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God is Closer to You than Your Self

Youths increasingly shunning Christianity, poll finds

Courtesy of VenturaCountyStar.com
By Tom Jacobs, Correspondent
Saturday, November 3, 2007


James Glover II / Star staff David Kinnaman, who heads Barna Group, a religious polling company based in Ventura, has written the book "unChristian," based on research done by the organization exploring what it calls Christianity's "image problem."

Young Americans are increasingly turning away from Christianity and expressing negative views of the faith, according to a startling new survey by Ventura-based Barna Group.

Only 60 percent of 16- to 29-year-olds describe themselves as Christians, according to Barna Group President David Kinnaman. He believes that figure represents "a momentous shift," noting that 77 percent of Americans over age 60 consider themselves Christians.

"Each generation is becoming increasingly secular," said Kinnaman, who details the findings in his new book "unChristian" (Baker Books).

What's more, young people — Christians and non-Christians alike — feel increasingly disillusioned with the church, according to the results of Kinnaman's three-year research project involving 305 churchgoers and 440 outsiders.

Among young non-Christians, nine out of the top 12 perceptions of Christianity were negative. Large majorities called the church judgmental (87 percent), hypocritical (85 percent) and too involved with politics (75 percent).

Seventy-six percent said Christianity is based on "good values and principles," but many expressed the view that the church has turned away from the teachings of Jesus. Only 16 percent said they have a "good impression" of Christianity.

Even more strikingly, half of young churchgoers agreed with those negative perceptions.

"One of the defense mechanisms Christians use is believing this (unfavorable attitude toward the church) is the result of a negative, or at least skeptical, media," Kinnaman said. "There is certainly some truth to that.

"But what people have told us in this research is they're basing their feelings on their own experiences. Frequently they said, I realize not every Christian is judgmental or hypocritical, but for me, that has been a common experience.'"

Kinnaman and his collaborator on the study, Atlanta-based Gabe Lyons, are both committed Christians, and their book is aimed largely at an audience of church leaders. It is likely to make many of its readers distinctly uncomfortable.

"One of the defining characteristics of youth development in America is going through a Christian church," Kinnaman said. "More than four out of five teenagers will spend at least six months in a Christian church. They tried it, but it was a bad experience. It left a flat taste."

As he was finishing his book, Kinnaman encountered a woman who went through precisely that experience. Checking into a Carpinteria hotel he hoped would provide a distraction-free environment for writing, he struck up a conversation with a woman at the front desk.

"She told me, I was in a church for a while, but I have a son, and every time people tried to help me, they would tell me that being a single mom is not a good way to parent.' "

Not surprisingly, she did not stay in the congregation very long.

"Judgmentalism is a sticky substance that puts distance between our hearts and other human beings," Kinnaman said. "It says that we are somehow better. It marginalizes the other person. That doesn't mean we don't recognize and affirm people's fundamental brokenness, but we also recognize and affirm their fundamental goodness."

Chris Hall, pastor of the recently founded Catalyst Ventura ministry, was not surprised by Kinnaman's findings. "Unfortunately, there is a loud minority within the Christian church that has said some really stupid things," he said. "We need to stop looking at ourselves as people who have arrived at the answers."

One key issue that is alienating young Americans from most Christian denominations is homosexuality. According to the survey, 91 percent of young non-Christians and 80 percent of young Christians describe the church as "anti-homosexual."

Numerous surveys have shown a growing majority of young Americans have a relaxed, tolerant attitude toward homosexuality. A 2001 Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 60 percent of Americans ages 17 to 29 support same-sex marriage.

"In some ways, homosexuality is the defining issue that has contributed to the negative perceptions (of Christianity), and our response to it will determine how things take shape in the next decade or so," Kinnaman said.

The issue is a tricky one for those who believe the Bible condemns homosexuality (an interpretation not universally shared among Christians, and currently the subject of heated debate among Episcopalians). In Hall's view, part of the answer is to stop the loud and vociferous condemnation of what he sees as simply one sexual transgression among many.

"How did homosexuality become such a huge issue for us?" he asked. "As I see it, it's no different than any other sexual sin."

"One pastor I know says, We shouldn't speak about this issue unless we have close friends who are gay,'" Kinnaman added.

Overall, Kinnaman was impressed with the thoughtful and nuanced nature of the responses he received.

"Faith is much more complex than we like to admit sometimes," he said "Some self-described atheists or agnostics will meditate or do yoga as a spiritual exercise. Among Christians, you will also find people who meditate, as well as some who believe in reincarnation.

"So it's very much a smorgasbord of picking and choosing. It's very hard to put your finger on a person and say, Now I've got you figured out.' Labels create distance between us."

Courtesy of VenturaCountyStar.com

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