Reviews

unChristian Challenges Today's Church With Unsettling Research

I have a stack in my office that is entirely dedicated to books I need to read. This stack rarely shortens because as I read one book another replaces it in the pile. David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons’ book unChristian has been in that pile for at least six months, and I finally picked it up last week. I am so glad I did.

The premise of this book is three years of research on how outsiders of the Christian faith view Christianity. More specifically, it’s about the Buster (born between 1965 and 1983) and Mosaic (born between 1984 and 2002) generations and their perceptions of the church. The results are frightening. An overwhelming majority of this demographic has a negative impression of Christianity in America. They view us as hypocritical, too focused on getting converts, antihomosexual, sheltered, too political, and judgmental. Does this come as a surprise?

Maybe to my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, but it certainly doesn’t surprise me. As a twentysomething, I’ve long struggled with my faith, my politics, and my culture and watched many of my friends from high school and college do the same. Many of them no longer practice their Christian faith, and I surmise that some of them have the same impressions of Christianity as many others in the country. I sure do.

Once Kinnaman and Lyons present the six broad themes found in their research, they dedicate a chapter to each impression using theme-specific research and interviews to illustrate how outsiders feel about Christians. Once they’re sure readers understand the problem of the theme, they address how Christians can work to change those perceptions, and they offer a new perception to work toward:

  • Hypocritical
    Perception: Christians say one thing but live something entirely different.
    New perception: Christians are transparent about their flaws and act first, talk second.
  • Too focused on getting converts
    Perception: Christians are insincere and concerned only with converting others.
    New perception: Christians cultivate relationships and environments where others can be deeply transformed by God.
  • Antihomosexual
    Perception: Christians show contempt for gays and lesbians.
    New perception: Christians show compassion and love to all people, regardless of their lifestyle.
  • 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.
  • 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, and finding solutions to complex issues.
  • Judgmental
    Perception: Christians are prideful and quick to find faults in others.
    New perception: Christians show grace by finding good in others and seeing their potential to be Christ followers.

These existing perceptions and new perceptions really challenged me. In light of Jerry Bridges’ Respectable Sins , a book my small-group Bible study has been based on this spring, many of the existing perceptions are a result of the sins we tolerate in the church and in our lives. Personally, I’m guilty of all of them—many just in the last week! Even before reading unChristian, God had been challenging me to build more relationships with outsiders, to engage the culture, and to be much slower to judge others (especially when I’m driving), and now I’m starting to see the bigger picture and how my personal faith is affecting and being affected by outsiders and Christianity.

Would I recommend this book? Absolutely, but with a condition. If you are a Christ-follower, engage the book by prayerfully measuring every paragraph against God’s Word. Sometimes we latch on to a book or a song and esteem it as Truth without holding it next to Scripture. Prayerfully ask God to show you your own heart and how you can begin changing the perception of Christianity in America.

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15 thoughts on “unChristian Challenges Today's Church With Unsettling Research

  1. I think I need to read this.

    One thing I would add is that non-Christians look at churches as money-hungry. We discussed that in Sunday School this week.

  2. Wow, where to start, I disagree with every one of their so-called sound conclusions on how to fix popular perception of Christianity. So i’ll explain point by point.

    Hypocritical: Christians are only human, the moral and practical instructions of the Bible are archaic, impractical, and generally impossible to follow verbatim. Also the ambiguity of scripture welcomes alternative interpretations whereby almost everything can be justified. So who establishes the interpretation by which all Christians preach and live?

    Too focused on getting converts:
    As if this is ever going to change. Certainly evangelization strategies will continue adapt to non-christian culture as they always have in an effort to “speak” to the younger generation. But really, the survival of Christianity depends 100% on evangelization and that will never change.

    Antihomosexual:
    How can you reconcile the suggested solution to this with Leviticus 18:22?
    And how does purposefully dismissing this passage as “allegorical” not create hypocracy in those who profess the Bible as God’s word?

