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Regis Nicoll Christian Blog and Commentary

From UnChristian to Christian

Christianity seems like an old, broken-down building that I have to drive by every day. I don't even notice it anymore"

--Eric, age 29, in UnChristian

Losing a whole generation

"Christianity has an image problem." So begins UnChristian, a book by Barna Group president David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. Based on a three-year study on mainstream perceptions, UnChristian is a pull-no-punches self-examination into the heart and soul of the Church. 


I recently attended a presentation by Kinnaman about the book and the research behind it. Kinnaman noted that over half of young adults abandon their faith sometime after high school. That's not news for those who have been paying attention. (A recent poll released in USA Today puts the number at 70%). What is news is that they are not returning.


Whereas in past generations, many AWOL adults came back to the fold after having children, parenthood is having little effect today. Instead, increasing numbers of new parents are staying away.


As reported in UnChristian, outsiders (made up of non-Christians and the unchurched) represent about one-third (or 91 million) of all Americans. They comprise 23% of persons aged 61 and over; 27% for ages 42 to 60; 37% for ages 18 to 41; and 40% for ages 16 to 29.  From the oldest generation to the youngest, that's nearly a two-fold increase in outsider make-up. It's a signal that we are losing a whole generation.


The other surprise is that this is not because Christians aren't sharing the Good News. To the contrary, according to Barna, each year around 50% of born-again Christians share their faith with unbelievers. That suggests that the problem is not because we're not evangelizing; folks just aren't buying what we're selling. Kinnaman, the lead strategist at Barna, wanted to know why and went "where angels fear to tread"--to outsiders to find out what they really think about us.  


After surveying thousands of young people both inside and outside the church, Kinnaman discovered that over the past decade, the percentage of young people having a negative perception of Christianity had tripled. He also found that young churchgoers were wrestling with the same perceptions as their non-churchgoing cohorts.


How we are perceived

Among young outsiders, the most prevalent attitudes are that Christianity is anti-homosexual, judgmental, and hypocritical. The vast majority, between 85 and 91%, hold those views. Over two-thirds feel that Christians are insensitive to others, too political, and unaccepting of other faiths.  The same attitudes are shared, albeit in lesser degree, among young churchgoers.


In survey after survey, Kinnaman found that the homosexuality issue, more than any other has shaped public perceptions about Christians. "Hostility toward gays--not just opposition to homosexual politics and behaviors but disdain for gay individuals--has become virtually synonymous with the Christian faith," Kinnaman writes.


Whether or not that's a fair association, it reflects how we come across to others. When our criticism of homosexual behavior is out of proportion to our concern over heterosexual divorce and promiscuity in the church, it smacks of hypocrisy. Add to that, a perceived air of moral superiority, and you've got the picture of the "unChristian." Again, while these impressions may not accurately represent Christianity, they do affect how the Christian message is received.


Paul challenged the Corinthian church that they were to be "the aroma of Christ" to the world. If people would taste the "Bread of Life," they must be made hungry through the fragrant lives of those who are feeding on it. If folks are staying away from the banquet table, it's not because of the food; it's because of the aroma of those on the inside.


We are tempted to think that outsiders remain outside because of our burdensome moral standards. Interestingly, few (only one-fourth) cite that as their reason. Instead, they say: I've never considered becoming a Christian, I'm not interested in spirituality, I'm involved in another faith expression, or..."[I'm] repelled by Christians." Ouch!


One doesn't have to travel far into UnChristian to uncover the reason for such remarks: The observed actions and deeds of Christians don't align with Christ’s teachings.


It boils down to depth

Kinnaman references a 2007 Barna study which found that the behaviors of born-again Christians are largely indistinguishable from the ambient culture. For instance, born-agains were just as likely to gamble, steal, view pornography, abuse alcohol and illegal or non-prescription drugs, take out revenge on someone, and engage in physical or verbal abuse.  


However, Barna found one group that was an exception: Christians who embrace a biblical worldview.  Barna found that people holding a biblical worldview, as defined by eight doctrinal elements, live distinctly different from the cultural norms. Sadly, though, only 9% of born-agains have a biblical worldview.


That is reflected in surveys Kinnaman conducted with young outsiders. When asked whether they noticed lifestyle differences in Christians, only 15% answered affirmatively. To many outsiders, Christianity is not about truth, but about gaining share in a crowded spiritual marketplace. And Christians--they're just finger-pointing hypocrites putting others down to build themselves up.


Those may be unduly harsh criticisms, but they are based on the yawning gap between our lips and lives. The question we need to ask is why the gap exists. I believe it relates to how we determine success.


Measuring success

Most churches determine their "health" by measuring some combination of church attendance, baptisms, membership, and giving. If those numbers are up, the church is in peak shape; if they are flat, the church is stable and holding; and if they are trending down, it's time for a transfusion. Problem is, those "business school" indicators only measure breadth, not depth.


Instead of relying on Madison Avenue-type accounting measures, church health should be based on church mission. Expressed in the simplest terms, the mission of the church is:


·    Bring 'em in

·    Grow 'em

·    Send 'em out


More simply stated: We are to make disciples who make disciples. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, "Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ."  Consequently, church health is about the quality of our membership, not its quantity. Unfortunately, traditional indicators reveal very little qualitative information.


In my 30 years in the nuclear industry, one maxim that proved true over and over is "What gets measured is what gets done." Turning that into a question for the Church: What must be measured to ensure that discipleship "gets done?"


Discipleship is a life-long process, transforming believers to think, act and love like Jesus. It begins, inwardly, with personal response to the gospel and moves outwardly with a passion to advance the Kingdom. This inward-out progression involves six elements.


1.     Salvation: receiving Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

2.     Maturity: growth in Christ through worship, study, prayer, meditation, and private devotions.

3.     Fellowship: communion with other Christians for encouragement, accountability and mentoring.

4.     Inreach: using one's gifts for service and ministry within the church.

5.     Outreach: using one's gifts to minister to people outside of the church.

6.     Evangelism: bringing others to Christ.


With discipleship as the goal, church health is measured by "pulsing" each of those six areas. For example, if we have a strong pulse in "Salvation" and weekly worship attendance, but a weak to non-existent pulse in the other elements, it could explain our spiritual vertigo and dwindling membership.


On the other hand, if 50% of the congregation share their faith with unbelievers (Evangelism), yet only 20% are involved in spiritual growth and nurturing fellowship (Maturity and Community), it could answer why we're filling the pews but not penetrating the culture.


In his book Growing True Disciples (2001), George Barna compiled a list of "best practices" in disciple-building. After analyzing dozens of churches across the U.S., Barna concluded that the most effective discipleship models included the following elements:


·       Church membership requires an upfront commitment to the discipleship process.

·       All church programs are structured around discipleship outcomes.

·       Ministry goals are related to the "spiritual state of the congregation."


He also found that model churches not only monitor their "spiritual state" against discipleship goals, they require members to have a personal development plan which is worked out with a spiritual mentor.


What now?

UnChristian made me flinch with nearly every turn of the page. I found it hard to fathom the onslaught of negative perceptions about the Church, about me. And yet, there it was. Unquestionably, we have an image problem; the blame of which can't be placed "out there," either on the culture or the media. Rather, the fault lies squarely on an unchristian faith that has become increasingly the norm among professed believers.


That is an unsettling conclusion. But it means that we, not others, can determine whether and how our image will be changed. And that's good. The question is, "Will we?"


I would be interested in hearing from you about what your church is doing to measure, monitor and address the spiritual growth of its members. I invite you to share your experiences and strategies here.