Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…and Why It Matters – David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons (Baker Books)

Gabe Lyons suspected that outsiders to the Christian faith in the US were negative about Christianity, but he had no hard data. He called his friend, David Kinnaman, a researcher at the Barna Group, a well known evangelical research organisation, to say he was leaving his firm to set up a charity that among other things would find out the truth. Would David lead the research?

This book is the fruit of three years research listening to what young adult Americans really think about Christianity. It’s not easy reading. They perceive Christians as ‘anti homosexual’ (the view of 91%) ‘judgemental’ (87%) and ‘hypocritical’ (85%). Lower ranking comments included ‘old fashioned’, ‘too involved in politics’, ‘out of touch with reality’, ‘insensitive to others’, ‘boring’, ‘not accepting of other faiths’, ‘confusing’.  There were positives: many found Christians ‘friendly’, three quarters agreed that Christians had ‘good values’; but the message was overwhelmingly negative. Lyons was correct – outsiders perceive Christianity to be distinctly ‘UnChristian’ – hence the book’s title.

The research is thorough, drawn from 12 nationally representative surveys of young adult outsiders, defined as: atheists, people from other religions and unchurched adults, 15-29 years old (a group representing 24 million Americans).

So what has this to do with the UK church?

Clearly these perceptions are drawn from outsiders in a nation where Christianity is more dominant (some 40% of Americans are in church each Sunday compared to 10% in the UK) and where Christians use of the media gives greater potential cause for negative perceptions. Furthermore, specific concerns are unlikely to apply – I doubt for example that Christians in the UK would be labelled ‘too political’

But I believe the book is worth reading within the UK. For a start it gives compelling reasons why we should listen to outsiders. Kinnanman, the principal author, acknowledges that we are wise to be discerning about perceptions of outsiders, especially as their views may merely reflect a defensive response to the claims of Christ. But his insightful analysis leave sceptics with nowhere to go, especially as most of the respondents had first hand and repeated contact with Christians or churches. These are not comments of people ignorant of church life or of Christians.

Despite the negative perceptions, this is a positive book. The main part of the book analyses the responses under six areas: ‘hypocritical’, ‘get saved!’, ‘anti-homosexual’, ‘sheltered’, ‘too political’, ‘judgemental’. But each analysis concludes with a ‘changing the perception’ section looking at reflections from 24 Christian leaders concerned with Christian-outsider interface (the likes of Chuck Colson, Brian McLaren, Dab Kimball and Jim Wallis). If you agree that maybe outsiders have a point, then there are actions to take. I loved the author’s honesty about his own failings and his willingness to be part of the change he seeks.

And along the way the book highlights how young adult Christians behave: that just 3% of 15 to 29 year old Christians hold what they define as a ‘Biblical world view’ (that’s 60 million Christians); that a majority of born again believers think gambling, co-habitation and sexual fantasies are morally acceptable,  with 44% believing sex outside of marriage is OK. In other words, many Christians are not distinct from the world at all. Does this ring any bells?

In short, if a similar survey were conducted in the UK would we come off any better? A generation ago, ‘Christian’ was a pseudonym, for loving, caring, selfless and charitable – in some places in the UK it still is. But the perception of ‘Christian’ has changed – words like arrogant, intolerant, bigoted, are starting to be used. This research reminds us that when we chat with ‘outsiders’ we need to define what we mean by ‘Christian’, or ‘Evangelical’, because most will not download to their brain the warm, positive images that we intend.

And if UK outsiders are negative about the church in general and/or our church in particular, we must surely factor this in to our outreach programmes. Relationship has always been the key means of engaging with outsiders, but especially today if the ‘Christian’ label no longer has the same currency. And If we don’t know what people think, maybe it is time we did some listening?

These reflections are a wake up call to the church to return to the self sacrificing, compassionate, loving, Christ who sends us into the world as witnesses to his redemptive work, building communities which reflect God’s activity; to be a church which communicates good news and is good news.

So read it, buy copies for your church leaders, and ask those hard questions about how you actually come across within your community, and how God might have you respond.