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Monday, April 25, 2011

4th Monday Book Review: UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity

Hi and welcome to the Monday Book Review. I’d hug you, but I’m still in a post-Easter haze and I’m unable to unwrap my hands from my mug of tea. So, why don’t you fix yourself a little something and then I’ll introduce myself before talking about UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity and Why it Matters (David Kinnaman).

My name is Julia Seymour and I blog at Faith, Grace and Hope. I’m what you might call a reader. I try to read many, many new books each year and I’m rarely stopped by type or quality. Reviewing is a new venture for me and I thank you in advance for your patience. My goal in reviewing isn’t to summarize a book, but to pick out some highlights to give you a flavor of the book (from one person’s perspective) and some insight as to whether it might be worth your time to read this as well. Knowing that I am not the only reader out there, I invite you to submit reviews as well. What you review does not have to be explicitly religious to have themes that uplift, teach or challenge. I look forward to hearing from you!

Enough foot-dragging. And I am dawdling a little. To be honest, I did not love UnChristian. I didn’t even like it. There are a couple of levels to my dislike. The first is dislike because of discomfort. This book describes the results of extensive research by the Barna Group with regard to young adults and the church. The research results are not a surprise, revealing disillusionment, frustration, misunderstanding and disinterest in church for the most part. I do not like hearing that, but that does not make those conclusions untrue.

My second level dislike, however, is deeper and not as easily processed. In Christ, there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (Galatians 3:28). In Unchristian, there is no Lutheran or Presbyterian, Methodist or Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Episcopalian or United Church of Christ. Nearly 95% of the time, for the book’s purposes, there are evangelical Christians of a specific “biblical worldview” or there are outsiders. In the chapter on politics, there is some mention of “non-evangelical born again Christians” and “other self-identified Christians”. According to the definitions in the book, I as a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ECLA) would fall into the category of “other self-identified Christian” because of my own and my church’s stance of various issues.

This basically sets up the major problem that I found in this book. It’s written under the premise that church people (read: evangelicals) are becoming more known for acting in unChristian ways than for representing Christ. True enough, but that mindset cannot be overcome by a book that continues to presume that certain traditions, a certain type of worldview, and a certain reading of the Bible are the only way. The essence of the book’s conclusions at the end of each chapter was that Christians must love and be in relationship with the people around them, outside the church, because that is the only way to change them.

The book summarizes thousands of questionnaires and hundreds of interviews with Mosaics (born between 1984 and 2002) and Busters (between 1965- 1983). Specifically, the interviews were both with people inside and outside of the church. The results shape the book by creating conversation around the interview results showing that young adults mainly see church as hypocritical, salvation-oriented rather than relationship oriented, anti-homosexual, sheltered, too political and judgmental.

The chapters that summarized the results of the findings were a little helpful. Regardless of your denomination, you likely pass young adults and teens each day whose image of church or Christians encompasses one or more of these labels. Understanding that does give us some framework for the hurdles in front of us as we run (with patience) the race.

UnChristian goes on, however, to talk about how to be more Christlike, which is good, yet it can never fully step back from its agenda. If the end result of each chapter, exposing the church’s unchristian behavior, were a clarion call to loving our neighbors for the sake of Christ and Christ alone, then I would have less of a problem. Instead, I got:

“A person with a biblical worldview experiences, interprets, and responds to reality in light of the Bible’s principles. What Scripture teaches is the primary grid for making decisions and interacting with the world. For the purposes of our research, we investigate a biblical worldview based on eight element. A person with a biblical worldview believe that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life, God is the all-powerful and all-knowing Creator of the universe and he still rules it today, salvation is a gift from God and cannot be earned, Satan is real, a Christian has a responsibility to share his or her faith in Christ with other people, the Bible is accurate in all of the principles it teachers, unchanging moral truth exists and such moral truth is defined by the Bible.” (75)

I read that and I feel like an outsider. According to that standard, I’m barely Christian. And there isn’t room in that worldview for me to consider myself along the path to deeper faith. There are places there that I will never go. If I feel that way, how does someone who wrestles with faith because of the church react?