    Sheltered: Hah for this to happen that would actually have to be true. These “solutions” seem to be just another shitty PR campaign.

    Too political: I’m sorry but the problem is that the order in which their priorities fall: Think biblically, respect people (some just forget the latter). Not to suggest that all atheists respect people, that’s silly, but thinking “biblically’ as shown in my comment on homosexuality for example, seems to preclude any respect for people whose lifestyles don’t mesh with doctrine.

    Judgmental: They are judgmental because the Bible is nothing if not judgment. And i’d be thrilled if Christians didn’t look at everyone they saw as a possible convert, however unlikely that is.

    What I agree with: are too political and too aggressive in evangelization. Stay out of my life, my business and especially politics.

    Of course the overarching major flaw with the argument is that it’s premised on uniformity of Christians-this is not going to happen. In fact looking at the history of religion it has been doing the opposite for hundreds of years-subdividing.

    To the author of this review:
    I understand that you have faith in the truth of scripture, but I ask you: Is it possible to apply this wise advice when reading the Bible: “Sometimes we latch on to a book or a song and esteem it as Truth …” The Bible was written by people.

    Think critically, think freely.

  3. I’m not going to respond fully to Vellvoot, but I do have one thing to say about the anti-homosexuality issue.

    I don’t believe that we as Christians should be shunning gay people. As trite as this sounds, what would Jesus do? He wouldn’t exclude them. He wouldn’t tell them to come back to church when they’ve forsaken their sins. He would welcome them with open, loving arms. Many Christians today are to quick to condemn gay people, to make them outcasts. But how many times could you quote verses where Jesus spent time with the outcasts?

    I haven’t read the book, and I don’t think Sarah means this either, but I don’t think the point is that we should just ignore what the Bible says about homosexuality. We as Christ-followers need to actually be Christ-like.

    Also, “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone.” We are all sinful–that’s in the Bible too. Homosexuality is a just a much more public sin. You can’t see my private sins just as I can’t see yours, but we’ve all got them. Why single out, exclude, humiliate, ostracize one group of sinners when none of us deserve the love and grace Jesus bought for us with his blood?

  4. Linden, thanks for your thoughtful comment.

    Can you address the apparent contradiction between “what Jesus would do” and what the Bible says?

    I, a very secular humanist, exalt human life and liberty. Your interpretation of Jesus’ moral compass seems to suggest he felt the same. How can a moral Christian reconcile scripture (where it is often suggested that people should be stoned to death) with the morality of the Jesus ideal?

  5. Linden, one more point on Homosexuality.

    Perhaps Jesus would not shun homosexuals, but the fact of the matter is, that in his eyes they would still be misguided sinners who, through much prayer would be magically cured of their malady.

    This is the fundamental problem with the 3 big monotheisms: they regard atheists and other types of “sinners” as void of a moral compass and in need of help.

    Is that not the epitome of arrogance? TO suggest that you have some universal truth and since I do not have that truth, that I am deluded and in need of help?

    See there’s the contradiction, because I accept the good with the bad and don’t presume to fix them, whereas many Christians and churches teach something to this effect:

    “We’re all sinners from birth, I’m a sinner, but you’re worse. Here’s how you can improve …”

    I hate that, every sensibility I have as a person hates that sort of bigotry and I can’t abide it interfering with my children.

    Sorry for the rant, but I’m just trying to show that there are many more, fundamental grievances that people have with religion than those shown in this book. Many of which can’t be reconciled.

  6. “TO suggest that you have some universal truth and since I do not have that truth, that I am deluded and in need of help?”

    So if you were sitting around cutting yourself with a knife and I told you that you had to stop right now or you could bleed to death I’d be arrogant for doing so? All truth is not relative.

    “How can a moral Christian reconcile scripture (where it is often suggested that people should be stoned to death) with the morality of the Jesus ideal?”

