Question 23

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I was given a book called ‘You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving The Church ... and Rethinking Faith’ by David Kinnaman.  There is some comfort in knowing my church is not alone in losing young people and feeling like we’ve failed them.  But I am deeply disturbed by the implications. How can we change the destructive culture inside the Church?  

 

CL

 

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Dear CL,

 

David Kinnaman is at the forefront of trying to understand and interpret the reasons why so many people are moving away from Christianity.  He is president of the Barna Group which was founded as a marketing research firm to serve Christian ministries, non-profit organizations and various media and financial corporations.  The Barna Group is a leading research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture.

 

www.barnagroup.org

 

‘You Lost Me’ is a follow up to Kinnaman’s highly influential 2007 book ‘UnChristian’ which was co-written with Gabe Lyons (more about him in a moment).  ‘UnChristian’ was an eye-opening and shocking (for many) portrait of the state of Christianity among today’s youth.  

 

 

Time Magazine cross

 

The website for UnChristian (www.unchristian.com) provides excerpts and reviews which outline the findings.

 

USA Today (10 October 2007)

 

Majorities of young people in America describe modern-day Christianity as judgmental, hypocritical and anti-gay. What's more, many Christians don't even want to call themselves "Christian" because of the baggage that accompanies the label. Andy Stanley, senior pastor of North Point Ministries in Atlanta, suggested that churches should not focus solely on converting people, as has been the emphasis for generations. "If we were able to rewrite the script for the reputation of Christianity, I think we would put the emphasis on developing relationships with non-believers, serving them, loving them, and making them feel accepted," he wrote. "Only then would we earn the right to share the gospel."

 

TIME magazine (2 October 2007)

 

Not only has the decline in non-Christians' regard for Christianity been severe, but Barna results also show a rapid increase in the number of people describing themselves as non-Christian. One reason may be that the study used a stricter definition of "Christian" that applied to only 73% of Americans. Still, Kinnaman claims that however defined, the number of non-Christians is growing with each succeeding generation: His study found that 23% of Americans over 61 were non-Christians; 27% among people ages 42-60; and 40% among 16-29 year olds. Younger Christians, he concludes, are therefore likely to live in an environment where two out of every five of their peers is not a Christian.

 

Unchristian chart

 

Churchgoers of the same age share several of the non-Christians' complaints about Christianity. For instance, 80% of the Christians polled picked "anti-homosexual" as a negative adjective describing Christianity today. And the view of 85% of non-Christians aged 16-29 that present day Christianity is "hypocritical — saying one thing doing another," was, in fact, shared by 52% of Christians of the same age. Fifty percent found their own faith "too involved in politics." Forty-four percent found it "confusing." Christians have always been aware of image problems with non-believers. Says Kinnaman: "The question is whether to care." But given the increasing non-Christian population and the fact that many of the concerns raised by non-believers are shared by young Christians, he says, there really is no option but to address the crisis. 

 

The trends are unmistakable.

 

‘You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving The Church ... and Rethinking Faith’ presents the results of four years of research into why young people drop out of church. David Kinnaman is first and foremost a researcher dedicated to a nuanced, data-driven assessment of the situation.  This approach is both refreshing and reassuring. There is no hand-wringing or finger pointing, no demonizing ‘the enemy’ or blaming the victims. This is a courageous attempt to understand the problem. Only by recognizing that it is part of the problem can the Church truly contribute to a solution.  

 

( p 9) ‘Young adults describe their individual faith journeys in startlingly similar language. Most of their stories include significant disengagement from Church – and sometimes from Christianity altogether.  But it’s not just dropping out that they have in common. Many young people who grew up in church and have since dropped out do not hesitate to place the blame.  They point the figure, fairly or not, at the establishment.’  (p 14) ‘I can almost guarantee that some of what we will discover together will make you threatened, overwhelmed and perhaps even a little guilty. My aim is to provoke new thinking and new action in the critical process of the spiritual development of the next generation.’

