The book was published back on January 1, 2007, and it has become “a bestselling book based on original research that revealed the pervasiveness of pop culture’s negative perceptions of Christians” (quote source here). It contains findings from three years of research conducted by its two authors (primarily the first author mentioned below) when they went searching for answers from the two generations that have come after the Baby Boomers. As the authors stated on page 17, the primary generations they studied were (1) Mosaics (known primarily as Millennials–born between 1984 and 2002) and (2) Busters (known primarily as Gen Xers–born between 1965 and 1983)–those dates are stated in the book and vary slightly from the dates used today. The primary focus was on Millennials who were in their late teens up through age twenty-two at the time of their research, and the youngest Gen Xers, primarily describing those under thirty at the time the book was researched and published. The primary ages for all participants was 16-29. Also, they are primarily outsiders to the Christian faith.
The book is titled, “unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity . . . And Why It Matters,” by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons (see also qidea.com started by Lyons), with a forward written by George Barna of the Barna Group. While this book may rankle the nerves of the more mainstream Christians among us, it is an insightful and important look into what the younger generations think about Christianity in general who are outsiders to the Christian faith. There are nine chapters in the book including sections at the end of the chapters titled “Afterward,” “Acknowledgements,” “The Research,” and “Notes.” For a more complete look at what each chapter covers, please see “Notes from the book ‘unChristian’” by Dwayne Phillips at this link. There is also a book review written on March 3, 2010 at “9Marks” by Owen Strachan at this link.
In Chapter 1 titled, “The Backstory,” the authors explain why the book is titled “unChristian.” Here are several paragraphs from pages 15-16 that describe how it began:
Using the lens of the careful scientific research we conducted, I invite you to see what Christianity looks like from the outside. In fact, the title of this book, “unChristian,” reflects outsiders’ most common reaction to the faith: they think Christians no longer represent what Jesus had in mind, that Christianity in our society is not what it was meant to be. I will describe this in greater detail in Chapter 2, but for many people the Christian faith looks weary and threadbare. They admit they have a hard time actually seeing Jesus because of all the negative baggage that now surrounds him.
One outsider from Mississippi made this blunt observation: “Christianity has become bloated with blind followers who would rather repeat slogans than actually feel true compassion and care. Christianity has become marketed and streamlined into a juggernaut of fear mongering and that has lost its own heart.”
After thousands of interviews and countless hours studying non-Christians, I believe outsiders would want this book titled “unChristian.” Young people today are incredibly candid. They do not hold back their opinions. I want to capture outsiders’ expressions and views in these pages. I don’t agree with everything they say. Yet if I am going to be your guide to the hearts and minds of people outside Christianity–if you are going to really understand them–I feel compelled to represent their viewpoint fairly and candidly, even if it is uncomfortable for those of us who are Christians. To engage non-Christians and point them to Jesus, we have to understand and approach them based on what they really think, not what we assume about them. We can’t overcome their hostility by ignoring it. We need to understand their unvarnished views of us. Therefore this book reflects outsiders’ unfiltered reactions to Christianity.
So “unChristian” it is.
Even though some of the realities are uncomfortable, I have no intention of picking on Christ followers. Far from it. My purpose is not to berate Christians. You won’t find here the names of any Christian leaders who have done wrong things. From time to time, I will use an anonymous illustration to show why some of the negative perceptions exist. Yet the point is not to pick on any particular person. Every Christ follower bears some degree of responsibility for the image problem (I’ll explain that later); it is not helpful to assign blame to those who have made mistakes.
Still, for the things we can influence–our lives, our churches, the way we express Christianity to others–I hope that by helping you better understand people’s skepticism, your capacity to love people will increase, offering them genuine hope and real compassion through Jesus Christ. Paul, the most prominent writer of the New Testament, says, “While knowledge may make us feel important, it is love that really builds up the church” (I Corinthians 8:1b NLT). (Quote source “unChristian,” pp.15-16.)
The list of objections from the younger generations make up the subject matter of Chapters 2 through 8. The list is actually not all that uncommon from what Christians in previous generations have experienced from outsiders. Here’s a list of those chapter titles: Chapter 2: Discovering unChristian Faith; Chapter 3: Hypocritical; Chapter 4: Get Saved!; Chapter 5: Antihomosexual; Chapter 6: Sheltered; Chapter 7: Too Political; and Chapter 8: Judgmental. There are no surprises there. No doubt every previous generation has had its naysayers when it comes to the Christian faith. But what is surprising is what they found in their research stated early on in Chapter 2 titled “Discovering unChristian Faith.” Here are several paragraphs from page 24:
One of the generational differences is a growing tide of hostility and resentment towards Christianity. In 1996, our firm released the report, “Christianity Has a Strong Positive Image Despite Fewer Active Participants.” The study showed that Americans, even those on the outside looking in, possessed widespread respect for Christians. Among outsiders–atheists or agnostics, those of a faith other than Christianity, or unchurched individuals with no firm religious convictions–we discovered that 85 percent were favorable toward Christianity’s role in society. And the perceptions of the youngest generations mirrored this finding.