    You mean like when they brought a woman caught in adultery (a sin where the law called for her to be stoned to death) and Jesus didn’t condemn her but told her to go and sin no more?

  7. @Vellvoot
    Thank you for your comments. Perhaps you are one of the Busters or Mosaics mentioned in this book, and Christianity has left a bad taste in your mouth. For that, as a follower of Christ, I apologize.

    Many of your thoughts in your original comment are actually addressed in the book. Please don’t misunderstand the perceptions and new perceptions I listed in the review: the perceptions are existing perceptions from the Buster and Mosaic generations right now, and the new perceptions are what Kinnaman and Lyons want Christians to work toward.

    I encourage you to read the book. I’m sure you’ll continue to feel strongly about it even afterward, and I’d like to hear more of your thoughts. You can leave them here or email me at sarahjoaustin@gmail.com.

  8. @Vellvoot “Your interpretation of Jesus’ moral compass seems to suggest he felt the same. How can a moral Christian reconcile scripture (where it is often suggested that people should be stoned to death) with the morality of the Jesus ideal?”

    Your question is actually very easily answered, and I already implied the answer. At the temple, a woman caught in adultery was brought to Jesus and the stuffy religious leaders asked Jesus what should be done, heavily suggesting that she be stoned to death, as the Old Testament (OT) said she should be. Jesus’ reply was “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone.”

    Yes, the OT presents a picture of wrath and revenge, but Jesus and the sacrifice he made on the cross changed all that. Jesus’ message was love. Love your neighbors. Don’t stone the woman unless you are sinless. Love the people with leprosy. Et cetera, et cetera.

    Despite what the modern church preaches (as you said, they preach that “We’re all sinners from birth, I’m a sinner, but you’re worse. Here’s how you can improve …”), to God and Jesus, we are all sinners. Sin is sin is sin. It is only we imperfect, greedy, selfish humans who say my secret sin–lets say it’s that I am so involved at church that I ignore my husband and children, which causes my marriage to fall apart and my children to hate me, a very real and common sin which, in varying degrees, has afflicted many a Christian–is obviously not as bad as your public homosexuality.

    I think Jesus would see both as sins, neither worse than the other. It’s US who mess the balance up. And, as a Christian, I agree with you. It goes against my sensibilities. So I try my hardest to love the people that only Jesus could love. I try, I try so hard, but I still fail.

  9. @All
    Thanks for your responses, I’ll admit I truly enjoy this sort of discussion which helps me discover my own biases and subjectivity.And I will attempt to remain as objective as possible as we converse.

    @Linden
    Thanks again for your well thought response. In order for me to better understand your position, I wonder if you’ll answer a few questions:(and I put this to Sarah and Jason as well)

    – If it is your view that we are all equal sinners (as suggested by Jason) on what basis am I denied entry into heaven and the faithful are allowed, again, since we are all equally sinful? (I am an apostate as you no doubt have guessed)

    **I hope you can all respond to this question**

    @Sarah

    Thank you, I am one of these buster/mosaics in fact, my birth date lies conveniently in between the two arbitrary ranges.

    I’ll simply say that Christianity itself has not left a bad taste in my mouth. My up bringing was in a very moderate Christian community filled with good, moral people who loved one another. This is what Christianity was to me as a child.

    What has ruined all religious belief for me is the arrogance and solipsism required to say that I cannot be a good person as an atheist or that I’ll be punished for it. That’s cruel, for I’ll readily that there are many fine people who are stringent believers in God.

    @Jason

    ““TO suggest that you have some universal truth and since I do not have that truth, that I am deluded and in need of help?”

    So if you were sitting around cutting yourself with a knife and I told you that you had to stop right now or you could bleed to death I’d be arrogant for doing so? All truth is not relative.”

    Jason, your response here is poorly thought out. You’re equating non-belief in an invisible deity who is only known of through scripture to the cutting of ones self.

