Since my brief review of UnChristian is in the latest print edition of WORLD, I thought I'd spend the next few posts delving into some of the research that informs it. If you're not familiar with this book by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, it springs out of a research project in which young Americans were asked to provide descriptions that to them most accurately describe Christianity. The results are -- or should be -- heartbreaking.
Because it may be hard for some Christians to read the criticisms in this book, it is important to note that the authors are Christians, and that it is based on professional survey research by The Barna Group, a Christian research firm. What's more, the responses come from Christians as well as non-Christians, and the backgrounds of the respondents indicate that they have more than a passing knowledge of the church and Christianity. This is not, in other words, a shoddily-produced liberal hatchet job, but rather, a call for awareness, repentance, and action from fellow Christians.
One of the perceptions held by large portions of young Americans is that Christians are hypocritical. Part of the problem, Kinnaman and Lyons show from other survey evidence, is that when Christians are asked what is the most important priority to pursue in terms of their faith, the number one answer is lifestyle: being good and not sinning. The message many Christians send to the world, in other words, is that being a Christian means, first and foremost, avoiding sin. (As an aside, the answer that received the lowest priority from Christians surveyed was discipling our children -- only one percent of respondents name it as a top priority.)
The problem, of course, is that Christians sin. If we didn't, we wouldn't need a savior. The data, moreover, indicates that we sin with a frequency scarcely distinguishable from non-Christians. You can see what happens when we put these two phenomena together in front of an audience: young people hear that Christianity is all about not sinning, but then they see Christians sinning just as much as everyone else. They naturally conclude, therefore, that Christians are hypocrites. "The truth is," Kinnaman and Lyons write, "we have invited the hypocrite image." Not receiving a full message of the gospel, many young non-Christians think that Christianity is just a big morality show, put on by people who don't even believe it themselves.
The beginning of a solution, the authors suggest, is for Christians to be more transparent about our own sins, not in an exhibitionist manner, but with humility. This has to be combined, of course, with getting right in our own minds, as well as in our messages, what Christianity means. It is first and foremost about the redemptive gift of a perfect savior, given to imperfect men. Too many young people, however, perceive that it is about pulling yourself up by your own spiritual bootstraps, and being good. We strive for sinlessness out of love for God, yes, but we only love him because he first loved us.
One thing I took from this book is that instead of projecting the message: be like me and sin less, I need to say: I am a sinner like you, and here is why I strive to be better tomorrow than I am today, and why I have hope regardless of whether I succeed or fail.