Dan Kimball is pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, Calif., and one of the key thinkers and leaders among young evangelical pastors. His newest book is
They Like Jesus But Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations (Zondervan). He recently visited with Preaching editor Michael Duduit about what he is learning about how people today view Jesus and the church—and what we can do about that.

Preaching: Your most recent book tells us that people today like Jesus, but they don’t like the church. What is it that they don’t like about the church?

Kimball: What I discovered was that—as many church leaders know and realize—there is an increasing number of people, especially under the age 35, who are part of a mass group that is leaving the church. And it got me really wondering why this is happening. I started hearing, “I’m spiritual but not religious” a lot. I wanted to know what that meant, so I started talking to people in the Santa Cruz County area in northern California where I’m from.

And I started hearing patterns of “Yes, I respect what I know of the person of Jesus, but I don’t like church.” And then I would ask, “Can you define who you mean by ‘Jesus’?” And often it was Jesus as more like a Gandhi figure or a Martin Luther King Jr., figure—a spiritual figurehead, not a divine Jesus who will be our judge and Savior.

Preaching: They have a cultural image of Jesus.

Kimball: Yes, And then I started asking, “Well, what about the church?” Instantly there were these words: judgmental, homophobic, oppresses women, male dominated, boys club, arrogant about other world religions and fundamentalists. It was funny because several said, “I know the Bible more than those Christians do that are in universities studying the Bible in their English Lit classes, etc.” And so I started hearing these patterns.

It was really mind and heart opening to me because I started understanding that there’s validity to what they’re saying. The reason there’s validity is because most of them hadn’t known too many Christians, or the ones they did see generally were aggressive street evangelists; or they were making opinions about Christians by those in the media. So I just started seeing this dichotomy of liking Jesus but not the church.

Then there’s a book that came out six months after They Like Jesus But Not the Church. It was by Dave Kinnaman and is called UnChristian. What I love about that book was that it was backing up what I was saying with statistics. It was almost the same exact thing. And then I got an e-mail from Ed Stetzer, right when the article in USA Today came out about young adults and leaving the church, and he just goes, “You’re right.” (Laughter) He was talking about the same thing. The more studies ... that’s what’s happening out there today.

Preaching: To add to the data—I read something Thom Rainer wrote recently that said 70 percent of those between 18 and 22 are leaving our churches. He was pointing out the reality that young people grow up in our churches, but it makes so little connection with them—for whatever reasons—that when they become independent, they walk away from church. Statistically it doesn’t matter whether they go away to college or not—the numbers are almost the same.

Kimball: Yeah, I wouldn’t doubt that.

Preaching: Although you started your questioning in northern California, this is something that’s happening really across the culture, isn’t it?

Kimball: It’s at a national level. I think there are some parts of the country that are maybe not quite at that place yet. Maybe they are a little more conservative—there’s still a very strong church.

Preaching: There’s a bit of the Bible Belt still left.

Kimball: Right, but then they’re dealing with other issues—is church simply a social thing that people go to and grow out of? But as UnChristian is showing, it’s a national trend. That survey was national, not just in one place.

Preaching: As you’re talking with people, one thing you note is that often it’s not the real Jesus they say they like. It’s a caricature of Jesus. When people encounter the real Jesus, how different is the response?

Kimball: The messenger about Jesus [can’t just say], “Well, you’ve got Jesus wrong. He ain’t like Gandhi. That’s offensive. He’s the Son of God!” That can shut people out. A lot of preaching forms have been more like that.