    If you thought like I do, you’d realize how ridiculous an analogy this is. Let me explain. I base my assumptions on something called material evidence.

    To take your example, the cutting of ones self is evidently self destructive in the sense that my physical and mental health is significantly harmed by the cutting-it’s simple cause and effect. Imposing in this case is not arrogant as inflicting harm is contrary to the universal struggle for life-something all beings experience. However, I defend any individual’s right to do with their life as they wish, including suicide (unless they do not have the capacity to make that judgment).

    The absence of belief in God however, doesn’t produce any evidence of harm to the subject (assuming we maintain the same standard for evidence used in the cutting analogy).

    No doubt you’ll be offended by how I’ve explained the weakness of your analogy, but it’s a lesson, if learned, you’ll be the better for grasping. Because it is analogies like yours that paint Christians as unintelligent and quick to provide empty platitudes as evidence. (See the bullet “Sheltered”)

    The arrogance of your statement I hope is clear to you now.

    Physical health and harm (something objective) and a belief (something entirely subjective) are not analogous if you want your arguments to hold, take a class in logic.

  10. Sarah, I hope that you and Linden might (if politically inclined) check out and if you wish, comment on my website. http://www.geopoliticscentral.com

    It is a fairly intellectual global politics website, but I always enjoy having contrasting points of view since our reader base is fairly secular.

  11. @Linden

    “- If it is your view that we are all equal sinners (as suggested by Jason) on what basis am I denied entry into heaven and the faithful are allowed, again, since we are all equally sinful? (I am an apostate as you no doubt have guessed)”

    The OT was an exposure to humanity that without trust and obedience to God, humanity fails itself and the world.

    The Law (as given to Moses) was necessary to fully expose humanity to our inabilities: to love one another; be respectful; be caring; be forgiving, etc. The Law was a basic do and don’t do for an immoral and base people. Those few persons who managed to notice God’s Handiwork (in creation), then gave God Glory for Who He Is. Those few persons (David, Abraham, Joseph, Noah, Moses,etc.) lived with The Law written “on their hearts”.

    In The NT, Jesus fullfills The Law by bringing it to conclusion. “All have fallen short of the Glory of God.” Except He Himself: Jesus, The Son of God. The OT required blood be spilled and offered as a covering over sins, blood of a pure lamb, as told in the story we call Passover.

    Jesus lived pure, was born through a virgin, and offered Himself as the Last Passover Lamb, to cover all of humanity’s sins. There is indeed one necessity: You must accept Jesus as your own gift of sin covering. He will indeed forgive all sins, but not without a person first asking to be included in His New Covenant (Contract). If you accept Jesus as God’s True Son, and believe He gave Himself for you to be cleansed and ready to stand before God Our Father, then you are indeed. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. Believe Him. Receive Him. Thank Him.

  12. Thanks for the “‘clarification” stienster.

    I think it’s a bit horrible that I can therefore act however I want, moral or immoral, and as long as I accept Jesus then I’m in.

    Doesn’t exactly sound like a fool-proof law does it, certainly not divine in nature.

    Maybe this is why there used to be so many death bed conversions.

  13. Yes, “as long as I accept Jesus then I’m in”; however, that drastically oversimplifies and waters down salvation.

    In salvation, Christ saves us from eternal damnation. In my own life right now, I’m trying to wrap my brain around the truth that Christ chose to die so I can live eternally. That’s incredibly humbling, and knowing that I am so loved, compels me to hate the sin in my life.

    Yeah, I’m still human. Yeah, I’m still a sinner. But as a I continue to work out my salvation, that desire to sin is slowly (and I mean, slowly) going away.

    Yeah, there are a lot of people who “accept Jesus” and continue to live lives of sin. But we all know people who say things with their mouths but don’t mean them in their hearts, right?

    Ultimately, God knows our hearts–his word can divide soul and spirit. That is divine to me.

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