Image problem or crisis?

If you have ever seen “Jesus, save me from your followers” as a bumper sticker, then you’ve seen a symptom of a real problem. David Kinnaman’s new book (co-authored with Gabe Lyons), UnChristian, paints the picture revealing what may be the true cause of declining mainline church attendance in the 21st Century. Time takes a thoughtful look at “Christianity’s Image Problem.”

Back in 1996, a poll taken by Kinnaman’s organization, the Barna Group, found that 83% of Americans identified themselves as Christians, and that fewer than 20% of non-Christians held an unfavorable view of Christianity. But, as Kinnaman puts it, “That was then.”

New polls sampling 440 non-Christians (and a similar number of Christians, according to the report) between 16 and 29 found that 38 percent had a “bad impression” of present-day Christianity.

Kinnaman says non-Christians’ biggest complaints about the faith are not immediately theological: Jesus and the Bible get relatively good marks. Rather, he sees resentment as focused on perceived Christian attitudes. Nine out of ten outsiders found Christians too “anti-homosexual,” and nearly as many perceived it as “hypocritical” and “judgmental.” Seventy-five percent found it “too involved in politics.”

Not only has the decline in non-Christians’ regard for Christianity been severe, but Barna results also show a rapid increase in the number of people describing themselves as non- Christian. One reason may be that the study used a stricter definition of “Christian” that applied to only 73% of Americans. Still, Kinnaman claims that however defined, the number of non- Christians is growing with each succeeding generation: His study found that 23% of Americans over 61 were non-Christians; 27% among people ages 42-60; and 40% among 16-29 year olds. Younger Christians, he concludes, are therefore likely to live in an environment where two out of every five of their peers is not a Christian.

Here’s where it gets really interesting. According to this, you might well find that bumper sticker on the car of a young Christian, too:

Christians have always been aware of image problems with non-believers. Says Kinnaman: “The question is whether to care.” But given the increasing non-Christian population and the fact that many of the concerns raised by non-believers are shared by young Christians, he says, there really is no option but to address the crisis.

The article is here, and other stories in the feature include an interview with the author, David Kinnaman, titled “Facing Christianity’s Crisis” and older commentary by noted gay conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan–who suggests “that we take back the word Christian while giving the religious right a new adjective: Christianist. Christianity, in this view, is simply a faith. Christianism is an ideology, politics, an ism.”

Updated: Because I reference the decline in church attendance, it’s interesting to note that the Rev. Mike Kinman of Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation seems to have reflected on it as well today on his blog and drawn a different but fascinating conclusion that again points to our shrinking world:

Besides people of every theological/political bent succumbing to the “post hoc ergo propter hoc” fallacy, which assumes that just because something preceded an event it caused that event (i.e. — the church has declined since GenCon 2003 so that’s what caused the decline), the debate is generally confined to finding “THE cause” for the decline. The world is much more complex than that (praise God!). And as much as we might not like to think so, individually and corporately we are all heavilly influenced by many societal factors. There is no ONE marker event cause for the decline. There are enormous global forces at work.

Read more here.

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