The “unChristian” Society

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There has been some buzz in evangelical Christian circles lately about a new book by David Kinnaman of The Barna Group, a Christian polling and media organization, entitled “unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity… and Why it Matters”. The book paints a rather grim portrait (from a Christian point of view) of attitudes about Christianity held by young people.

“The study shows that 16- to 29-year-olds exhibit a greater degree of criticism toward Christianity than did previous generations when they were at the same stage of life. In fact, in just a decade, many of the Barna measures of the Christian image have shifted substantially downward, fueled in part by a growing sense of disengagement and disillusionment among young people. For instance, a decade ago the vast majority of Americans outside the Christian faith, including young people, felt favorably toward Christianity’s role in society. Currently, however, just 16% of non-Christians in their late teens and twenties said they have a “good impression” of Christianity. One of the groups hit hardest by the criticism is evangelicals. Such believers have always been viewed with skepticism in the broader culture. However, those negative views are crystallizing and intensifying among young non-Christians. The new study shows that only 3% of 16 – to 29-year-old non-Christians express favorable views of evangelicals.”

Source: The Barna Group, Ltd. 2007

Like an evangelical Cassandra, The Barna Group has been warning the forces of (mainly conservative) Christianity that a huge shift in attitudes and ideals will emerge in the next twenty years. Last year, Barna said that more young people were engaging in metaphysical/occult activities than ever before, and that the nature of religious practice itself was experiencing a major sea-change.

“There will be new forms of spiritual leadership, different expressions of faith, and greater variety in when and where people meet together to be communities of faith. Ecumenism will expand, as the emerging generations pay less attention to doctrine and more attention to relationships and experiences. Barna predicted that there will be a broader network of micro-faith communities built around lifestyle affinities, such as gay communities of faith, marketplace professionals who gather for faith experiences, and so forth.”

Can evangelical organizations pull out of the socially conservative death-spiral they have locked themselves into before they lose the youth completely? Some “progressive” evangelicals are trying to change the message, but there are some substantial barriers (and behaviors) to overcome.

“…he talked about how today most young people know openly gay people, and they are having a hard time reconciling what their church says and their valued relationships … Shane and Rick gently danced around a different-more loving-way of relating to gays. But they weren’t arguing that homosexuality was Biblical. Looking around the audience, some people looked thrilled and enthusiastic about what Shane and Rick were saying. Others looked troubled … Maybe 1/5 or 2/5 of the audience applauded enthusiastically. The rest sat still. I saw one head shaking.”

But even if a large percentage of 16 – to 29-year-olds remain immune to Christianity’s charms, we won’t be living in an “unChristian” world. Christian denominations in America hold a powerfully large majority, and it would take generations of shifts like this to eliminate such cultural dominance. What we can hope for is an America where minority faiths grow in prominence and create a situation in which no single theology holds complete dominance on religious matters.

Many of the conflicts on issues like gay marriage, school prayer, evolution, euthanasia, and reproductive rights would look very different in a society where Christianity was simply one religious voice among several voices. Perhaps that is what truly worries Christian organizations like The Barna Group, not an “unChristian” world, but a “post-Christian” world in which politicians don’t have to curry favor with conservative Christians, or pass hateful laws in order to win their votes. So while I sympathize with Christians who realize that issues like gay marriage are “poisoning the well” for future generations, I also hold hope that these trends continue, and a new religious diversity will bloom to ever-greater levels.