“Americans of all ages remain deeply divided about gays and lesbians, but on the whole, most have a negative view. Conservatives sometimes take comfort in the fact that most Americans have no sympathy for the plight of homosexuals and reject their interest in marriage and adoption, among other things. In this context, political efforts have found traction, because antihomosexual initiatives generate a sufficient number of voters to win elections.” (99)

David Kinnaman, the author, goes on to relate that Mosaics and Busters have a different take on the “plight of homosexuals”. Unlike the generations preceding them, they are more likely to subscribe to the idea of marriage equality and the rights of gay men and lesbians to adopt children and create families. Kinnaman uses the phrase “unconventional” to describe this viewpoint. He goes on to relate how the church needs to allow that all sexual sin is equal in the eyes of God; however, it’s very difficult to hear even that concession over the regret that rushes around his discussion of the abandonment of “traditional values.”

“Mosaics are more skeptical than any previous generation of the role of the Bible in public life. In one study conducted by the Pew Research Center, young Americans were the least likely age group to say that the Bible ought to be the most significant influence on the laws of the country, instead favoring “the will of the people” as the best way to determine legal boundaries. This preference for majority rule stems from not knowing the Bible’s content, questioning its truth, and preferring feelings and expediency to absolutes. Of course, just because this is the perception does not mean that we abandon the idea that the Bible should help us determine the laws of the nation. But we must realize this is an increasingly rare sentiment among the nation’s younger population.” (163f)

(Wait a minute, would you? I have to go retrieve my book from across the room where I just threw it. Deeeeeep breath and…)

If you agree with Kinnaman’s concerns here, I respectfully ask that you substitute “Bible” in this paragraph with “Koran” or “Bhavagad Gita.” See the problem? In this concern for the failure of Christian fascism, the author can hardly believe that other ways or guidelines for governing a country exist or that we should use them. We cannot expect that Christianity will be the dominant view in the United States forever and once we allow religious voices to shape democracy, then we will not be able to stop which religious voices get to do it. Furthermore, Kinnaman’s disillusionment with Mosaics here is a perfect example of why that generation might be experiencing the church as too political.

Which brings me back to the major source of my dislike. Voices like Kinnaman’s are loud. Very loud. The book uses commentary from thirty pastors and Christian writers and speakers (4 are women). The reality that kept hitting me is that I can’t be louder than most of these people, even though I desperately want to acquaint people with my biblical worldview. A worldview where grace is the lead story, where God is calling each of us to specific vocations, where love wins.

I am not able spread that worldview vertically and vocally. I can, however, spread it horizontally and relationally. In the end, Kinnaman does call for Christians to be Christlike through forming and building relationships. Through being like Christ. I think that what most of us know and find to be true. What we have to do to have people trust us in that relationship build is to be honest about who we are, who we believe God to be and why the relationship is important.

Even in the mainline tradition, we can struggle with why the relationship is important. It’s not for the budget or to boost attendance. It’s not for the building fund or to make the new project get off the ground. It’s not to keep the church open for the funerals of the pioneers or even to provide space for the ministries. We build relationships for the sake of Christ. Because it is what Jesus would have us do, so that at the end of the day, we know that we are not alone. And where two or more are gathered…

What to do if you already have UnChristian on your shelf? I would suggest you read Chapters 1-3 and the Afterword. Those will give you a framework to launch a discussion with young adults in your congregation or neighborhood (maybe in a neutral spot like a coffee shop or bar) with regard to how they perceive church and Christians.

I’ll be on a plane most of today, but I look forward to your thoughts and discussion in the comments.

Kinnaman, David. UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity… And Why It Matters. BakerBooks, Grand Rapids, MI: 2007.


