Book Club Discussion: "unChristian"

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Having been subjected to a lot of criticism from conservative Christians over the past few years, I’m beginning to better understand why my coworkers always started avoiding me as soon as they learned I graduated from a Christian college.

I’ve been called a socialist and a baby-killer for voting for Barack Obama, an enemy of the Church for asking questions about biblical inerrancy, a Buddhist for reading Thich Nhat Hahn, and a raging liberal for supporting basic civil rights for gays and lesbians. No wonder research shows that young people choose the following words to describe Christians: anti-homosexual, judgmental, hypocritical, political, pushy, and sheltered.

I know what they’re talking about, and I consider myself a Christian…(who’s obviously prone to some judgmentalism of her own!)

Over the next several Mondays, we will be discussing “unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity” by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. Using groundbreaking research from The Barna Group, the book explores the attitudes that young people (ages 16-29) have about Christianity—specifically, “born again” Christians and “evangelical” Christians.

I chose it because, as many of you know, I struggle a lot with the “evangelical” label. While I was raised in the evangelical tradition and identify with many of its characteristics, I don’t really feel like I fit anymore. For example, according to this book, four out of five evangelicals say that homosexual relations between two consenting adults should be illegal. I don’t agree with that one bit. Also, exit polls from last week’s election reveal that of the 26 percent of American voters that call themselves evangelical or born-again Christians, 74 percent voted for McCain. Either I’m in the minority here, or I’m in the wrong boat.

As it turns out, I’m not alone. According to the research, even among young people who identify themselves as Christians, 80 percent say they think that Christians are anti-homosexual, 52 percent say they think Christians are judgmental, and 50 percent say they think Christians are too political.

So, at the recommendation of several friends, I thought I’d take a look at “unChristian,” share my thoughts, and get your opinion.

The book opens with some general observations and then examines the research in six broad themes—the most common points of skepticism and objections raised by outsiders.These six themes include: hypocrisy, focus on getting converts, anti-homosexual, sheltered, too political, and judgmental.

We’ll discuss the introduction today, and then the specific characteristics in the weeks to follow.

“unChristian” is written by evangelicals, so it occasionally lapses into clichéd Christianese. Honestly, I feel like the authors treat the situation as more of a PR problem than an identity problem. For me, the highlight was the research, as well as the articles that appear at the end of each chapter—written by a variety of church leaders, from Chuck Colson to Brian McLaren.

First, the authors define some terms relating to their extensive three-year study:

  • “Outsiders” are defined as those looking at the Christian faith from the outside. The group includes atheists agnostics, those affiliated with a faith other than Christianity, and un-churched adults who are not “born-again.”
  • “Born-Again” Christians are defined as people who say they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life, and who believe that when they die they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins and have accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior
  • “Evangelicals” are defined as people who meet the born-again criteria, plus seven other conditions. These include:
  1. Saying their faith is very important in their life today
  2. Believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs with others
  3. Believing that Satan exists
  4. Believing that salvation is possible through faith, not works
  5. Believing that Jesus lived a sinless life on earth
  6. Asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches
  7. Describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today    
  • “Mosaics” is the term used to describe young adults born between 1984 and 2002
  •  “Busters” is the term used to describe young adults born between 1965 and 1983.

Interesting. So, based on these definitions, do you consider yourself an outsider, a born-again Christian, or an evangelical? How do you feel about those terms?

Here are some interesting facts that jumped out at me as I read the introduction.

  • “We discovered that outsiders express the most opposition toward evangelicals. Among those aware of the term ‘evangelical,’ the views are extraordinarily negative (49 percent to 3 percent).” (p. 25)
  • “In our national surveys we found the three most common perceptions of present-day Christianity are anti-homosexual (and image held by 91 percent of young outsiders), judgmental (87 percent), and hypocritical (85 percent). These are followed by the following negative perceptions, embraced by a majority of young adults: old fashioned, too involved in politics, out of touch with reality, insensitive to others, boring, not accepting of other faiths, and confusing.” (p. 27)
  • “It is clear that Christians are primarily perceived for what they stand against. We have become famous for what we oppose, rather than who we are for.” (p. 26)
  • “One-quarter of outsiders say that their foremost perception of Christianity is that the faith has changed for the worse. It has gotten off-track and is not what Christi intended.” (29)
  • “Young outsiders…perceive Christians as unwilling to engage in genuine dialog. They think of conversations as ‘persuasion’ sessions, in while the Christian downloads as many arguments as possible.” (33)
  • “Outsiders told us that the underlying concern of Christians often seems more about being right than about listening.” (33)

Do you identify with any of these observations?

The authors conclude that “Christianity has an image problem” that can be remedied by “becoming more Christ-like.”

I agree. But I wish the authors had taken it a step further. They seem reluctant to address the teachings within the Church that might be contributing to these perceptions.

Instead, they say that “although outsiders don’t always understand us, we have to be very careful about not tossing aside the biblical motivations that contribute to these perceptions. For instance, Christians are known as judgmental because we address sin and its consequences. Christians should be involved in politics because faith weaves itself into every aspect of our lives. Christians should identify homosexual behavior as morally unacceptable because that is what Scripture teaches. Christians should be pursuing conversations and opportunities that point people to Christ because we are representatives of life’s most important message. And Christians should strive for purity and integrity even if it makes us appear sheltered.” (36)

What do you think? Do Christians simply have an image problem, or has something gone wrong with Christianity? How do we fix it?

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