Book Review: unChristian, by Dave Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons
“Christianity has an image problem.” (11)
So say researcher Dave Kinnaman and market innovator Gabe Lyons in the recently published unChristian. A Barna Group research project commissioned by Lyons and led by Kinnaman, unChristian seeks to address this “image problem” by speaking frankly to believers about young people who “admit their emotional and intellectual barriers go up when they are around Christians, and [who] reject Jesus because they feel rejected by Christians” (11).
No small matter, this. And the book is winning no small audience. It is currently ranked very highly on the Amazon booklist, it garnered a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, and it was recently cited in the New York Times. Seeking to be a movement-shaping text, it calls for discernment on the part of its reader (and reviewer).
ARE WE HYPOCRITICAL?
unChristian considers six problematic areas of Christian behavior, each of which we will briefly analyze. The first area is that too many Christians are “Hypocritical.” Kinnaman and Lyons write, “So how did Christians acquire a hypocritical image in America today? Let’s start with the most obvious reason: our lives don’t match our beliefs. In many ways, our lifestyles and perspectives are no different from those of anyone around us.” (46)
This is true. Though redeemed, we still carry sin within us. When one adds to this problem the many scandals caused by professing Christians in recent decades, along with the fact that many people claim to be Christians who are not, we have a weighty problem on our hands. We need to be honest with unbelievers about our own shortcomings and the different factors that contribute to our hypocritical image.
Then again, are Christians really more hypocritical than most non-Christians? Could it be the world has a vested interest in making much of one and not the other?
ARE WE UNCARING?
The next area of evangelical weakness is covered in “Get Saved!” Kinnaman and Lyons believe that many well-meaning believers prioritize gospel witness so much that they often fail to cultivate meaningful relationships with unbelievers. The authors provide a story from one New Yorker that makes the point well:
A young guy approached me in a subway station once, friendly, full of questions, interested in talking. He seemed really nice, and I couldn’t believe a New Yorker was being so, well, nice! . . . Next time I heard from him, he invited me to a Bible study, and that was all he wanted to talk about. When I said, ‘No thanks,’ I never heard from him again.
This account resonated with me because I have acted like this young man on a number of occasions. As with many passionate Christians, I have sometimes failed to love those to whom I am witnessing and have thought of them as evangelistic statistics, not people. This is regrettable, and unChristian challenged me to change.
Having noted this, though, I also wonder whether it isn’t a simple consequence of gospel witness that many people feel put upon, especially in an age that is determinedly anti-preachy (except when it comes to global warming, same-sex marriage, and other popular concerns in our culture).
ARE WE ANTI-HOMOSEXUAL?
The next problem area is that Christians are “Antihomosexual.” In this chapter, the reader is challenged to avoid shunning and stigmatizing homosexuals, a practice the authors allege is quite common among Christians. “When we raise young people to shun their ‘different’ peers,” they opine, “we are actually limiting the spiritual influence they can have, and we force them to create a false barrier that leads them to question their faith in more significant ways” (99). In addition, they point out that if “we don’t work at developing meaningful relationships with our co-workers, whether gay or straight, how can we expect them to respect us and our beliefs?” (105)
There is certainly much work to be done on this point by evangelical Christians and churches. Knowing the biblical stance on this sin, we sometimes privilege this sin above others and end up being far less loving to homosexual people than our faith demands.
However, the fact that Christians call homosexuality a sin automatically brands us in today’s permissive sexual culture. The hard reality here may be that even the most compassionate Bible-believing Christians will find this image hard to shed in our day.
ARE WE SHELTERED FROM THE WORLD?
The fourth problem with many Christians, say Kinnaman and Lyons, is that they shelter themselves from the outside world. Here the authors provide an incisive comment from one Christian on the life many believers lead:
In our interviews, a twenty-eight-year-old Christian described this lifestyle: “So many Christians are caught up in the Christian subculture and are completely closed off from the world. We go to church on Wednesdays, Sundays, and sometimes on Saturdays. We attend small group on Tuesday night and serve on the Sunday school advisory board, the financial committee, and the welcoming committee. We go to barbeques with our Christian friends and plan group outings. We are closed off from the world. Even if we wanted to reach out to nonChristians, we don’t have time and we don’t know how. The only way we know how to reach out is to invite people to join in our Christian social circle. (130)
It is this point that I believe is the book’s strongest. The robust calendar of many churches is a sign of health. It does seem, though, that many churches have so emphasized the life of the congregation that they leave their members with relatively little time to fulfill the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20. Perhaps our “missional” friends have discovered a helpful emphasis in their ecclesial identity. Surely, the cloistered life of many evangelicals contrasts sharply with the example of Christ, who spent a great deal of time with unbelievers.
ARE WE TOO POLITICAL?