  1. Thank you, Julia! I'm very much looking forward to this feature and, especially after reading this, I'm so happy that you are sharing with us.

    That said, your invitation to fix a cup of something should have come with a choke alert because I almost lost it when you got to the part about the "biblical worldview" stuff. Your critique of that code language is much appreciated and very much needed to counteract the persistent presence of the Franklin Graham crowd as the mouthpieces for "true" Christianity. Thank you for reminding us that these kinds of assumptions can be questioned.

    I have actually known George Barna awhile back. Nice guy personally, but with a big agenda that is not open to questions and, from reading this, still not open to change. Barna Group research has lost its appeal for me.

    I would probably not have been so kind about some of this stuff, which is why you review, while I just stew!

    Can't wait to hear what others think ...

  2. Julia, thanks for sticking with it. Sharon, I was pretty shocked to hear that Franklin Graham thinks Donald Trump is a better possible President than the Christian we have in office. I suspect President Obama would fall into that "self-identified Christian" category for Kinnaman. As would I, I guess. Though I would challenge him to out-Jesus me. You can be something other than evangelical or fundamentalist and still be Christian. In the mainline, we've been doing it for years!

  3. I have read "unChristian" and I found it to be informative precisely because of Julia's 2nd dislike. This is a book written for/from 'evangelicals.' The author clearly says so upfront. Initially, I was dissapointed that this book considered only the 'evangelical' point of view. However, I found such a thorough discussion of the 'evangelical' world view and the discussion of how young adults percieve such a view to be immensely useful.

    Unfortunately, this particular voice of Christianity has been both relentless and loud over the past few decades. Those of us who fally into the author's 'self-identified Christian' category have an opportunity here - the book shows that many of the tenents of Christianity - grace, love, relationship, trying to live a Christ-like life - are precisely the things young adults find lacking in the 'evangelical' worldview.

    I borrowed the book from the library to read it. I am not sure I would purchase it - unless I found it at the thrift store. However, I agree with Julia that there are good discussion points for use with young adult groups - and with older adults as well.

  4. Julia, thanks for this.

    If I owned that book, I'm pretty sure I would have not only a stronger throwing arm, but a permanent dent in a wall where the book would hit repeatedly.

    On the other hand, my children (20 and almost 24) and all their friends (except my daughter's boyfriend, but that is another post entirely) are what the author calls Mosaics.

    My daughter has become quite the apologist for mainline Christianity among her pals, although she does not consider herself a practicing Christian. It is important for us to know what the evangelical messages/assumptions are because they are very very dominant one among some people in this age group. Most of these young adults have been told at some "Christian encounter" they are going to hell, but few of them have been told by practicing Christians that God loves them.

    Although this book makes us uncomfortable, (okay, furious) we need to know what is out there in order that we can counteract such messages, with the Spirit's help.

    Thanks for taking one for the team, Julia!

  5. You've put your finger very articulately on what makes me uncomfortable about this book, which I read a while back. Thanks for a great review!

  6. Julia -
    Thanks so much for articulating my frustrations with this book. I read it two years ago so some of the memory is fuzzy, but I had the same overall impression about being left out of the discussion. The language of the evangelicals was very familiar for me since I grew up in TX as a So. Baptist. I found the issues they raised to be healpful, but the whole "love the sinner, hate the sin" (by their definition) tiring.
    Those of us who are not in the evangelical category can certainly learn and provide spaces for lots of grace with people injured in that system.

  7. I suspect your review is as far as I'll go in contact with this book, so thanks for your perseverance it making it all the way through!

    My older son--at 16, I'm not sure what generation he's in--is, like Jules' daughter, an apologist among his acquaintances for a Christian perspective that is not the brand of evangelical one presented by the author. He's very clear, though, that this is in fact what almost everyone he knows thinks of when they hear "Christian."

    Lots of work to do to speak up more loudly for a more nuanced, inclusive, generous Christianity.


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