 

Part Two of ‘You Lost Me’ outlines reasons why young people feel disconnected from the church or walk away from their faith.  These can be subdivided into six broad categories.

 

1)      Christianity is Overprotective   

 

Christians demonize everything outside the church and do not want to deal with the complexity or reality of the world. Religion is a creativity killer where being involved in artistic/cultural expression is anathema.  Christians are afraid of pop culture, especially movies and culture.  Christians maintain a false separation of sacred and secular. Many youth want to be culture makers, not culture avoiders.

 

Result: many youth who pursue arts and media related careers feel compelled to leave the church or are obliged to compartmentalize faith and career

 

2)       Christianity is Shallow

 

The Church is too quick to quote easy platitudes, formulaic slogans and ‘proof’ texts that do not connect faith with the reality of abilities and passions. ‘The faith too many youth have inherited is a lifeless shadow of historic Christianity; a laundry list of vague beliefs that have little meaning for how we spend our lives.’  Faith communities ‘convey a lot of information about God rather than how to live wholly and deeply in the reality of God.’

 

Result: many youth have a faith that is ‘too shallow to survive and too broad to make a difference’.

 

 

3)      Christianity is Anti-science. 

 

Faith and science are presented as incompatible. Science appears to welcome questions and skepticism while matters of faith seem impenetrable.  The creation v evolution debate is a turn-off.   Young earth creationists are too confident they have correctly interpreted the Bible and too quick to label opponents as apostates. Christians are too confident that they have all the answers while making complex things to simple. Christianity is anti-intellectual. 

 

Result: many youth who pursue science related careers feel compelled to leave the church or are obliged to compartmentalize faith and career. 

 

4)      Christianity is Repressive 

 

The Church is seen as controlling, joyless and stern. Christians are judgmental and unforgiving, particularly about abortion and homosexuality. Teachings on sexuality and birth control are out of date Rules are too strict about sexual abstinence. Ironically, evangelical teenagers are more sexually active than their non-religious peers.

 

Result: many youth feel forced to lead a ‘double life’.

 

5)      Christianity is Exclusive 

 

Christianity is not open-minded, tolerant or accepting of other faiths/world views.  Christians are forced to choose between faith and non-Christian friends.  Church does not welcome ‘sinners’, particularly gays and lesbians.  It is like a country club for ‘saved’ insiders.

 

Result: many youth who have ‘unsaved’ friends are deeply divided in their loyalties.

 

6)      Christianity is Doubtless

 

Church is too quick to polarize the world into black and white, good and evil, heaven and hell.  Church does not permit expression of doubt or responds in a way seen as trivial.  Why is someone who happens to be born into a Christian family ‘saved’ while all other religions are ‘wrong’.   

 

Result: many youth who have questions are forced to seek answers outside the Church.

 

As David Kinnaman warned in the introduction to ‘You Lost Me’, these findings are threatening, overwhelming and guilt-inducing, but they are not surprising to anyone who has been close to Christian youth during the past 20 years.  The situation is indeed deeply disturbing. Some companion reading might bolster your faith and inspire some solutions.

 

Kinnaman’s co-author of ‘UnChristian’, Gabe Lyons, has also published a new book entitled ‘The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America.’  Gabe Lyons makes no pretence of ‘nuanced, data-driven assessment’.  He is jet-setting trend-spotter who spends his days and nights with the best and brightest ‘Next Christians’ who are inventing a countercultural revolution in music, film, television, publishing, education, business, government and communities.  ‘The Next Christians’ is a high-octane roller-coaster ride into an exciting new world of revival, reinvention, renewal, restoration, reimagining and revitalization. ‘The Next Christians’ is intentionally – and successfully – an inspirational book that offers an alternative to the kind of fearful, isolated, disengaged judgmental Christianity that so many youth are walking away from.

