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"unChristian" Christianity: Hypocritical
by Tom Goodman
February 7, 2008

In David Kinnaman's new book, unchristian, the president of the Barna research firm reported on an extensive study of the attitudes that unchurched 16- to 29-year-olds have of the Christian faith.  Our Ministry Staff is reading this book together, and across the next several weeks I'll summarize Kinnaman's research for you in LeaderLines.

The book focuses on six complaints that unchurched young people have regarded Christians.  They see us as...

  • Hypocritical
  • Too focused on getting converts
  • Anti-homosexual
  • Sheltered
  • Too political
  • Judgmental

Let's begin with the first complaint on the list.  Kinnaman says:

Whether we like it or not, the term 'hypocritical' has become fused to young people's experience with Christianity.  85% of young outsiders have had sufficient exposure to Christians and churches that they conclude present-day Christianity is hypocritical.  And as I have pointed out, negative perceptions also bleed into the perspectives of young churchgoers -- half agreed that Christianity is hypocritical.

Our problem is twofold, according to the book.  The perception that we've given outsiders is that the Christian message is all about "being good," and yet few of us are "being good."  So, young outsiders have concluded that we don't practice what we preach.

The solution is found in a transparency about our weaknesses and in the transformation of our weaknesses.

First, it's important to be transparent -- to be honest about our own imperfections as believers.  The gospel message isn't about "being good"; it's about being Christ's!  To those who say that "Christianity is just a crutch," I say, "Cripples need crutches, and I'm crippled."  As Paul write in 1 Timothy 1:15-16 (NLT):
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners -- and I was the worst of them all.  But that is why God had mercy on me, so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners.  Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life.

That's the message of the gospel, and if we believers had "stayed on message," to use a public relations phrase, maybe young people wouldn't be so cynical about Christians today.

As Tony Woodlief said in his review of unchristian, "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."

But, as Kinneman says about us, "We are not known for the depth of our transparency, for digging in and solving deep-seated problems, but for trying to project an unChristian picture of having it all together."

That's why I'm excited about ministries like our Common Ground CafĂ© that meets after the first worship service.  I asked Mark McHargue to share his experience with Common Ground:
I have been in church all of my life.  Despite that fact I have never felt connected or grounded in the church.  When I was a kid, everyone dressed nice and went to church.  We sang songs, had fellowship and heard sermons.  What we didn't do was talk about real life and everyone pretended everything was OK.  Then came Common Ground.  My wife encouraged me to attend but I really didn't want to.  I finally gave in and it has meant a great deal to me.  At first it seemed a little stilted.  But then a topic that was REAL came before our group.  I decided to actually talk and let my guard down.  The group all responded with kindness and understanding.  Over the past year we have grown close as a group and discussed difficult issues in the open.  I believe I have learned more about a true Christian walk in the last year than I have in all my 43 years of life before.  The Bible tells us to love God and love each other.  Sharing your life and the difficulties in it with other Christians who really love you as a brother or sister in Christ is, next to knowing the love of Christ, the most moving experience we can have; and we have it at common ground.  Take a chance and open up -- it can literally change your life.

Whether it's through Common Ground or some other venue, we believers must get back to the Apostle Paul's style of honesty about our weaknesses.  The point of the gospel is that Christ died for sinners, and that means us.

But in addition to humble transparency, we need determined transformation.  Kinneman says that Barna research shows a huge gap between our beliefs and our behavior.  It's a sobering picture:
In virtually every study we conduct, representing thousands of interviews every year, born-again Christians fail to display much attitudinal or behavioral evidence of transformed lives.  For instance, based on a study released in 2007, we found that most of the lifestyle activities of born-again Christians were statistically equivalent to those of non-born-agains.  When asked to identify their activities over the last 30 days, born-again believers were just as likely to bet or gamble, to visit a pornographic website, to take something that did not belong to them, to consult a medium or psychic, to physically fight or abuse someone, to have consumed enough alcohol to be considered legally drunk, to have used an illegal, nonprescription drug, to have said something to someone that was not true, to have gotten back at someone for something he or she did, and to have said mean things behind another person's back.

Kinnaman says that, while moral failures aren't unique to any one generation, his own generation of young churchgoers are especially failing to live transformed lives.  And that reality is especially damaging, since young churchgoers are the ones young outsiders are more likely to know.  "Among young outsiders 84 percent say they personally know at least one committed Christian," Kinnaman wrote, "Yet just 15 percent thought the lifestyles of those Christ followers were significantly different from the norm.  This gap speaks volumes."

Sure, the message of the gospel isn't about "being good" but "being Christ's."  But "being Christ's" means something!  I remember the words of the Christian songwriter, the late Mark Heard:
You can be what you like, if you like what you are.
We reflect but the sum of our creeds.
But we don't seem to seize on the tenets we hold
And they slip through the sieve of our deeds.

The Bible tells us that our behavior in the world will "make the teaching about God our Savior attractive." (Titus 2:9-10)  If Christianity is as profoundly unattractive to young people as Kinnaman's research has found, it will require transparent people who seek transformation together.

In my book for seekers, The Anchor Course, I wrote about the complaint that Christians are hypocrites:
When I became a believer, I began a lifelong process of aligning my life with the will of God.  Spend a day in my head and you will see me fall short in that process.  That does not make me a hypocrite; that just makes me imperfect.  God isn't finished with me yet.  As I continue to set his expectations before me and as I depend on the transforming power of his Spirit within me, my life becomes a better and better example to others.

This is the same message that Paul shared in 1Timothy 1:15-16, and it's the attitude I try to convey whenever I speak.

Kinnaman asks a profound question in light of the deep cynicism our nation has toward Christianity:  "What if [God] is using our culture to make us aware of our hollow religiosity and empty answers?"

It takes a humble person to look at the bleak data and draw that kind of conclusion.  I wonder:  Would I have come to that conclusion at the end of his chapter without his question?



I've posted this edition of LeaderLines on my weblog, Get Anchored.  I hope you'll go there and leave comments about your reaction to what we're discovering together.

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