Spring 2008

Christianity's Image Problem

David Kinnaman (’96), author of "unChristian," says Christianity has an image problem

For a growing number of young Americans, Christianity is a dirty word. That’s the sobering reality painted by researcher and Biola alumnus David Kinnaman in unChristian, a new book that is raising eyebrows both within and outside of the church.

Through hundreds of surveys and in-depth interviews, Kinnaman — president of The Barna Group — found that two in five young non-Christians hold a bad impression of modern-day Christianity. To the vast majority of 16- to 29-year-old outsiders, Christians are defined by what we oppose rather than who we are for, he says.

Biola Magazine asked him about what it all means.

Most Christians probably sense that Christianity has an image problem. How bad is it?

The image problem is worse than we imagine. It’s getting harder to be a Christian in the American culture. Part of that is because within this up-and-coming generation, they’re more negative, hostile, aggressive, frustrated and disillusioned with faith in general — and with Christianity in particular. In our research, we looked for both positive and negative perceptions, and we found that the predominant perspectives that young non-Christians have toward Christianity are negative. Nine out of the top 12 perceptions were negative. The specific ones were that we’re known as being hypocritical, proselytizers, anti-sinner or antihomosexual, sheltered, boring, old-fashioned, too political and judgmental. Another aspect of the image problem is that many young Christians also share these negative images of the faith they follow.

It’s tempting just to blame the way Christians are portrayed in the media. Why is that a mistake?

Maybe it’s best to look at our own lives: No single Christian makes up his or her mind simply based on media, or Christian media for that matter. All of us, as human beings, are nuanced, interpersonal and smarter than simply being the product of media. Now media certainly have a role, and I don’t want to underestimate that at all, but I learned to give people the benefit of the doubt, and more credit, that their experiences, their relationships and their conversations are very critical in shaping how they feel about Christianity. If you were to sit in my seat for a while and read through the thousands of interviews that we did and hear the stories of people talking about their experiences — it wasn’t just their perceptions, but what had happened to them. It was heartbreaking.

Jesus warned that his followers would be hated. So what are Christians doing wrong?

Scripture says that we will be persecuted and hated for our faith, but that’s held in tension with many other places in Scripture where it says we’re to have a good reputation with outsiders. Jesus himself says that the world will know we are his followers based on our love for one another and our unity. Think of it: he’s inviting outsiders to hold us to account! Our beliefs are not subject to popular opinion, but our love is. This means we should not adjust what we believe; the Bible has a very clear teaching on sin; it has a very clear teaching on homosexuality being inconsistent with Christian discipleship. We very much affirm these things throughout the book. In essence what outsiders told us is our approach to upholding those values is un- Christian. We’ve gotten so busy defending the fort that we forgot why we built the fort in the first place.

One root problem seems to be that many Christians lack spiritual maturity.

Yes, I think there are two major challenges that the Christian community faces. One is just what you’re talking about: spiritual apathy and lack of true transformation in the church. About seven out of 10 Americans say they’ve made a commitment to Christ, but only about one-tenth of those individuals have a biblical worldview. Superficial faith — being Christian in name only without any real heart renovation — is the more significant of the spiritual problems our nation faces. But among those individuals who have a biblical worldview, the primary challenge is spiritual arrogance. So you’ve got apathy on the one hand, which strips away any kind of life of power and purpose. And then with those who really embrace deep biblical truths, Satan wraps us up with pride and arrogance. We get so busy talking about sin that we never really do anything for those who are affected by sin.

You stress that you don’t want Christians to water down their faith to make it more popular. How do you hope people respond to the book?

I hope people meditate and consider prayerfully the story of the Prodigal Son. You’ve got three characters: a loving father, the prodigal and the older brother. My view is that the church, the people who have the most to offer theologically, are most often tripped up by the older brother mentality. We get resentful. Our motivation for serving God gets out of balance. We slowly lose gratitude for what God has done in our lives. And we get into this mode where we imagine loving the sinner but hating the sin. And yet Jesus, in Luke 7, gives a much higher standard than a cliché like “love the sinner, hate the sin.” He says that if you have been forgiven much, then love much. We don’t understand the depth of gratitude that we ought to display toward God, and in response to that, how we ought to be about the job of restoring those who are broken and hurting around us.

What was the biggest surprise for you as you examined the research?

It was really surprising how God opened my eyes to my own spiritual arrogance and apathy. It really changed me as a researcher. I started to understand that the heart of an evangelist is to try to see through someone else’s eyes. It doesn’t mean that I’m changing my message to fit what that person expects. But you don’t understand what a person goes through by telling them everything that you believe. I didn’t fully anticipate the depth of hurt, the depth of people’s experiences with Christians, and how a thoughtless, human-oriented Christianity damages and destroys people. That compares to a God-oriented, life-of-the-Spirit Christianity that actually pointed people to a deeper life and faith.

Time magazine, USA Today and CNN have all profiled the book. Why is there such a mainstream interest?

There are probably many reasons. Cynicism would say it’s because they like to find fault with the Christian community, and there’s probably some of that at play. I think what’s been more interesting to me is we’ve heard many different people in the media say that it’s refreshing to see someone within the Christian community really trying to provide a brutal reality check without losing a sense of hope. It is attractive and disarming when we are transparent and honest about how the Christian community has often failed to live up to what it should be doing in our culture.

Is there anything you wish you’d included in the book?

Well, I kept some things out of the book. There was more data available to include. I actually kept some things out because I thought it would come across as angry, youthful arrogance or nitpicking. I’m really glad that I decided to do that. But I think there are other things that the church will have to continue to think about and wrestle through. As much as anything, I don’t think it’s my job to pound people with data so that they change. I believe it is our collective and individual tasks to listen carefully to the Holy Spirit. He is constantly revealing the ways each of us have been un-Christian, the ways we’ve gotten off track, the ways we’ve missed the heart of what it means to be a living expression of the gospel. And again, if it’s becoming harder to be a Christian in America, that just means there are more opportunities to be like Christ in a skeptical and challenging culture.

David Kinnaman (’96) was appointed president of The Barna Group, a Christian research firm in Ventura, Calif., in January 2007. Kinnaman previously served as the vice president.

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