David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons published a book in 2016 titled, “Good Faith: Being A Christian When Society Thinks You’re Irrelevant and Extreme” (2016). The title is very clear about the subject matter of the book. The inside front cover includes the following statement:
It is easy to feel overwhelmed as we try to live faithfully in a culture that seems increasingly hostile to the Christian faith. With a growing backlash against religion and people of faith, it’s harder than ever to hold on to our convictions while treating friends, neighbors, co-workers, and even family members who disagree with respect and compassion.
Based on groundbreaking research, this timely book by the bestselling authors of “unChristian” explores politics, sexuality, race, gender, and religious freedom, helping you:
- respond with compassion, clarity, and confidence to the most toxic issues of our day
- discover the most significant cultural trends that are creating both obstacles and opportunities for Christians
- know what you believe and why it doesn’t make you a judgmental or extreme person
- stop being afraid to talk about what you believe and start having meaningful conversations about tough issues
- understand the heart behind opposing views and learn how to stay friends across differences (Source: inside front cover of “Good Faith.”)
David Kinnaman is the president of Barna Group, a leading research and communications company that works with churches, nonprofits, and businesses ranging from film studios to financial services. Since 1995, Kinnaman has directed interviews with nearly one million individuals and overseen hundreds of US and global research studies. He is also the author of “unChristian” and “You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church and Rethinking Faith.” (Source: Inside back cover of “Good Faith.”)
Gabe Lyons is the founder of “Q” (Q Ideas), a learning community that educates and mobilizes Christians to think well and advance “good” in society. Called “sophisticated and orthodox” by The New York Times, “Q” represents the perspective of a new generation of Christians. Lyons speaks on cultural issues where faith intersects public life. He is the author of “unChristian” and “The Next Christians.” (Source: Inside back cover of “Good Faith.”)
I presented several parts of this book back on January, 1, 2017, in a blog post titled, “Seizing the New Year.” In this current post I want to look at what the authors found from their research and experiences regarding those who hold to Christian beliefs who are being viewed as “irrelevant and extreme” by an ever growing segment of today’s society. The specific chapters are titled, “Irrelevant” (Chapter 2), and “Extreme” (Chapter 3):
Chapter 2: Irrelevant (pp. 25-37). The following quotes are taken directly from this chapter:
Irrelevance happens when your interests and someone else’s don’t overlap–like trying to share with someone the joy of playing your favorite game when to them boards games are joyless, soul-sucking instruments of torture. The other person may admire your passion but cannot relate to it.
For increasing millions of people in the wider culture, Christianity feels like a long list of rules that matter “to someone else.” Some try to hang in there out of a sense of duty or obligation. They might make a sincere effort to participate in church, maybe because it’s important to people they care about. But Christianity just doesn’t stick.
They never roll for the galaxy, much less search out their salvation. They can’t understand how or why faith relates to them, so they look for an excuse to leave the table.
Through our research, we have sorted out clear ways to distinguish those who see faith as background noise from those actively engaged in the game. We call the latter group “practicing Christians,” people who say their Christian faith is very important in their lives and attend church as least once a month. These are folks for whom Christianity is a way of life, not just a cultural identifier. Three out of ten Americans are practicing Christians.
For many millions of people who might be considered “legacy Christians,” however, Christianity is background noise that can safely be ignored. They have the muscle memory of being a Christian but exercise little faith in their lives today. They used to be active or grew up as a Christian, but now the tenets and practices of the faith are just part of the landscape, not guiding lights for their priorities and lifestyle.
We could count this group of people–legacy or nominal Christians–as the largest faith group in America today. Three out of four US adults have some Christian background, but about three in five American Christians are mostly inactive in their faith.
You might think of legacy Christians as people who learned the rules of the game years ago, but at some point the rules, and participating in the competition itself, became almost entirely irrelevant. When we interview them about why they don’t prioritize their faith or participate in faith related activities, legacy Christians tell us they are just too busy or they find God elsewhere–in nature or art, for instance. To them, church is boring. Christianity has faded into the background. It’s a way of life that matters to somebody else. (Source: “Good Faith,” pp. 26-28.)
