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"unChristian" Christianity: Judgmental
by Tom Goodman
March 27, 2008

"Christians like to hear themselves talk.  They are arrogant about their beliefs, but they never bother figuring out what other people actually think.  They don't seem to be very compassionate, especially when they feel strongly about something."

That's what one young adult said to David Kinnaman when he asked her opinion of Christianity.  In 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.  The book focuses on six complaints that unchurched young people have regarded Christians.  They see us as...

We'll conclude today with the last charge:  Those now entering adulthood think we're judgmental.

What does it mean to be judgmental?  Kinnaman wrote that it means "to point out something that is wrong in someone else's life, making the person feel put down, excluded, and marginalized.  Some part of their potential to be Christ followers is snuffed out.  Being judgmental is fueled by self-righteousness, the misguided inner motivation to make our own life look better by comparing it to the lives of others."

In other words, it's singing that old song with a twist:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like you.

This is one of the most frequent complaints Kinnaman's research team heard from young outsiders regarding Christianity.  "Nearly 9 out of 10 young outsiders (87%) said that the term judgmental accurately describes present-day Christianity," Kinnaman wrote.  "Just to put this in practical terms, when you introduce yourself to a twentysomething neighbor, and you mention your faith, chances are he or she will think of you as judgmental."

And it's not just the perception of outsiders.  Fifty-three percent of Christian young people told the interviewers that our faith seems too focused on other people's faults.

Kinnaman said that interviews with young people found various forms of judgmental attitudes that young people felt Christians held:

Wrong Verdict:  Young people don't like to have their background or wisdom or inner motivations assumed simply based upon their appearance.  According to Kinnaman, 54 percent of Americans ages 18 to 25 "have significantly altered their appearance at some point in their life, including tattoos, dying their hair and untraditional color, or piercing their body in a place other than an ear lobe.  In fact, one third of all young adults have a tattoo."  And when Christians draw the wrong verdict over young people who have made these changes, they conclude, you don't really know me.

Wrong Timing:  Being right in your opinion and knowing when to share it are two different issues.  There are times when it's a sign of wisdom, not cowardice, to stay silent on a subject and wait for the right time and place to discuss it.

Wrong Motivation:  We have to be motivated by love.  Kinnaman acknowledges that, as God's ambassadors, we have an obligation to point people in their right direction, but we have to evaluate our motive for doing so:
Pointing people to Jesus is not achieved by being popular.  The outrage of outsiders does not change or diminish God's expectations.  People still have to answer to a holy judge....  Yet an entire generation of those outside and inside the church are questioning our motives as Christians.  They believe we are more interested in proving we are right and that God is right.  They say Christians are more focused on condemning people than helping people become more like Jesus.

However, Kinnaman's research team also found that outsiders are often receptive to the input that Christ followers have to give:  "When their Christian peers gave them input within the context of relationship and with respect, in general they appreciated it."

What does that type of respect look like?  Outsiders suggested that we learn to listen better, that we be careful not to label, that we quit pretending to have all the answers, that we try to put ourselves in their place, and that we enjoy their friendship with no other motives.

As I've said before, the only way to successfully address this issue is to welcome people as they are and lead them to where they need to be.  Two actions: acceptance and challenge.

First, it requires acceptance "as is."  Failure is a verb, not a noun.  In other words, it's something we do, not something we are.  As we live out that truth, we'll be able to appreciate the value of people regardless of where they are in embracing and living God's standards.

Of course, some Christian leaders have an understandable fear about accepting others in this way:  Won't we inadvertently send a signal that their sinful behavior isn't in fact sinful?  Won't we come across as condoning things God clearly says are against his will?

That's where the second action comes in.  We need to be able to say to people, "Come as you are... but don't stay that way."  Life as it was meant to be lived includes aligning our behavior with certain standards.  Church leaders need to have a clearly marked process of spiritual growth that people can work through so they come to accept and practice those divine expectations.

Again, this isn't simply an approach we should take toward certain people but all people.  We can be grateful that God continues to take that approach to us.  I'm not a finished product, and neither are you.  Aren't you glad you've found acceptance "as is" here at Hillcrest, and aren't you glad you've found encouragement to keep pressing forward toward full maturity?  Let's make sure we extend this twofold approach to everyone.


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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