by Debbonnaire Kovacs
This is the second of several articles on this year’s 8th annual National Conference on Innovation, sponsored by Seventh-day Adventist Partners in Innovation, Ohio Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and others.
On Monday morning, David Kinnaman, President of The Barna Group [www.barna.org], gave a presentations concerning youth and young adults and their opinions and perceptions of Christianity.
Kinnaman believes that children are wired to be “sponges,” soaking up what is around them. Yet there is a growing question in western cultures as to whether it’s proper or should be allowable to “brainwash” children. The definition of the word, of course, varies with one’s convictions. Australia now has an adoption law stating that if you adopt from another country, you have a legal duty to raise the child in the religion of their country. On the other extreme, in Pakistan, schoolgirls have been shot for going against the dictates of the religion espoused by the Taliban. Or at least they were perceived to be going against the religion. Which brings us to one of Kinnaman’s main points—Perception is everything. I have perceptions. You have perceptions. I have perceptions of your perceptions and you have perceptions of my perceptions and I have perceptions of your perceptions of my perceptions! And on it goes. . .
Barna did a study with Gabe Lyons on perceptions of present-day Christianity, especially among young people. When they asked the open-ended question, “If you had to describe Christianity today, how would you describe it?” the most common reply was some version of, “It’s no longer as Jesus intended.” The responders mostly did not have a problem with Jesus himself, but only with the way he’s represented now by those claiming to be his followers. One person said, “It [Christianity] is a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy.”
When Barna asked closed-ended questions—“Is Christianity x? Yes or no,” mostly negative perceptions emerged. Yes, Christianity was judgmental, rigid, anti-homosexual, hypocritical, proseletyzing, and too political, among others.
Kinnaman said many Christians have the perception that the negative image of Christianity is due to media; however when asked, responders said their opinions were shaped by someone they knew. 84% knew a Christian; only 15% believed that person’s lifestyle was different in a good way. On the other hand, when responders were asked what kind of Christianity they would respect, most knew one or more Christians they did look up to.
Another factor is that fewer and fewer people, especially among the young, see themselves as having or needing a connection to organized religion at all. They are mostly spiritual people, but don’t see a need for a church, per se.
In the midst of all this, what is the church to do? Kinnaman had some suggestions of scriptural ways of responding.
1. Teach the high standard of behavior. What he meant by that was the high standard of love and mercy set by Jesus. He pointed to Romans 2:24, in which Paul says the name of God is reviled and blasphemed “because of you!” In other words, said Kinnaman, it would help perceptions if those looking at us could see that our lifestyle made a difference in a good way. He reminded attendees that Jesus had said in Matthew 23:13 to let our lights shine so that people will glorify God, and in John 13:35 that the world would know Christians by their love.
2. Restore a proper theology of insiders and outsiders. Kinnaman pointed to Colossians 4:5, 6, which says to “live wisely among those who are not Christians,” and to 1 Corinthians 5:9-13, in which Paul says you may need to judge or discipline church members, (or even avoid too close contact with recalcitrant ones) but should not be doing the same with those outside the church.
Kinnaman then asked a thought-provoking question: “How does this apply to a mostly Christian or Christian-influenced culture?” He pointed out that when Paul was writing, Christians were living among deeply pagan societies. Today in the western world, nearly everyone at least knows about Christianity, and a large majority were raised either in a church or with strong influence by the church and its members. We are no longer in new, untouched territory.
Point by point, Kinnaman took the negative perceptions that his survey showed and countered them with a godly response. We could respond to the perception that we are just out to proseletyze by being intentionally more relational. We could respond to the concept that we are too political by being solution-oriented instead. We could respond to the accusation of judgmentalism by showing grace. He shared something shocking with us: The most common response he gets on this topic—the most common!—is “Christianity is supposed to be an offense! Stop trying to be nice to everyone!”
On the contrary, he believes, “Cultivating our heart for outsiders helps us recover the heart of the Gospel.” He suggested that the story of the prodigal son be our moral compass. That story was told to older brothers/sisters, not to prodigals. The world, Kinnaman said, is becoming ever more like the prodigal son. The church is becoming ever more like the older brother. That’s not the solution.
He also implied that there might be times we would need to publicly disagree with each other, citing the story of Paul confronting Peter with his double-mindedness in the matter of eating with Gentiles. (Galatians 2) Kinnaman pointed out that in order to create change, there must be disruption. “If you’re a leader,” he said, “you’re going to have conflict 100% of the time. Half the time you’re resolving conflict and half the time you’re creating conflict. A good leader has to create conflict.”
This wasn’t necessarily a pleasant thought to those of us who were attending this conference, but Kinnaman also encouraged us by saying that as Adventists, we might be particularly well-positioned to help create the change. “You’re just counter-cultural enough to have something unique to say. People might listen.” He quoted Bonhoeffer as saying, “The church is the church only when it exists for others.”
No presentation at the conference was complete without the table talk that followed it. I gleaned this gem from a man at my table: “The young people seem to have a generational gap with us and what we’ve developed in the last 200 years. They don’t have a generational gap with Jesus and what he said 2,000 years ago. It’s not that they’re looking for something new. They want the old, original Truth!”