The authors state several perceptions that drive the “irrelevant” factor. On page 28 they state, “Most legacy Christians think Jesus-followers who prioritize faith are irrelevant and maybe annoying but also largely benign. But others, usually the religiously unaffiliated, think Christianity is bad for society. We are not seen as people of good faith.” Several of these perceptions are as follows:
Perception: Christian Leaders Aren’t Credible Guides for Life. On the whole, pastors and priests are well liked–two-thirds of Americans say their presence is a benefit to a community–but their insights are not considered relevant to living real life. You might say that Christian leaders are viewed like a smiling greeter at Walmart: they might point you in the right direction, but after that you’re on your own (pp. 28-29).
Perception: Faith-Driven Organizations Are Irrelevant to a Charitable Society. Millions of adults are oblivious to how charity happens . . . . Up to half of Americans believe a majority of the charitable work in the nation–including providing food, clothing, shelter, counseling, and disaster relief, for example, would still happen if there were no religious people or organization to do the work . . . . shockingly, 17 percent of practicing Christians believe the same . . . . Although their view is far from reality (explained in detail on pp. 30-31), perception matters. NOTE: See article titled, “Christians Provide More Aid To Hurricane Victims Than FEMA,” published September 10, 2017 at this link.
Perception: Christianity Is Irrelevant to the “Real Stuff” of Life and Culture. Most people think Jesus was a pretty good guy, but they don’t believe his teaching has made much of an impact on modern society. Large proportions of the population, even Christians, believe our faith has had little or no impact on art, culture, personal well-being, politics, community cohesion, charitable behavior, and provision of community services. Among non-Christians, the perceived line dividing the Christian faith and societal impact is even more distinct.
Furthermore, many people dramatically underestimate the number of practicing Christians in sectors that power our economy and create a healthy society. Public education is just one example. According to Barna estimates, two out of every five public school teachers and administrators in the United States are practicing Christians…. And this is just one sector of society; practicing Christians do good work and meaningfully contribute across a wide spectrum of industries (pp. 31-32).
Perception: People Can Live a “Good Life” without Christianity. For many people, life seems pretty good without faith. They can play the “game of life” without using the Christian rule book and still experience what feels like “winning.” Christians also believe this is true–to a certain extent… and it’s certainly possible to live a decent and productive life without being a Christian. We see this all the time….
The fact that people can live meaningful, fulfilling lives without Jesus does not invalidate the claims of Christianity. . . . But we should acknowledge that the “good life” feels attainable to many people–75 percent of US adults agree “a person can live a pretty good and decent life without being a Christian”–and this keeps them feeling like Christianity is a board game that isn’t worth learning.
Part of this problem is that too many in the Christian community have bought into unbiblical notions about what it means to live a “good life,” so it doesn’t look to outsiders like we’re doing anything special. Rather than living as a counter-cultural community that bears witness to the coming kingdom of God, many of us go with the cultural flow, thoughtlessly consuming the products, ideas, and aspirations streamed for us in an unending deluge of retweets and Facebook likes. It’s so hard, in this screen age, to keep our attention focused on anything for very long, much less a way of life introduced to Middle Eastern peasants two thousand years ago. Talk about irrelevant! Christianity’s rootedness in past events and future hope seems, to many, out of step with the ‘now’ orientation of the hyperlinked life (pp. 32-22).
Chapter 3: Extreme (pp. 39-17). The following quotes are taken directly from this chapter:
If the past decade and a half [e.g., since 9/11] has taught Americans anything, it’s that religious extremism is a real thing. Bombarded by images of terrorism, gun violence, perpetual religious wars, and unthinkable atrocities, we are justifiably wary of people who use their faith as an excuse to do violence and incite terror….
Most people believe being religiously extreme is a threat to society. Three-quarters of all Americans–and nine out of ten Americans with no faith affiliation–agree. But what actions and beliefs, exactly, come to mind when people think about religious extremism?
We asked Americans 18 and older their views on more than a dozen ways people of faith might express or observe the convictions of their religion. We found, as you might expect, that using religion to justify violence against other is almost universally condemned as extremist: more than nine out of ten adults agree doing so is “very” or at least “somewhat” extreme.
