David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, unChristian: What A New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007).
How do people outside the church view those inside it? If you’re talking about Americans between the ages of 16 and 29, the answer is, “Not favorably.” Americans in this age range view Christians as hypocritical, too focused on conversion, antihomosexual, sheltered, too political, and judgmental. Reflecting on these results, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons conclude, “Christianity has an image problem.”
Kinnaman is president of the Barna Group, a research firm that studies trends in American religion. Lyons is founder of Fermi Project, a network of emerging evangelical leaders who are trying to positively impact American culture. Fermi commissioned the Barna Group to study perceptions of Christians among Americans in the older Mosaic (born 1984-2002) and younger Buster (born 1965-1983) age cohorts. The resulting book book, unChristian, summarizes the conclusions of that study and provides suggestions for how Christians can overcome their image problem.
According to Kinnaman and Lyons, the key to changing young adults’ perceptions of Christianity is learning “to respond to people in the way Jesus did.” This does not entail giving up or watering down key convictions about Christian faith and practice. Just because young adults view Christianity as antihomosexual, for example, does not mean that Christians should stop teaching that homosexual acts are sinful or that monogamous heterosexual marriage is God’s will.
What responding to people as Jesus did means is, first of all, having the right perspective on their criticism. “[W]e should consider whether our response to cynics and opponents is motivated to defend God’s fame or our own image.” Second, it involves connecting with people. “[T]he negative image of Christians can be overcome, and this almost always happens in the context of meaningful, trusting relationships.” Third, a Christlike response requires creativity. “We cannot ignore the importance of breaking through the ‘been there, learned that’ perspective young people have about Christianity.” And fourth, we must serve people. Young American adults view the church as irrelevant and uncaring. To respond as Jesus would, “we must cultivate deep concern and sensitivity to outsiders.”
Of course, we ought to do these things because they’re right things to do, not simply because they’ll help improve our image among young adults. And doing these things does not guarantee that young people will become Christians. What it will do is change the perception about who Christians are, what we believe, and how we live. In a culture for which perception often is reality, changing the way the church is perceived goes a long way to solving humanity’s basic problem: our separation from God, and our need for salvation.