I just finished reading UnChristian (Baker, 2007), a book authored by David Kinnaman, President of the Barna Group. In the book Kinnaman presents the results of several years of research into what outsiders to the faith think about Christianity. A common reaction among those he surveyed is summed up in the book’s title. Outsiders, says Kinnaman, “think Christians no longer represent what Jesus had in mind, that Christianity in our society is not what it was meant to be” (p. 15). By “outsider” Kinnaman means anyone who is not a “born-again Christian,” including atheists, agnostics, and devotees of other faiths.
According to Kinnaman’s research, Christians in our society are increasingly viewed by outsiders as hypocritical, judgmental, anti-homosexual, sheltered, and too political. For example, 85% of American outsiders ages 16-29 described Christians as hypocritical. 87% called Christians judgmental. 91% described Christians as anti-homosexual. And 75% said Christians are too involved in politics. Thus, says Kinnaman, “Christianity has an image problem” (p. 11). More than this, he emphasizes, if this trend continues our faith will increasingly be regarded as irrelevant. The practical upshot of this study, according to Kinnaman, is that we Christians need to do things a lot differently.
Kinnaman’s book devotes entire chapters to each of the above negative descriptors. Chapter three deals with the perception of Christian hypocrisy—the notion that there is a significant gap between Christians’ beliefs and behavior. This subject is especially interesting to me, since my first book was devoted to this complex and challenging issue. However, I was disappointed to find that Kinnaman’s treatment of the issue is rather shallow from a moral-theological standpoint. While his survey results are certainly interesting and potentially useful, some of the assumptions he brings to the subject are problematic and ultimately undermine the force of his claims. For example, some of his data suggest that “Christians are increasingly permissive in their moral beliefs” (p. 53). Specifically, among born-again Christians ages 23-41:
- 33% believe viewing pornography is morally acceptable
- 44% believe sex outside of marriage is morally acceptable
- 59% believe cohabitation is morally acceptable
Now this raises two crucial questions. First, given these moral convictions (or lack thereof), why should it surprise us that the behavior of born-again Christians is also morally lax? That’s not hypocrisy but a sad sort of consistency between belief and practice. Second, just what is meant by the designation “born-again Christian” in these Barna polls? Here is Kinnaman’s answer: “To be classified as a born-again Christian, a person has to say he or she has made a personal commitment to Jesus that is still important and that the person believes he or she will go to heaven at death, because the person has confessed his or her sin and accepted Christ as Savior” (p. 46). Kinnaman uses this definition in his surveys for subjects to self-identify (as either born-again or not) and, presumably, to identify others (as born-again or not). He recognizes that this approach is “not perfect,” but he doesn’t see just how flawed it is. For one thing, this definition completely ignores the biblical emphasis on obedience as definitive of genuine saving faith (see John 14:21-23, James 2:14-26, and Gal. 5:22-23). To use this unbiblical definition as the crux of one’s research into Christian behavior and perceptions of Christians is, to say the least, problematic. Using such a restrictively belief-oriented concept of faith could only exacerbate the disturbing findings in Kinnaman’s poll data regarding the perception of Christian hypocrisy, not to mention some of the other negative descriptors discussed in his book.
