David Kinnaman presents his findings on young people and the church today as part of the January Series.

David Kinnaman presents his findings on young people and the church today as part of the January Series.

In 2007, four books by prominent atheists attacking religious belief reached the New York Times’ bestseller list. Parodies of Christianity, like the film Saved (2004), and the Oscar-nominated documentary Jesus Camp (2007), have also become more strident in recent years.

What cultural shifts might undergird the increasingly warm reception these parodies and criticisms receive? David Kinnaman, president and strategic leader of the Barna Group, a research firm based in Ventura, Calif., spent three years researching the question “What do young Americans really think about present-day Christianity?” He presented his research at a January Series lecture on January 22.

UnChristian

Kinnaman collected data from Christians and non-Christians, aged 16-29. Among non-Christians in this age group, six perceptions—all negative—became recurring themes: Christians are too political, sheltered, anti-homosexual, judgmental, hypocritical and proselytizing. These perceptions, says Kinnaman, “represent barriers to people understanding what it means to be Christian,” amounting to a bad report card for the American church.

Many young Christians, he adds, share the perceptions of non-Christians. And Kinnaman argues that these perceptions matter: “We need to care about what young people think about the faith.”

However much they care, people have certainly been paying attention to Kinnaman’s findings. He collected his research into a book, co-authored by Gabe Lyons, titled unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity … and Why it Matters (Baker Books). Since its publication in October of 2007, unChristian has sold more than 130,000 copies and garnered interest among many church leaders and pastors.

Anticipating Objections

Kinnaman’s lecture anticipated two objections to his findings. First, he responded to the criticism that this generation is no different than previous generations and young people will soften towards the faith as they age. Kinnaman mobilized a number of statistics to argue that this generation—and, by extension, the nature of its perception of Christianity—is importantly different from previous generations. Kinnaman pointed to the declining number of biblically literate Christians and the fact that one in five young people today identify as either agnostic or atheist, to argue that “there is something new about the critique being leveled at Christianity.”

The second objection Kinnaman anticipated is that “Christianity is supposed to be an offense.” To this Kinnaman responded with Scripture, including Romans 2:24 and John 13:35, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."

Opportunities

“God will use the next generation to help release us from our spiritual poverty,” said Kinnaman. He concluded by pointing to practical ways the American church can reverse these perceptions, such as becoming “project-focused” congregations, that is, churches that ask themselves “What is God uniquely calling us to do?” rather than trying to solve “every big problem.” For instance, a congregation might be called to provide an excellent preschool education—for free or help local refugees find jobs.

Kinnaman also identifies an opportunity for members of the Church to become better listeners to non-Christians, and to the global church. It’s time for the American Church to be the servant, rather than the mouthpiece, of the world Church, says Kinnaman.

Recent stories