“Christianity has an image problem.”
That’s the first sentence in David Kinnaman’s book Unchristian: what a new generation really thinks about Christianity…and why it matters (Baker Books, 2007).
Kinnaman is the president of the Barna Research Group, and he bases that conclusion on interviews conducted with thousands of young people across the country. He notes that their responses are not only neutral, but in many cases negative. Their complaints against Christianity—and the Christians and churches that have shaped their views—is that it is:
1. Hypocritical. Outsiders consider us hypocritical—saying one thing and doing another—and they are skeptical of our morally superior attitudes. They say Christians pretend to be something unreal, conveying a polished image that is not accurate. Christians think the church is only a place for virtuous and morally pure people.
2. Too focused on getting converts. Outsiders wonder if we genuinely care about them. They feel like targets rather than people. They question our motives when we try to help them “get saved,” despite the fact that many of them have already “tried” Jesus and experienced church before.
3. Antihomosexual. Outsiders say that Christians are bigoted and show disdain for gays and lesbians. They say Christians are fixated on curing homosexuals and on leveraging political solutions against them.
4. Sheltered. Christians are thought of as old-fashioned, boring, and out of touch with reality. Outsiders say we do not respond to reality in appropriately complex ways, preferring simplistic solutions and answers. We are not willing to deal with the grit and grime of people’s lives.
5. Too political. Another common perception of Christians is that we are overly motivated by a political agenda, that we promote and represent politically conservative interests and issues. Conservative Christians are often thought of as right-wingers.
6. Judgmental. Outsiders think of Christians as quick to judge others. They say we are not honest about our attitudes and perspectives about other people. They doubt that we really love people as we say we do.
Kinnaman looks at each of these perceptions in depth over the next six chapters of his book, before concluding with a chapter on how we might make the move from unchristian to Christian: that is, how we might become more authentically Christian in order to change the perceptions of young people who think we are too political, hypocritical, sheltered, judgmental, conversion-happy, and antihomosexual.
I haven’t finished the book yet, but the chapter on hypocrisy—just as an example—makes some good points. Kinnaman says that, based on his research, there is shockingly little difference between the behavior of born-again Christians and everybody else. And yet when you ask these Christians what their priorities are they say, “doing the right thing, being good, not sinning.” I’m sure there are shining examples of virtue among us, but when we say that our priorities are doing the right thing, being good, and not sinning, and then do the wrong thing, behave badly, and sin freely—that’s hypocrisy.
In what other ways might those young people be right about Christianity…and what will we do to change their perceptions?