Another chapter, entitled “Get Saved,” treats the perception among outsiders that Christians are so consumed with making converts that they are not sincerely interested in those who do not share their faith. Here Kinnaman is at his best, and his data reveals what we should have known all along. Evangelism is often a turn-off to most outsiders, particularly when a Gospel presentation “method” of any kind is used. Most people can tell whether someone is interested in them for who they are rather than merely being the object of their evangelistic “pitch.” However sincere such efforts might be by those who devise and teach them, the cumulative effect is that two-thirds of young outsiders believe that Christians who share their faith don’t genuinely care for them. It’s hard to imagine a perception that could more significantly undermine the Christian quest to make converts. This fact should prompt us to reconsider how we might better fulfill the Great Commission. Some other data revealed by Kinnaman should do so as well: more than two-thirds of Americans say “they have made a commitment to Jesus Christ at some point in their life” (pp. 74-75) and “in America, the vast majority of people (even outsiders) are exposed to the message of Christianity many times throughout their lives” (p. 74). Apparently, the problem is not lack of exposure to the Gospel message but lack of sound training in Christian living or discipleship of those who have made a commitment to Christ. Kinnaman’s data also reveal that only 3% of self-identified Christians possess a biblical worldview (defined in terms of belief in such things as the moral perfection of Christ, the omnipotence and omniscience of God, salvation by grace, the reality of Satan, moral absolutes, and the authority of Scripture). This, too, underscores the need to focus on proper discipleship of those who already believe rather than aggressive evangelism of those who do not. This lesson, at times hinted at by Kinnaman, should have been emphasized in UnChristian.
In chapter five Kinnaman discusses the perception that Christians are anti-homosexual. Along the way, he rightly distinguishes between being “against homosexuality” and being “against homosexuals” (p. 96), which is of course an application of the “love the sinner, hate the sin” maxim to this issue. Unfortunately, Kinnaman fails to consistently apply this distinction throughout his discussion. No doubt there are many outsiders who interpret any opposition to homosexuality as opposition to homosexuals. Knowing what percentage of those surveyed fall into this category would be very helpful. Evidently, Kinnaman did not seek this data—data which could potentially show that Christians are essentially being blamed for holding a biblical view on homosexuality. This is not to say that there are no Christians who do effectively hate homosexuals as opposed to simply believing the lifestyle is immoral. But by failing to survey in light of this distinction, Kinnaman’s results conflate the two categories and thus create the most negative impression. To be fair, however, most of the “biblical responses” to homosexuality proposed by Kinnaman (pp. 104-107) are sound, and we would all do well to follow his guidelines (e.g., to acknowledge the complexity of the issue, to treat others respectfully when dealing with the issue, to show compassion to those who struggle with homosexuality, etc.).
Chapter seven deals with the common perception that Christians are “too political.” As Kinnaman puts it, outsiders “think of us as motivated primarily by political goals and as promoting a right-wing agenda” (p. 154). Now let’s consider these two perceptions in turn. To say that evangelicals, as a group, pursue a “right-wing agenda” just doesn’t fit the facts, as Kinnaman himself notes, “among the evangelical segment, only a slight majority are registered Republicans (59 percent) . . . . the Christian community is more diverse, less cohesive, and less unified than is typically assumed” (p. 160). It would appear, then, that the perception that we’re all about right-wing politics is simply mistaken, perhaps partly reflective of the leftist predilections of many survey respondents. As for the perception that Christians are “motivated primarily by political goals,” this seems to be a more legitimate concern. As Kinnaman rightly observes, Christians should never rely on politics to solve problems that only God can solve by changing human hearts. Kinnaman’s research also reveals that outsiders sometimes declare “that Christians seem ugly and rude toward political opponents” (p. 169), and there is simply no excuse for this. But as I read this chapter I couldn’t help but think back to the late 1980s when the “religious right” movement began, through the influence of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, among others. In those days evangelicals were excoriated for being apathetic about politics, and these Christian leaders set about to changing this. Now evangelicals are blasted for being “too involved.” Oh well, you just can’t win.
Finally, in chapter eight Kinnaman deals with the perception that Christians are judgmental, noting that survey data shows outsiders “believe Christians . . . [try] to justify feelings of moral and spiritual superiority” (p. 182). Once again, although Kinnaman makes some helpful observations, the entire discussion is confused by a failure to make a critical distinction. There are two senses of “judgment.” (See my 8/3/08 blog entry for a detailed discussion of these.) There is judgment in the sense of condemnation. This is the sense of the term in those New Testament passages where Jesus tells us not to judge, lest we be judged ourselves (cf. Mt. 7:1-5). And this is the sense in which Kinnaman uses the term throughout the chapter, as is evident in his statement that “to be judgmental is to point out something that is wrong in someone else’s life, making the person feel put down, excluded, and marginalized” (p. 182). But there is another sense of the term, and that is judgment in the sense of moral discernment. This is the sort of judgment that is not only permissible but mandatory for the Christian, as Jesus tells us in Luke 7:43 and John 7:24 and as the apostle Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 5. One can only wonder how Kinnaman’s poll data might have been improved by alerting respondents to this distinction.