 

Lyons begins his book with the disturbing trends identified in ‘UnChristian’ back in 2007.  (p 16) According to every data we’d been studying, the landscape was changing.  Christian America was fading into the background, and despite the culture war waged to counteract it, the shift was irreversible.  The death of Jerry Falwell seemed emblematic of a passing era. The Religious Right was giving way, while a pluralistic society—where all faiths would have a seat at the table – was settling in. …   The world of our grandparents was now barely visible in the cultural rearview mirror.’  (p 26) ‘The culture war for Christian American values was the last stand for Christianity. By all accounts the war is officially over. Even the most prominent culture warriors cannot deny it.’

 

This sounds like a bleak assessment. Rather than lament what was lost, Lyons began to notice the rise of a new generation of Next Christians. (p65) ‘In the past few years I’ve encountered hundreds of them. They are scattered all over America and many of them don’t even know that the others exist; yet they follow a pattern. The restorers I’ll introduce you to in the coming pages don’t simply act differently: their actions are driven by an entirely different set of ideas about why they restore.  They aren’t only concerned with helping broken people – they see an all-encompassing vision in which restoration fuels everything they do. It permeates every part of their being. … The next Christians often show up where you least expect, in every channel of culture, and every sphere of social interaction.’  

 

The Next Christians that Gabe Lyons encounters are busy restoring a suffering world. They resist the urge to condemn everything that isn’t explicitly Christian.  They find goodness, truth and beauty in almost any creation.  They exercise grace over judgment.  They don’t hold non-believers to a moral standard they never signed up for. They are creators not critics. They create culture that can inspire change.  ‘They only way to change culture is to create more of it.’  The Next Christians ‘have grown frustrated with their loss of credibility in the public square.’  They think, ‘If we can make Christianity cool again, everyone will want it.’ 

 

‘The Next Christians’ is an exciting and inspiring book, filled with stirring anecdotes. Many young Christians will want to know where they can join this hip group of world changers. That is the problem.  The people Gabe Lyons has encountered are real, but they are also rare. They may be precursors of the greatest revolution since the Protestant Reformation, but the evidence is mostly anecdotal. As Gabe Lyons reluctantly confesses on page 201 ‘few significant trend lines point to’ the revolution so vividly described. ‘Momentum is building in ways that elude our traditional metrics for measuring church activity.’ 

 

We would like to believe that young Christians are restoring a suffering world in a new, contagious manner. There have always been an outstanding few whose faith empowered them to change the world. We need only think of people like William Wilberforce who fought against the horrors of slavery or the valiant individuals who brought an end to child labour and campaigned for universal education, equal rights and social services for the underprivileged. But these movements were isolated and often short lived.  Only time will tell if Gabe Lyons’s ‘Next Christians’ will truly transform a faith that has been discredited and is being abandoned by growing numbers.

 

David Kinnaman presents a more nuanced assessment based on trend lines and meaurable data. Christianity is facing a serious problem. Fixing it is going to require serious effort.  One of the solutions Kinnaman rules out is new theology. (P 13) ‘We need to renew our catechisms and confirmations – not because we need new theology, but because their current forms rarely produce young people of deep, abiding faith.’

 

Can the problems of Christianity be divorced from its theology?    

 

Gabe Lyons states one of the major obstacles for young Christians is hell-fire condemnation of ‘sinners’.  (p 50) ‘You’re probably familiar with the typical presentation of the Gospel.  It usually gets tacked on to a sermon in the form of this fatal, somewhat fear-based question, ‘If you were to die tonight, would you spend eternity in heaven or hell?’  After a dramatic pause, the pastor  presents the Gospel like this: ‘You are a sinner bound for hell and Christ’s resurrection and death can give you eternal life if you’ll just believe.'  While we might quibble with a word or two or wish there was a better way to phrase it, this is the Gospel told by many American Christians.’

 

Lyons allows that this hell-fire theology is ‘technically accurate’ although the ‘full story’ of the Gospel is four-fold: creation, fall, redemption, restoration.   The problem with Christianity, for Gabe Lyons, is that it has focused too much attention on the fall of mankind and the need for redemption from sin.  Traditional Christianity has ignored the beauty of creation and the complete, transformative power of restoration.

 

Both David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons recognize the desire Christians feel to ‘do something positive’ in order to express their faith in works and to embody the love of Jesus.  Faith has to be rooted in reality, it must have real world consequences; its actions must be consistent with its message.

 

David Kinnaman proposes three solutions.

 

1)      Rethinking Relationships.  ‘Many churches and parishes are segregated by age-group and, in so doing, unintentionally contribute to the rising tide of alienation that defines our times.’  Reconnecting generation is an essential part of community development, but Christianity is not alone in recognizing this need.

 

2)      Rediscovering Vocation.   ‘Millions of Christian parents have a vision of following Jesus that avoids anything more demanding than faithful church attendance.’  Finding a vocation and working at it are important, but this is not unique to Christian communities.

 

3)      Reprioritizing Wisdom.  ‘We become wise as we seek Christ in the scriptures, in the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, in the practices and traditions of the Church, and in our service to others.’  If a young person feels alienated by the ‘practices and traditions’ of the Church, do they demonstrate wisdom by submitting to their elders or by asking hard questions?  And if they receive no satisfying answers, what are they to do?

 

David Kinnaman’s proposed solutions lead us back to the initial problem of a seriously flawed Church that is driving away sincere seekers.  The history of Christianity is filled with ugliness that the love of God cannot explain. The 'public image' of Christianity is badly tainted and nothing is changed by protesting that 'real Christian' are innocent.    

 

Gabe Lyons sees the solution as ‘changing the ‘brand’ by replacing a negative image that was somehow reflecting the opposite image of true Christianity.’   This solution also sends us turning in circles. What is ‘true Christianity’?  Who is responsible for the 'brand damage'?  How effective can a new PR campaign be if the 'product' is still defective?

   

It is an illusion to believe that there is an easily identifiable ‘true Christianity’ which has been consistent in its ‘practices and traditions’ for 2,000 years. This website identifies four major distinct historical versions of ‘Christian orthodoxy.’ 

 

- The Gospel of Love taught by Jesus and his Apostles.

 

- The Gospel of Wrath introduced by Augustine in the 4th century, which emphasized original sin, infant damnation and purgatory while downplaying freewill and personal responsibility for salvation.

 

-The Reformed Gospel of Wrath introduced by Luther and Calvin in the 16th century, which emphasized original sin, total depravity, predestination and limited atonement while eliminating freewill and personal responsibility for salvation of the elect few.  

 

- The modern hybrid Gospel which mixes elements of the older systems in ways that are confusing and contradictory.

 

What is the difference between these irreconcilable ‘Gospels’ if it is not theology?  How can there be any solution without addressing the root problem? 

 

Rather than revisit ideas presented elsewhere on this website, let me close with questions that can easily be answered by the Gospel of Love, but which present a perpetual stumbling block to all versions of the Gospel of Wrath.

 

Is freewill a gift or a curse?

Are we free to choose good or evil?

Is God patient with our need to learn by trial and error, or does he practice 'one strike, you're out' condemnation?

Did the ‘original sin of Adam’ damage the human race in a fundamental way?

Is the God of Love filled with wrath because humans exercised their God-given freedom?

Are modern humans ‘totally depraved’?

Does the depravity of human nature justify divine wrath?

Has it become impossible for depraved humans to seek good over evil?  

Are only an elect few ‘saved’ because they are chosen through no merit of their own?

If Christ is the only means of salvation, are only Christians ‘saved’ from divine wrath?

Are all non-Christians ‘depraved’ and ‘unsaved’ and therefore deserving of divine wrath?

 

If God is patient rather than wrathful, and salvation is available to all rather than an elect few, we need to take a long, hard look at the theology we have inherited.

 

Comment or Question?

 

Tags: UnChristian, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving The Church ... and Rethinking Faith, David Kinnaman, The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America, Gabe Lyons.

 

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