But we also discovered that, nowadays, you don’t have to hijack a plane, blow up a subway train, or cut off somebody’s head to be considered an extremist. The perceptions of extremism hit close to home for most Christians, as you’ll see on the table on the next page [not available to put in this post]. Many historic Christian beliefs and practices are considered to be extreme by large proportions of Americans–especially among non-Christians. For example, two out of five adults believe it is extremist to try to convert others to their faith; 60 percent of all adults in America and 83 percent of atheists and agnostics believe evangelism–one of the central actions of Christian conviction–is extremist. A slim majority says that holding the belief that same-sex relationships are morally wrong is extremist. Two out of five adults believe it’s extreme to quit a good-paying job to pursue mission work in another country.
Even at the bottom of the list, many essential Christian practices are now perceived to be extremist. While not majority opinions, millions of adults contend that behaviors such as donating money to religious causes, reading the Bible silently in public, and even attending church or volunteering are examples of religious extremism.
What most concerns people about extremism is the public expression of religion–when beliefs and practices enter the public square. For the most part, people think you can do whatever you want on Sunday mornings, in your churches, just so long as matters of faith don’t spill out into society.
Beyond the specific religious activities we assessed, broadly speaking, the perceptions of extremism is firmly entrenched among the nation’s non-Christians. Forty-five percent of atheists, agnostics, and religiously unaffiliated in America agree with the statement “Christianity is extremist.”
That’s just shy of half.
Almost as troubling is the fact that only 14 percent of these “nones” (a term used to describe the religiously unaffiliated) strongly disagree that Christianity is extremist; 41 percent disagree somewhat. You might say disagreeing somewhat or disagreeing strongly is the difference between “I guess not” and “Of course not!” So even among non-Christians who reject the idea that Christianity is extremist, there is a lot of ambivalence.
What happened? And what’s behind this growing perception that public expression of religious conviction is extreme?
North America is becoming more religiously plural. There are more faith groups represented among the population than there were fifty years ago, and more faith “tribes” have a significant voice in our cultural dialogue…. Muslims now comprise a significant proportion of the population of several US cities and are an even larger proportion of Europe’s population. And don’t forget the recent advance of atheists and their philosophical cousins, the religiously unaffiliated.
Meanwhile, the Christian share of the population has shrunk. The voice of evangelicals, for many years among the most politically and culturally resonant, sounds less persuasive to an increasing number of ears–especially to those who think religion should be private, never public. Evangelicals’ fundamental belief in the importance of sharing the gospel (a public act, if ever there was one) is seen as extreme by a majority of adults in a society trying to come to grips with religious diversity.
But it’s not only evangelicals. We asked US adults about several minority groups, religious and otherwise. How difficult would it be for them to have a natural and normal conversation with a person from that group…. A majority of Americans would struggle to have a conversation with a Muslim (73 percent), a Mormon (60 percent), and atheist (56 percent), an evangelical (55 percent), or someone from the LGBT community (52 percent)….
In broad strokes, many people think it would be difficult to have a conversation with anyone who is not a part of “their” group. Many of us, in other words, find it challenging to connect and have meaningful conversations with others.
The state of our union is one of dis-union.
The conversational health of our society is in bad shape.
As a culture, we are trying to figure out how to make sense of the widening religious and ideological differences we experience every day. Sometimes it feels like we’re all in an epic tug-of-war to decide who gets to narrate reality and determine what is true and good. And, by default, the mushy middle seems to be winning. Many people are gravitating to a contrived centrist position that says everything will be okay if none of us holds too tightly to any particular belief. Ironically, this contrived center is itself becoming an ideology, as people grip it more and more tightly and call the people tugging on the ends extremists (pp. 41-45).
Given this backdrop, we can see how Christians who do talk about their faith threaten a fragile cultural consensus. And, make no mistake, that faith is a threat. Christians believe God reveals what is true and good–and are willing to keep on tugging even if everyone else disagrees (p. 46).
There is more information in both chapters that is not stated above, but this information will give anyone who tends to be insulated within Christian communities an idea of what is going on in the broader culture when it comes to how many in the broader culture feel about Christians and Christianity in general. The book includes a wealth of information that has been well documented and researched, and also includes a lot of information on how to navigate . . .
These rising waters . . .
We find ourselves . . .
Swimming in . . . .
YouTube Video: “Speak Life” by TobyMac: