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unChristian" Christianity: Counting Scalps
by Tom Goodman
February 14, 2008

One of my "life verses" is 1 Thessalonians 2:8 -- "We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us."

Paul said he and his fellow ministers shared two things with them: "the gospel of God" and "our lives."  David Kinnaman has found that young outsiders feel that Christians only share the first with no regard for the second.

In his 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 I'm summarizing 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

Last week we looked at the charge that Christians are hypocritical.  This week, let's see why those now entering adulthood think we're too focused on just getting converts.

According to surveys, two-thirds of us feel that our community understands our evangelism efforts as well-meaning.  As it turns out, though, only one-third of young people outside the church feel that way.  "This was one of the largest gaps in our research," Kinnaman wrote.  "Most Christians are convinced their efforts come across as genuine, but outsiders dispute that.  Outsiders often feel targeted, that we merely want another church member or a new notch in the 'get-saved' belt."

This is especially sobering considering how much interaction young people have already had with Christians and our churches.  According to the survey 82 percent have attended churches.  Most of these attended for at least three months.  And 65 percent have talked with a Christian friend about faith in the last year, while 53 percent reported being approached in the past year about becoming a Christian.  Kinnaman wrote:

We consistently find that the vast majority of teenagers nationwide will spend a significant amount of their teen years participating in a Christian congregation.  Most teenagers in America enter adulthood considering themselves to be Christians and saying they have made a personal commitment to Christ.  But within a decade, most of these young people will have left the church and will have placed emotional connection to Christianity on the shelf....  The vast majority of outsiders in this country, particularly among young generations, are actually de-churched individuals.

When it comes to the message of Christ, then, most outsiders feel they've "been there, done that."  Eric, age twenty-nine, made this observation:  "Christianity seems like an old, broken-down building that I have to drive by every day.  I don't even notice it any more."

What's the solution?  We must cultivate relationships and environments where real spiritual transformation can take place.

First, we need to cultivate relationships.  As Paul with the Thessalonians, it's our lives as well as our message that we must share.  At Hillcrest, we teach people to practice the "I.N.V.I.T.E. Strategy" in their personal evangelism.  The "N" in that acrostic stands for "Nurture" -- "Nurture authentic relationships."  Mark Mittelburg of Willow Creek Church calls it the "Barbeque First" Principle:  Before you share the gospel with your neighbor or invite him to church, invite him to your backyard.

Understand, now: this isn't a set-up for evangelism.  People will see right through that.  I remember an experience from my freshman year in college.  I was feeling a bit lonely, anxious to connect with some other guys, so I was glad for the conversation another student began with me on the intramural fields one day.  He invited me for a soft drink in his dorm room, and once there, he began his effort to recruit me as a salesman in his direct marketing program.  I politely heard his pitch, found a nice way to exit, and never heard from him again.  I felt so used.

According to unChristian, that's the way we've come across to too many people in our efforts to evangelize.  We need to build no-strings-attached relationships where we enjoy people as they are, even if they never make the commitment to Christ we hope they'll make.

There's a second thing we need to cultivate: an environment where real spiritual transformation can take place.  Christ commanded us to make disciples, not mere decisions.  A disciple is a student of Christ, and learning to think and live Christ-like is a life-long process.

When all our focus is on getting people to say the "sinner's prayer" and complete a "decision card" and walk an aisle, all we get are unconverted converts.  Apparently, American church rolls have an abundant supply of those.  The Barna researchers asked those who identified themselves as Christians whether they affirmed essential Christian tenets such as the sinlessness of Christ, the unearned nature of salvation, the need to share our faith, and the reliability of the Bible.  Based on their responses, Barna found that only 3 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 41 reflected a biblical worldview.  In fact, only 9 percent of older Christians completely embrace a biblical worldview as defined by these essential Christian tenets.  As Kinnaman wrote:
Most people in America, when they are exposed to the Christian faith, are not being transformed.  They take one step into the door, and the journey ends.  They are not being allowed, encouraged, or equipped to love or to think like Christ.  Yet in many ways a focus on spiritual formation fits what a new generation is really seeking.  Transformation is a process, a journey, not a one-time decision.  This resonates with Mosaics and Busters.  The depth and texture of Christianity ought to appeal to young people, but the unChristian notion strains life in Christ into mere mental allegiance to a religion.
As you walk into our auditorium, you see four banners prominently displayed.  They say:
Honor the Lord of Life
Invite Your World to Life
Love the Fellowship for Life
Live the Word in Life
This is the life we invite people into at Hillcrest: a life where we're learning together to honor God, invite others to his life-changing grace, love each other, and live God's word.  That's the H.I.L.L. we're meant to climb.  By focusing attention on the goal of a transformed life, our hope is to make disciples and not just decisions.

So, we need to cultivate relationships and cultivate an environment where real spiritual transformation can take place.  This will require three things, according to Kinnaman.  First there is thinking:  "We are learning that one of the primary reasons that ministry to teenagers fails to produce a lasting faith is because they are not being taught to think."  There is also loving:  "We do not look like Jesus to outsiders because we do not love outsiders as Jesus does."  And there is listening:  Listen "...to what God is telling us, within the context of Scripture, prayer, crises, and relationships."

In his review of unChristian, Tony Woodlief comments:
Of course it would be three things I struggle with, thinking, loving, and listening.  But notice how the three admonitions get at a problem we've all seen in various churches.  In some cases, we focus so heavily on doctrine that we forget to love.  In others, we get so caught up in loving and affirming everyone in our path that we forget the unchanging law of God.  And too often, we are so intent on getting others to hear us that we forget the essential element of communication, which is that people tend to hear better when they feel that they are being heard.  UnChristian suggests that too many Christians are neither speaking truth in love, nor taking the time to listen.  I wonder if we'll listen to these authors and others, or stop our ears and tell ourselves we've nothing to improve.

Food for thought.


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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