I have noted numerous problems with UnChristian, but I do want to emphasize that there is much that is valuable in Kinnaman’s study, most notably in (1) giving us a sense of some outsiders’ negative perceptions of Christians, (2) providing insights regarding certain cultural trends both within and outside the church, and (3) highlighting some areas in which we Christians really do need to improve. If nothing else, the book is worth reading for these reasons. But I lament the fact that UnChristian could, and should, have been a much more insightful and helpful book.
I think some of the problems you point out point to a fundamental question: As Christians, how seriously should we take the criticism of non-Christians?
Obviously, we should not discredit the cross through hypocrisy, nor should we behave in such a way that would give outsiders an excuse for their disbelief. And we ought to present the gospel as Life-Saving Truth because we truly care about the person in question, not simply because we are trying to win them to our “team.”
But here’s what I stumble over with this sort of thing: aren’t the criticisms of nonbelievers (that is, persons lost in the enveloping darkness of sin, in active rebellion against God) somewhat compromised and suspect from the start? Are nonbelievers arguing in good faith?
How far should we go in making Christ appealing to the world? (Or is that the Holy Spirit’s role?) How reliable should we consider the criticism of those who are lost, blind, and deaf? Or as Paul put it: “Am I seeking the approval of man, or of God?”
Andy, thanks for those excellent observations. Those are just the sorts of questions that were going through my mind as I read UnChristian. It is clear from Scripture that the cross is offensive to the world and that just as Jesus was hated, Christians will be hated as well. When one factors this into an analysis of Kinnaman’s poll data, its not clear that he’s discovered anything new or alarming.
Great Conversation! I also had mixed feelings about the book. Overall I was greatly pleased that someone set out to create such a book with data. I think much of what is described in the book might be intuitive for some believers – but others really need to see the hard studies to understand the validity of non-believers’ concerns.
To speak to Andy’s question/topic – great thought to bring up. I would like to add – that while non-believers might lack the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit – I think it could be dangerous to assume the opposite. In other words, I think history shows us that it is dangerous when any group of people take on the assumption that they have the ability to be “more right” in all areas (issues of power, marginalization, the crusades, religious wars, etc). This underlying assumption can sometimes lead us to lack the ability to see the various perspective each culture and people group bring to the message of the gospel. This not only causes us all to miss out, but can lead to the lack of unity in the church. Which, in some way is connected to evangelism as Jesus described unity of his body as a key indicator to world ( in John before his death ).
Isn’t this an interesting topic! Because like you said, on the one hand, becoming a member of the Kingdom of God does indeed change the way you view life! And yet, on the other, God’s creation all reflects His glory, including us. While we might see unbelievers as completely lost – we also know they are creations of the One we worship, no matter how affected by the fall. Wow! Mind boggling. Instead of having the need for a solid answer on this, I rather enjoy meditating on that concept and recognize the vastness of it. Others might disagree, and that’s fine:) We’re all one body so I can handle that!:)
One interesting point, for me, is I wonder how many Catholics or Eastern Orthodox would identify with his criteria for being a born again Christian. Now, maybe Kinnaman only wanted to survey this subsection of Christianity, but it seems to be lacking a bit in depth.
Great review. I just finished the book myself and I couldn’t agree more.
This is very well written and I will certainly be sending others here to get a good grasp of what the book imparts to its readers.
The roots of this change can be found a book called “After the Ball”.
Kinnaman documents the ‘blowback’ from the manifesto laid out there.
Thanks for finally writing about >UnChristian: A Book Review – Wisdom &
Folly Blog <Loved it!