That was then.
Now, a decade later (2006), the image of the Christian faith has suffered a major setback. Our most recent data show that young outsiders have lost much of their respect for the Christian faith. These days nearly two out of every five young outsiders (38 percent) claim to have a “bad impression of present-day Christianity.” Beyond this, one-third of young outsiders said that Christianity represents a negative image with which they would not want to be associated. Furthermore, one out of every six young outsiders (17 percent) indicates that he or she maintains “very bad” perceptions of the Christian faith. Though these hard-core critics represent a minority of young outsiders, this group is at least three times larger than it was just a decade ago (1996). [Imagine how much larger this group might be today in 2016, more than a decade after this research was conducted from 2003-2006.]
Outsiders direct their skepticism toward all things Christian: the faith itself, the people who profess it, the Bible and Jesus Christ. Frankly, their feelings toward all of these are interwoven. Still, don’t assume that each of these four elements is perceived on equal footing–young outsiders are most likely to be frustrated with present-day expressions of Christianity, followed by their aggravation with Christians.
Their impressions of the Bible are mixed: most think it has good values, but only three out of ten believe that it is accurate in all the principles it teaches. And Jesus draws an interesting set of reactions. Jesus receives outsiders’ most favorable feelings, but even the clarity of his image has eroded among young people. They are more likely than previous generations to believe he committed sins; they are also more likely to believe that people can live a meaningful life without him. . . . (p. 24)
In zeroing in on two phrases common in the Christian community–“born again” and “evangelicals” the authors found the following reactions among young outsiders (p. 25-26):
We learned that outsiders are more familiar with the phrase “born again Christians” than they are with the term “evangelicals.” People perceive born-agains in about the same way they think of Christianity itself–most say their impressions are indifferent or neutral, but among those who expressed an opinion, negative outnumbered positive perceptions of born agains by more than a three-to-one ratio (35 percent to 10 percent).
We discovered that outsiders express the most opposition toward evangelicals. Among those aware of the term “evangelical,” the views are extraordinarily negative (49 percent to 3 percent). Disdain for evangelicals among the younger set is overwhelming and definitive. Think of it this way: there are roughly twenty-four million outsiders in America who are ages sixteen to twenty-nine (in 2006). Of these, nearly seven million have a negative impression of evangelicals; another seven million said they have no opinion; and ten million have never heard the term “evangelical.” That leaves less than a half million young outsiders–out of the twenty-four million–who see evangelicals in a positive light.
We did not define “evangelical” or “born again” for the respondents; we simply asked if they had ever heard of the groups and, if so, to describe their opinions. As we probed these young peoples’ perceptions, we encountered a great deal of confusion. For instance, many outsiders thought born-again Christians were former believers who had left the church and subsequently returned, hence, born again. Evangelicals were often thought to be Christians who are political activists. But beyond misunderstanding the terms, most young outsiders pay little attention to the specific theological perspectives that comprise the evangelical or born-again groups. Don’t get me wrong. Most outsiders are familiar with the story of Christianity–that Jesus was God’s Son who came to die to take away our sins if we believe in him. As you will see later in this book, the premise of Christianity is not a mystery because the vast majority of outsiders have been to Christian churches and have heard the message of Christ.
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 many 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.
One of the surprising insights from our research is that the growing hostility toward Christians is very much a reflection of what outsiders feel they receive from believers. They say their aggression simply matches the oversized opinions and egos of Christians. One outsider put it this way: “Most people I meet assume that ‘Christian’ means very conservative, entrenched in their thinking, antigay, antichoice, angry, violent, illogical, empire builders; they want to convert everyone, and they generally cannot live peacefully with anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe” (Source: “unChristian,” pp. 25-26).
W O W . . . I don’t know how that makes most Christians feel when they read it, but all one has to do is look at the political scene going on during this election year to see just how young outsiders (and no doubt older outsiders, too) get that impression. And just as a reminder, the research for this book was conducted between 2003-2006. Imagine how much larger the outsider population has grown in the past decade since it was published.
