Book Review: They Like Jesus But Not the Church

What’s the secret, if there is one, for reaching the post-high school through early-30-something young adults? We Lutherans don’t seem to be having much success, but we are not alone in that challenge. Denominations are mostly miss-stepping or not stepping at all when it comes to young adult ministry.

What this means is a small and dwindling young adult population in most of our churches. At the same time, there are churches, most in the so called “emerging church” that are attracting thousands of young adults to their weekend services. Is there something we can learn from them?

The new book from Dan Kimball, They Like Jesus But Not the Church, presents many helpful and challenging ideas related to reaching today’s young adult. Is it Lutheran? No. Is it theological? Not necessarily. Is it helpful? I believe it is.

Kimball begins by saying that church workers need to get out of our offices and into the coffee houses, brew houses and other places where young adults gather. For example, Kimball takes his laptop to Starbucks to write his sermons; as the opportunity arises, he engages in conversation with people who he encounters there–mostly young adults.

Like many reaching young adults today, Kimball doesn’t usually begin his conversations with these people with statements about God or Jesus, but about life–their lives. What is happening in their lives? What’s new? What’s their favorite band or video game? He strikes up a relationship. At first, the young adult generally isn’t aware that Kimball is a pastor and they talk about all sorts of things; eventually, they talk about spiritual things. Sometimes it takes several meetings before this shift in the conversation happens. What Kimball has discovered through this process is the title of his book. Young adults like Jesus although don’t necessarily understand Him as God or Savior, and young adults often have a very negative attitude toward the church and would just as soon have nothing to do with it.

Why don’t they like the church? Kimball lists six common perceptions young adults hold about church:

* The church is an organized religion with a political agenda.
* The church is judgmental and negative.
* The church is dominated by males and oppresses females.
* The church is homophobic.
* The church arrogantly claims all other religions are wrong.
* The church is full of fundamentalists who take the whole Bible literally.

The point is not whether Dan Kimball is right, but his bullets are the attitudes of many young adults, whether we agree with their points or not. I mean, I’m a Biblical literalist. Kimball is a reporter and these points are what young adults tell him.

His response to these misconceptions is not compromise, but rather a challenge. If, for example, you don’t believe in women’s ordination, Kimball doesn’t say you have to change your position. He says that you need to know what you believe and why you believe it, and you need to be able to talk about it from Scripture. His approach is very much like St. Peter who wrote: “Always (be) prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” (I Peter 3:15-16)

Dan Kimball wrote this book because he cares about people and their salvation. He writes, “The reason I am writing this book and the reason I continue to go out of my way to meet, befriend, hangout with and talk with those who like Jesus but not the church is because I so desire for others to experience the full Jesus, not just the good teacher or the friends, but also the Lord of Lords and King of Kings and the Savior who changes lives.” (57) I would take issue with the word experience, but I would say that I want young adults to know everything there is to know about Jesus, God, Savior, Friend, Guide, Hope and Salvation.

Throughout his book, Kimball includes snippets of conversations with young adults he interviewed. These young adult voices are very helpful. They are also difficult to read because these are the people we are losing.

In response to the concerns, Kimball offers these attitudes:

* The church is an organized community with a heart to serve others.
* The church is a positive agent of change loving others as Jesus would.
* The church holds women in highest respect and includes them in the leadership of the church.
* The church is a loving and welcoming community.
* The church is respectful of other people’s beliefs and faiths.
* The church hold beliefs with humility and strives to be thoughtful theologian .

Will you like everything in this book? Probably not. Kimball even anticipates some of the questions a critic might raise in the last chapter. In general, I appreciate his challenge to us mainliners. I liked the opportunity to “hear” young voices. I appreciated his challenge to be theological in our response. Kimball never calls for compromise of our beliefs. He does call for compassion for people. He calls for the church to be mission minded.

I believe Lutherans have the right theology. I believe there is much in this book that can help us learn how to share our theology with a young adult population so they will not just like Jesus, but love Jesus and perhaps end up liking the church, too.

Published October 31, 2007

About the author

As the Director of LCMS Youth Ministry, Terry Dittmer seeks to advocate for young people and to empower young people to be God’s people in the world and to empower people to “confess” their faith in celebratory and expressive ways. Terry and his wife, Cherie, have five adult children.
View more from Terry

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