UnChristian, by David Kinnaman

David Kinnaman. Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…and Why it Matters. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2007.

Book Review submitted by Xochitl Alvizo, Ph.D. Candidate in Practical Theology, Concentration: Congregation and Community

Unchristian is a book that results from a research project inspired by Gabe Lyons’ interest to “help a new generation of leaders understand the perceptions and images that young people have of Christianity,” perceptions he already suspected to be very negative (13). To this end he partnered with David Kinnaman, the primary author of the book, in launching an extensive three-year research project in which thousands of people between the ages of sixteen to twenty-nine[1] were either surveyed or interviewed about their perceptions of Christianity from an outsider’s point of view. The result of the research shows a predominantly negative view of Christianity by those outside of it – referred to in the book as ‘outsiders’; one that is not based on unfounded perceptions, but grounded in the personal experiences outsiders have had with Christians and with the church (often they are people who are “dechurched” and not simply “unchurched”).

Although the authors consider their research to be “objective” (a word they frequently use both in the book and in interviews posted online), their presentation of the research in this book is shaped by very explicit objectives: “to be strategic agents for the kingdom of God” (8), to “connect more effectively with people outside the faith” (14), “to engage nonChristians and point them to Jesus” (16), and “to be effective agents of spiritual transformation in people’s lives” (19). In an interview posted online Kinnaman states, “The central message of this book is, How do we understand, accept, love and bring the transformational power of Jesus to a generation that is very skeptical, that is very done with Christianity as we’ve expressed it in this culture for the last twenty, thirty years, fifty years.”[2]

Although their study is designed to find out what outsiders think of Christianity, the authors also have very specific ideas about Mosaics and Busters.[3] For example, according to Kinnaman and Lyons, Mosaics and Busters have an “anything goes mindset” (36), an “image-driven, self-oriented mindset” (43), they are irreverent, blunt, skeptical and are “in a nearly constant search for fresh experiences and new sources of motivations” (22-23). What the authors make clear is that even as they set out to discover how Christianity is perceived by outsiders, it is not primarily for the purposes of their own self-reflection and transformation as Christians, but so that Christians can get to know and love Mosaic and Buster outsiders in order to “turn them to Jesus” (96); Jesus being of greatest importance since the authors believe that Jesus is “the starting point” where people’s lives really begin (20, italics mine). It is as if once they know who they are up against, they will be able to adjust their “strategy” in order to “bring people to Christ” – or in other words – once they know their potential customer they can adjust their marketing strategy to more effectively sell Christ to them. This kind of basic marketing approach grounds the book.[4]

The research is very interesting, and to those outside the church (or those within the church who are not insulated by it) the results are of little to no surprise. The research shows that Mosaic and Buster outsiders’ perceptions of Christianity are overwhelmingly negative (9 out of twelve). The three most common perceptions are that Christians are anti-homosexual, judgmental, and hypocritical, in that order. Also, the authors point out that these perceptions are in most cases (50% or more) directly related to outsiders’ negative experiences at church or in relationship with Christians (31). However, despite such interesting and valuable research the authors have seriously missed the mark. Why not simply stop with their research findings alone and reflect on how unchristian “Christians” are? The authors themselves admit to much of the truth that lies behind outsiders’ perceptions of Christians – why not stop there and leave the outsiders out of what is clearly a Christian problem? According to the book Christians have serious problems that go beyond a simple “image” problem among outsiders, so why do the authors not encourage their Christian readers to focus on their own communal relationship with the Divine and their own transformation toward Christ-likeness instead of continuing to get ahead of themselves and strategize to sell a salvation they do not themselves know or have?

Embedded in the book as well is a similar sentiment from the authors themselves. They recognize that Mosaics and Busters “rarely see Christians who embody service, compassion, humility, forgiveness, patience, kindness, peace, joy, goodness, and love” (37) – clearly an internal Christian problem. They admit that as Christians we “need to make continual, honest evaluations of ourselves so that we can uncover the ways in which our lives do not accurately reflect what we profess” (37). Why not then write the book with a focus on those objectives? Instead, underlying the entire book is the very “ulterior motive” outsiders are clearly aware of – Christians “love” you not because that is who they are as Christians, that is people who are called to love, but only because they have an agenda with you (68); the book reflects this very same disgrace.

What is the nature and mission of the church I see underlying this book? The church is a people set apart to live up to God’s higher standards,[5] though unworthy just like everybody else, they are able to do so (though some will admit they fall short) because they have accepted salvation through Jesus’ death sacrifice. As a result, they are now partners with God, commissioned to get everyone else on board to “His” standards and into “His” kingdom. And it is here that I suspect lies a major problem in this project; the authors are functioning out of an understanding of the nature of the church as that of being on the “winning side” of things, the “saved” side of creation. The nature of the church is not truly understood to be about a people who are Christ-like, or about a new divine reality, although this does at times come across in the authors’ content, but is in effect reduced to being ‘winners’ on God’s side. And when one is on the winning “saved” side, one is a little better than everyone else, gives oneself permission to have bragging rights, and feels justified in getting out there and recruiting others to their better, winning team; which is the function of the church most reflected in this book.

I can definitely sense Kinnaman and Lyons navigating the tension of their research findings and their understanding of Christian mission. They grapple with both their desire for Christians to be more Christ-like in their engagement with the other, and their belief that Christianity represents the “winning” team, which in turn motivates their strategizing to get outsiders on their side. Does this, I wonder, render them unchristian according to their own research findings?

[1] More specifically, they studied “outsiders,” those looking at the Christian faith from outside of it, who are from the Mosaics (born between 1984 and 2002) and Busters (born between 1965 and 1983) generations (17).

[2] David Kinnaman, interview on YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-mKfg2mrMP4.

[3] See footnote 1 above for definition of Mosaic and Busters.

[4] Using marketing research to “advance meaningful ministry” is something for which Kinnaman is explicitly commended in the foreword of the book, pg. 7.

[5] References to God’s high standards are made throughout the book. These higher standards are conveniently condensed to seven elements which can be found on page 80.

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