Kinnaman and Lyons want Christians to avoid being “Too Political” as well. Christianity, they assert, is linked with politics to the extent that it is identified with a party. The church’s gospel ends up being confused by its political concerns. The authors suggest several improvements toward this end. They do not want Christians to place too much emphasis on politics; they want Christians to realize that there’s nothing gained by winning elections if we lose our soul; they want Christians to respect their enemies rather than demonizing them; and they want Christians to respect, pray for, and listen to all leaders (168-9).
There is wisdom here. Many of us struggle at times to keep politics in proper perspective.
At the same time, I wonder if it is not unavoidable that we Christians, to some extent, will be identified as “too political.” We have to be political in a country in which major moral questions are debated—and enacted—on a legislative level. Messy as it may be, it is only right that we work on a very public level to protect the life of the unborn, for example. Though we must not identify God’s kingdom with political agendas, we must also speak and act prophetically and boldly in our culture.
In addition, many of our unsaved friends have little hitch in their souls about championing political causes they believe in. The same people who critique Christians for being too political will themselves invest deeply in a political cause they care about (the Obama campaign and election shows this in abundance). If we still must work hard to avoid an overly political faith, we need to remember that there may be a little bluff-calling to do on this point with our critics.
ARE WE JUDGMENTAL?
The last area of concern for Kinnaman and Lyons centers in the perception of many unbelievers that Christians are “Judgmental.” “Nearly nine out of ten young outsiders (87 percent),” the authors report without giving hard data, “said the term judgmental accurately describes present-day Christianity.” (182) The authors then remark that “With young people, how we communicate is as important as what we communicate.” (183)
This is surely true, and many of us need to hear this counsel and heed it. We should attempt to speak truth in love to the lost around us.
Yet it also seems inevitable that the church and its people will be judged for taking firm stands against sin. Jesus judged sin, and so did his followers, and they were killed for their stances. Even if we are friendly and loving, I wonder if Christians can easily avoid this label.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN IF CHRISTIANS CHANGE THEIR IMAGE?
Several other problems crop up during a critical reading of this book. What, exactly, will happen if Christians change their “image”? The authors are of two minds throughout the text. Early on, they strike the right balance on this point by noting that Christians cannot change the destinies of unbelievers by changing their own behavior: “We are not responsible for outsiders’ decisions, but we are accountable when our actions and attitudes—misrepresenting a holy, just, and loving God—have pushed outsiders away.” (14)
At other points, however, the tone shifts: “Because they [unbelievers] felt as though Christians had listened and cared about them,” the authors argue in the last chapter, “they were less likely to reject Jesus.” (209) Such logic inflates the importance of image and seems to make the conversion of lost people dependent on their impression of the actions of believers. Christians certainly must preach the gospel to others in order for them to be saved, but the Bible asserts that finally God saves whom he wills (Jn. 3:8, Rom. 9:16). This incongruity seems to undermine the book’s earlier contention.
IS IMAGE-MANAGEMENT REALLY THE GOAL?
There is another key problem with unChristian, namely, that no matter how we Christians think we should position ourselves culturally, God blesses those whom the world hates (Matt. 5:11). Christians certainly can use this teaching to excuse all kinds of problematic, sinful behavior. However, this text in Matthew seems to relieve believers of exactly the kind of reputation management that unChristian calls for. After all, if image is to be a chief concern of the Christian, our predecessors—Christ, Stephen, Paul, and many others—have done a pretty poor job of burnishing the brand.
As a counter-cultural movement in the world, I would suggest that our central question is not “How do we manage our image in this world,” but “How do we represent our Lord and obey his radical call on our lives?”
WHAT’S THE REAL PROBLEM?
Beyond this, even with radical self-examination of the most helpful Kierkegaardian kind, I am skeptical about the ability of believers to avoid unbelievers’ condemning caricatures and stereotypes. Unbelievers, we learn in the Bible, are not prevented from faith in God by the people of God, but by the human heart, which is “desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9). While our “good works” are to be “conspicuous” (1 Tim. 5:25) before the lost and so demonstrate the transforming power of the gospel, unbelievers hate the gospel and, in many cases, the people who believe it. In an image-obsessed world, we must keep ours in proper perspective.
Further problems show up throughout the book, among them
- the frequent lack of hard data to back up the published study results,
- the rather weak definition of “born-again” that factors heavily into numerous surveys and assessments,
- and the propensity of the authors to take the testimony of unbelievers about Christians as if it carries no ideological bias or personal prejudice.
A GOOD CHALLENGE
With these points noted, however, I would not hesitate to recommend unChristian to believers who wish to think hard about Christian life in a pagan culture. The text frequently convicted me about certain sins and tendencies in my own life. In addition, the testimony of certain pastors and thinkers at the conclusion of each chapter challenged me to love God and people more than I do.
If unChristian falls short of being the kind of movement-shaping text in the model of works like David Wells’s recent The Courage to Be Protestant (Eerdmans, 2008), it does offer good food for thought on pet Christian sins and attitudes that can—and must—be addressed by those of us who so easily fall prey to them.