)

Okay… a brief summary after a lengthy blog: I did not agree with many Kinnaman's definitions of sin, spiritual disciplines or what it means to be evangelical. I did not like his rather proud sounding tone at times which bordered on hubris. I certainly felt disappointed when he truly grappled with a complex issue but then fell short of actually shedding light on solutions that could come from places other than traditional dogma. His guest authors who contribute to his work spanned the spectrum from John Stott to Brian McLaren. I am still unsure as to whether this was a deep intention to include diverse voices from across Christianity, or just a tip of the hat to show conservatives were playing ball (and don't think the minority of women's voices went unnoticed).

However…

I remember how Paulo Friere insisted that true change of an oppressed people could only come from within. I believe the same to be true here. Conservative Christianity, in my mind, has become not oppressed but an oppressor group. Known for its disrespect of persons, dehumanizing methods (calling it 'love' so people are fully aware of their sin), ignorance, isolationism, and poor judgments, deep and true change can only come from within the group. David Kinnaman appears to be just such a voice. I could blather on and on until I'm blue in the face as to why telling unwed mothers they are not "God's true vision for the family" is abhorrent, but until people like the author stand up and share these realities between themselves, we all will stil be known as unChristian.

Next up… "You Lost Me" You Lost Me_Book Cover

 

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