Book Review: unChristian

unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…and Why it Matters
by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons

If you’re a Christian under 40, you are probably aware of most of the things this book deals with.  In fact, you’re likely to share many of the views expressed in this book.  If you’re over 40, or haven’t given much thought to how Christians and their churches are viewed by younger non-Christians, this book could be a valuable eye-opener to you.

Christians are not viewed particularly positively these days in our culture.  There are many reasons for this.  Philosophically we’ve moved into (or through) a period where Truth is demanded to be a personal, relativized thing.  What’s true for me doesn’t need to be true for you.  Media often portrays Christians in a negative light, focusing on the isolated acts of extremists rather than on more positive things that Christians are doing.  Music, movies, television – all of these things tend to question and attack Christians and the faith more than defend.  And last but not least, educationally the drive to separate Church and state often results in the conveyance of negative views about the Church.  It is less separation than denigration.  In the constant effort to not offend, the one group that seems to be offendable with impunity is Christians.

Many of the issues this book raises are valid.  As flawed, sinful human beings, Christians often act in ways that are contradictory with our professed beliefs, validating charges of hypocrisy.  We are often judgmental and unloving – both to non-Christians as well as our fellow-believers.  Biblical Christians are usually anti-homosexuality – which is being turned by the media and homosexuality advocates into an equivocal stance with being against homosexuals as people.  Many Christians are concerned about the spiritual and eternal welfare of those around them, resulting in a preachiness or perceived inauthenticity.

The book is good for pointing out these perceptions by under-40 non-Christians.  Relevant statistical data is displayed throughout in tidy black, white, and grey bar charts.  The conclusions are inescapable and undeniable – for much of our up and coming population, the Church is already irrelevant because they perceive it as failing to live up to the standards it demands the rest of the world to follow.

The book offers an inadequate solution:  try harder.  Be less judgmental.  Be more loving.  Be less strident in focusing on social agendas and issues that you disagree with.  Relate to people honestly rather than masking hidden agendas.  These are all good things to be pointed towards, but they’re ultimately inadequate.  The solution to my sinfulness is not within myself.  That’s why Jesus came to live and die and rise again for me.  I am not capable of meeting the high demands my faith espouses.  Not that I shouldn’t try, and shouldn’t try much, much harder.  But ultimately, it will be inadequate.  Always.

The problems which Kinnaman identifies are ultimately not problems with Christians – they are problems with everyone.  We are all not loving enough.  We are all judgmental.  We are all hypocritical.  We all have people or positions that we are not tolerant of or every hostile to.  These are some of the many results of sin.  Yes, these are found in churches, because they are found everywhere that people are.  The Church simply has the inside track on why and how this is.  As such, Christians ought to be more diligent about guarding their mouths and actions so as not to give a false impression of their faith.  But it doesn’t always happen.

There are ways that churches and Christians could address some of these issues.  But there is a lot of cultural baggage (church culture) that is going to need to be jettisoned:

  • our preoccupation with ourselves and our own worship environments and preferences and programs,
  • our over-sensitivity to people who are different from us, or who may exhibit visible signs of sinful  living,
  • our insistence that people conform to our beliefs and behaviors as a condition for joining our worship and community, rather than as a byproduct of joining.

Such changes are going to take a lot of time, and will only come by the power of the Holy Spirit.

For Christians who are under 40, the challenge becomes dealing with the tension of being an ‘insider’ to the Church, yet retaining many of the cultural attitudes, assumptions, philosophies, and ways of thinking.  How do you resolve the fact that you probably agree with most of the critiques this book is going to address?  How do you respond when people begin to go off on these issues?  How do you make them more relevant and pressing to your church family, while not completely agreeing with every assertion of those outside the church?  How do you live in tension as an imperfect person, part of an imperfect church, while being called to emulate Christ in anticipation of the perfection you will one day inherit by the Grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ?

When dealing with those outside of the faith, we need to take very seriously Paul’s admonitions that we not judge them by the standards we judge one another.  This becomes complicated within the political realm, which has led many outside the faith to fear or distrust the Christian political agenda.  When we demand that others play by our rules legally, when we are unwilling to engage with people personally to share the Gospel in a meaningful way, such distrust is not unwarranted.  Does this invalidate Christians being involved in politics?  No – but legislation is simply that.  It’s law.  Laws can change.  The Gospel is the Word of God, and it doesn’t change, and the impact that the Gospel can have on a person’s life can in many ways make civil laws rather pointless.  If we were better at sharing the Gospel, we wouldn’t need to legislate and lobby quite so vociferously.

No congregation is immune to the accusations that are often rallied against Christians in general.  We will find our share of hypocrisy, stubbornness, cruelty, gossip, slander, and all manner of other failings.  The fact that these things exist is not a reason to write off the congregation – unless they are being facilitated or condoned.  These things should draw us constantly back to our own need for forgiveness, the necessity of our own dying to self.  There is a time and a place for congregational life to deal with persistent sin in its midst, and this time and place may not be of our own design or choosing.  We have to be careful not to fall into sinful behavior or thoughts or attitudes in reaction to the sinfulness of others.

Published May 7, 2010

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