Book Review: They Like Jesus But Not the Church, by Dan Kimball
I enjoyed this book, and I didn’t think I would.
This review began as a challenge. While visiting an old friend, I discovered he had recently finished They Like Jesus But Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations. Our discussion raised some red flags in my mind (I hope it wasn’t simply because the word “emerging” is like Pavlov’s bell to a young, restless, and reformed seminary student like myself). So I challenged my friend to a book exchange—he would read D. A. Carson’s Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, and I would read Dan Kimball’s book.
As it turns out, the books are probably speaking past each other, since Carson spends more time challenging the theological and philosophical underpinnings of certain emerging leaders, while Kimball’s book simply addresses various cultural stumbling blocks that often hinder our churches in reaching out to (and retaining) younger “emerging generations.”
KIMBALL ARGUES THAT…
Kimball argues that our world has changed: “we are living in an increasingly “post-Christian” culture” (15). Being a Christian is no longer considered normal in our culture, so we need to think like missionaries—that is, we must listen first because we are on their turf (29–30). Non-Christians today are open to Jesus, although Kimball grants they may not know about his judgment and comments about sin (37). Christians, however, are caught in a social bubble (39–41), concerned about making the church better and our own lives more comfortable rather than caring for people outside the church (41). When Kimball found himself trapped in this bubble, he escaped by scheduling Wednesdays and Thursdays to work outside the church office, studying for his weekend sermon in coffeehouses to be around people and engage them in conversation (47–48).
The heart of the book begins with chapter four, where Kimball introduces us to several of the people he has befriended and interviewed to give us “insights from emerging generations” (Alicia, Duggan, Erika, Dustan, Penny, Gary and Erica, and Maya). Their ages range from late teens to early thirties, and all have different backgrounds, education, and church experience. All of them are open to Jesus, but they do not attend any church. Kimball quotes from them extensively through the book, and he forms his next six chapters around common misconceptions of the church which they all share: (1) They think the church is an organized religion with a political agenda. (2) They think the church is judgmental and negative. (3) They think the church is dominated by males and oppresses females. (4) They think the church is homophobic. (5) They think the church arrogantly claims all other religions are wrong. (6) They think the church is full of fundamentalists who take the whole Bible literally.
Kimball suggests responses to these misconceptions throughout but saves a full response for the last few chapters. His most important point is made in chapter twelve, where he uses the familiar “bridge” illustration in which man and God are separated by the chasm of sin. Kimball argues that we have now created another chasm—namely, the Christian subculture (236).
LIKE I SAID, I ENJOYED…
Like I said, I enjoyed the book. It is well-written and rooted in experience. Kimball was planting and pastoring a church when he wrote it, and he was actively involved in pursuing relationships with non-Christians, some of whom have now become Christians. His examples of befriending non-Christians have given me ideas for how I should pursue similar efforts. Further, I appreciate Kimball’s reliance on the Holy Spirit in conversion and his stress on the need for prayer.
THAT SAID, I THINK…
That said, I think the premise of this book is misleading. Kimball sets up the church (more specifically, the Christian sub-culture) as the problem, while suggesting that non-Christians actually like Jesus. But is this really the problem? Granted, misconceptions about the church may sometimes be a problem in evangelism, but the non-Christian’s real problem is that he or she actually doesn’t like Jesus Christ. As Paul says, “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Cor. 1:18). John is even clearer: “Everyone who does evil hates the light [i.e., Jesus], and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed” (John 3:20).
Some Christians and pastors need to break out of the Christian bubble to speak with non-Christians about the gospel. Kimball’s right about that. But they must understand that they won’t be running into open arms, even if people seem open to talk about Jesus at first.
Some Christians should be encouraged to adopt Paul’s attitude: “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). Kimball’s right about that too. But in our efforts to reach out there is a fine line between dispelling misconceptions about the church that non-Christians don’t like and watering down the true message of the church (the gospel) that non-Christians don’t like.
For the most part, I don’t think Kimball waters down that message, but there are a few places where it feels a little damp. For example, he deemphasizes God’s judgment of sin throughout the book, arguing that we should leave judgment to God for those outside the church and instead tell non-Christians “about Jesus and his saving grace rather than judging and condemning them” (106). This is because “most people today have no problem admitting they sin” (238). I agree that most people admit they sin occasionally, and, no, we shouldn’t judge and condemn them. However, the non-Christians I know would still say they are essentially good people, and they have little conception of the true nature of their sin—that it’s a personal offence against God. Kimball’s de-emphasis of sin seems to lead him into some practices in the church that likely mislead non-Christians from seeing the horrible nature of their sin before a holy God (for example, see 160–161). Like Jesus, we must tell non-Christians about their sin as God sees it and about his coming judgment— together with the hope of the cross. And, until the Spirit works, non-Christians will reject this message as foolishness, even after we’ve torn down any Christian sub-cultures and become their friends.
WITH THESE CAVEATS, I STILL…
With these caveats in mind, I still found the book useful. I would recommend other books over this one for thinking about the practice of evangelism—namely, Speaking of Jesus (J. Mack Stiles, IVP) and The Gospel and Personal Evangelism (Mark Dever, Crossway). But Kimball’s book provides good insight into how some non-Christians think, and readers will be challenged by his excellent diagnostic questions at the end of each chapter. They will also be challenged to study and be ready to teach how the Bible addresses issues like homosexuality and the role women have or play in the church, key issues in our cultural context for presenting the gospel.