I’m not writing on any of the specific issues mentioned in this book as that is not my intent in writing this blog post. Rather, we who claim the name of Christ must be aware of the growing negative perception that is out there in our society towards Christianity and Christians and realize that much of it comes not from a lack of theological training in the general population, but from a lack of proper conduct from those of us who claim the name of Christ to the outsiders living among us in our day-to-day interactions with them and when we meet them in the workplace, the malls, the highways, in our churches, and anywhere else we meet them.
There is a section in Chapter 9 titled “From unChristian to Christian” that I want to quote regarding several of the author’s insights stemming from the way Jesus lived. He states on p. 206, “To shift our reputation, Christ followers must learn to respond to people in the way that Jesus did . . . we have to see people, addressing their needs and their criticism, just as Jesus did. We have to be defined by our service and sacrifice, by lives that exude humility and grace. If young outsiders say they can’t see Jesus in our lives, we have to solve our ‘hidden Jesus’ problem. This may be the hardest thing in the world to get right. . . .”
The author’s give us several insights into the life of Jesus and the way he lived among others whether they were friends, strangers, or enemies (pp. 206-208):
The first insight is that Jesus had the right perspective when facing criticism. He did not seem to be bothered by critics the way we are. Scripture emphasizes that believers will not be popular and that the message of the cross doesn’t make sense to outsiders. Jesus even taught that we would feel “blessed” when we face persecution for following Christ. Paul writes that if we suffer because we are Christians, we should praise God because we are connected to the name of Christ.
Still, fixing the problem is not a matter of trying harder. It is not an issue of carefully spin-doctoring our message or managing the “Christian brand” in the public square. Christians should not seek recognition for their efforts, other than to honor God.
When Jesus faced criticism, he did not merely dismiss it as unwarranted persecution. Sometimes he talked; other times he responded with silence. Occasionally he told a story (or a parable) to answer a question; in other instances he quoted Old Testament Scripture. Sometimes he told his listeners what to think; in other settings he would retort with blunt questions, deflecting blame or forcing inquirers to “discover” the truth themselves.
This unpredictability leads to a second insight about how Jesus responded to criticism. He was not willing to be defined by his enemies. When his detractors wanted him to make a clear statement against something, he always seemed to redefine the boundaries of the debate. He kept opponents off-balance, leaving them flustered. If his inquisitors tried to corner Jesus about religious laws, customs, and restrictions, his response was often to raise another question or to tell a story that changed the parameters of the argument. Should the Sabbath be kept holy? Of course, but for what reason? Should he associate with sinners? Who needs real help, anyway? Should the woman “waste” money perfuming Jesus’ feet? If she was baring her soul and honoring God, what’s your problem exactly?
A third insight is that when Jesus responded to critics, he seemed to consider the below-the-surface motives. He could distinguish between hostility and hurt. And he always addressed the core of people’s spiritual condition. When the woman at the well said she was not married, Jesus reminded her of her disobedience [note: her past marriages including her current lover whom she was not married to] but did so in a way that seemed to ignite her pursuit of God [note: he knew her past without her saying one word about it to him]. The rich young ruler sought kudos from the Messiah, yet Jesus said people who trust in their possessions [note: in the case of the rich young ruler it was his wealth and his possessions] create their own barriers to serving God. On the cross, Jesus refused to respond with anger toward outsiders, even those who killed him. “Forgive them,” he prayed for his killers.
Most people, including Christians, do not know what to do when people find fault with them. They blow it off, minimize it, point to other people who caused the problem, [or find] some other way to bury the blame. I have seen leaders, churches, businesses, and other ministries miss the chance to have a spiritual impact because they failed to respond properly to valid criticism. God allowed them to see something about themselves, but they did not have “ears to hear or eyes to see” what was revealed to them.
How do you respond to criticism? Do you get angry and defensive? Do you see what people say in light of their spiritual needs? Do you examine whether the Holy Spirit might be trying to teach you something about yourself? One of my father’s teachings that has stuck with me is this: be more concerned with what happens in you than what happens to you. When I have encountered criticism and challenges in my life, this phrase has been a healthy reminder that God is concerned about my response, about teaching me, about helping shape me into the kind of person he can use. The fact that the odds were stacked against me should be irrelevant.
Like Jesus we have to learn to respond to criticism appropriately and with the proper motivation. Negative responses should not debilitate us; nor should we shy away from tough decisions or unpopular positions. But we should consider whether our response to cynics and opponents is motivated to defend God’s fame or our own image. (Source: “unChristian,” pp. 206-208.)
There is much “food for thought” in the words of the authors of this book for us to consider if we are willing to examine our own lives. And let us remember what Paul had to say to us when dealing with others (and that includes all others) in Colossians 4:5-6:
Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time . . .
Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt . . .
That you may know how you ought to answer each one . . . .
YouTube video: “Speak Life” by TobyMac: