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Generation Lost: 5 Ways Today’s Christians Have Alienated America’s Youth

In an exceptional piece of research performed a few years ago, modern Christianity was laid bare by it’s harshest critics – America’s youth. The book is entitled: “unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…and Why It Matters” by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons (Baker Books).  The book’s press release describes it as “a portrait of a faith and its followers perceived to be anything but Christlike.”  Reviewed in an excellent article entitled “A Survey of Young Thinking About Christianity” by Clint McCoy, (http://execumusings.synodne.org/article.php/20090129232344667) a number of perspectives about modern day Christianity – and modern-day Christians – are exposed.  Some of them are painfully accurate.  However, to be completely fair, I believe that much of what America’s youth finds repulsive about today’s Christians reflects their own spiritual weakness.

The research included a series of interviews with those known as Busters (born 1965- 1983) and Mosaics (born 1984-2002).  There are five broad and thematic findings that can be drawn from the interviews:

First of all, Christians are perceived by America’s youth to be antihomosexual. Christians are viewed as generally showing contempt for gays and lesbians. “To outsiders, Christianity is more a brand than a faith,” says Gabe Lyons, who commissioned the study for the Fermi Project, a collective of church leaders driving forward a new way of being Christian in today’s culture. “It is a bad brand in the minds of tens of millions of people. It has come to represent hypocrisy, judgmentalism, anti- intellectualism, and bigotry. It’s easy to see why the next generation wants nothing to do with it.”

A “bad brand?”  Uh-oh!  Who is going to tell God? God has made it abundantly clear from end to end throughout the Bible that homosexuality is a sin.  There is just no arguing with that unless one is determined to simply disregard what God said – as Eve and Adam did initially – or one believes that the Bible does not faithfully present God’s instruction to Christians.  God informs and instructs us as Christians that a LOT of things are sin – including lying, stealing, adultery, and gluttony.  I am in no position to throw stones here – I am as sinful as anyone else, and only the grace of God, flowing directly from the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, stands between me and an eternity in hell.  But to say that God’s clear statement that homosexuality is sin – and is basically abhorrent to Him – is “bad branding” is incredibly vain and reflects the root of the real problem.

Man is in no position to sit in judgment of God, or what God says is right and wrong.  The Bible is filled with examples of people who have tried this – a couple of examples include the golden calf and the Tower of Babel.  It never works out well for them in the end.  Christians, if they believe that God has inspired the Bible, have no choice but be anti-gay unless they decide NOT to be anti-sin.  At that point, they can no longer be accurately described as Christians, since they no longer follow Christ.  Once again, let me point out that as a Christian, I am anti-gluttony, but I am always overweight.  I am anti-deception, but I have lied many times in my life.  I do not speak to this issue or any other issue from a position of personal perfection.  However, America’s youth, and all of the rest of us who try to be “politically correct” are kidding ourselves when we think that sin does not really matter to God, and that even though God has clearly defined what is sin in the Bible, He doesn’t really mind if we ignore it.

Secondly, Christians are perceived to be too political. Christians are regarded by America’s youth to be primarily motivated by a right-wing political agenda. “Christians are known for what they stand against,” says Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group. “We are famous for what we oppose, rather than who we are for.”  This is true, I think, to some extent.  However, why is this true?  It is true because Christianity is constantly under attack, and when attacked, Christians sometimes (not often enough in my view) actually stand up for their beliefs.  They respond when people say that there is no God, when they say that sin is really OK, and that the Quran is superior to the Bible, and that murdering her unborn children is the right of any mother.  These brave souls, who still stand up for what they believe in the face of overwhelming pressure to be politically correct, denying Christ just as the Apostle Peter did three times at the time of His crucifixion (Mark Chapter 14), are the Christians that America’s youth are finding so offensive.  In my opinion, they are among the best examples of Christianity remaining on Earth today.  In Matthew 10:23, Jesus said: “But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.”  As Christians, we can choose to make the message of Christ a lie by diluting it so that sin is really OK, or we can tell the truth about what Christ says, and what Christianity therefore means.  It’s not a matter of being perfect. As Romans 3:23 says: “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God”, and it is not a matter of being any better than anyone else.  It’s just a matter of what is true and what is a lie.  If the Bible is true, then homosexuality is a sin.  As Christians, we don’t make the rules.  We are just supposed to live by them.  Denying that they are the rules doesn’t change them.

Thirdly, Christians are Hypocritical. America’s youth perceives that Christians live lives that don’t match their stated beliefs.  In fact, 85% of the young people surveyed describe Christians as hypocritical.  I couldn’t agree more.  The vast majority of Christians (including me) are indeed hypocrites. Some time ago I developed an assessment tool, which I have consolidated into a single chart, and it demonstrates that situation pretty effectively.  This chart measures Christian maturity (defined as the degree to which the life of a Christian actually demonstrates compliance with what Christ directed us to do, and what He did Himself as an example to us).  It looks like this:

The percent of the Christian population occupying each level is smaller and smaller as one travels further and further upward in the scale.  Between levels 5 and 6, where believers begin to really share our faith in a meaningful way with others on a frequent basis, the population drops like a rock.  What percentage of Christians do you think meet that criteria?  I would estimate that it is less than 10%; certainly less than 20%.  By level 7 – where the majority of free time is focused on telling others about Jesus, worshiping, meditating, and praying, I’d guess we are down in single digits on a percentage basis.  Most of us spend the majority of our free time on TV, web surfing, sporting events, restaurants and concerts.  The percentage of us who actually take the Great Commission literally, drop our proverbial fishing nets and move into full time Christian service to become “fishers of men” as Jesus Christ directed us to do, is miniscule.  Many of us talk a great game.  We make great spectators, and great commentators.  Not many of us ever really enter the arena.  However, to my earlier point, the more Christians truly emulated Jesus Christ, I believe, the more offensive we are to the general public.  That is born out by the study’s next finding, related to “insincerity”.

Fourthly, Christians are perceived to be insincere. America’s youth thinks that Christians are focused exclusively on collecting converts.  I think that is an interesting perception; I only wish it was an accurate one. I do recall a time when some evangelical programs were broadcast by the Billy Graham crusade that were focused on one thing: winning converts to Jesus Christ.  They were immensely successful, and Mr. Graham remains one of the most successful and most popular Christian evangelists in modern history.  But the fact is that kind of commitment and sincerity is extremely rare these days within our Christian community.

Two passages of scripture are especially illustrative here, I believe.  The first is the passage where Jesus tells a young man to follow him, not even returning to his home first to bury his recently deceased father.  It is recounted in Luke chapter 9, verses 57-62: “And it came to pass, that, as they went in the way, a certain man said unto him, Lord, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head. And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God. And another also said, Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house. And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Whoa!  Can you imagine?  Jesus told his would-be followers that in order to truly commit to following Jesus, they had to give up everything – including their relationships with their families – even their houses – so that they literally would “have no where to lay their heads.”  Now THAT is what Jesus meant when He spoke of commitment.  Do you know anyone who has done that?  I don’t.  I know missionaries who have taken their families into Africa and others who have been persecuted and beaten for the cause of Christ in foreign fields of service.  But I do not know of any who literally turn their backs on their families and don’t even provide a place for themselves to sleep at night.  Think I am taking Jesus’ direction too literally?  No.  Earlier in this same chapter in verses 2-4, Jesus says to his disciples: “And he sent them to preach the kingdom of God, and to heal the sick. And he said unto them, Take nothing for your journey, neither staves, nor scrip, neither bread, neither money; neither have two coats apiece. And whatsoever house ye enter into, there abide, and thence depart.”  He wasn’t kidding.  When it was time for Jesus to ascend into heaven following his resurrection, His instructions to us were deliberate, specific, and clear (Matthew 28:18-20): “And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” I am having a difficult time interpreting Jesus’ words to mean: “Go ye therefore and ‘rebrand’ Christianity so that it is acceptable to America’s youth.”

Finally, American youth perceives that Christians are dullards. They see Christians as anti-intellectual, boring, and out of touch with reality.  There is indeed statistical evidence that religious people in general demonstrate lower IQs than Atheists and Agnostics.  Beyond that, there is even evidence that the more dogmatic the religion, the lower the average IQ score.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religiosity_and_intelligence) In 2008, intelligence researcher Helmuth Nyborg conducted studies to determine whether IQ relates to denomination and income, using representative data from intelligence tests on a representative selection of white American youth, where they also replied to questions about religious belief. His results were published in a scientific journal called Intelligence.  His findings were that on average, Atheists scored 1.95 IQ points higher than Agnostics, and 5.89 IQ points higher than dogmatic denominations. “I’m not saying that believing in God makes you dumber. My hypothesis is that people with a low intelligence are more easily drawn toward religions, which give answers that are certain, while people with a high intelligence are more skeptical, “he said.

The same researcher subsequently co-authored a study with Richard Lynn, an emeritus professor at the University of Ulster.  That study examined the relationship between religious belief and average IQs in each of 137 countries. The authors found that atheists scored 6 IQ points higher than those adhering to a religion.  They also investigated the link between religiosity and intelligence by country. Among the 137 countries evaluated, only 23 (17%) had more than 20% of atheists, and almost all of them were among the “higher IQ countries.” The authors reported a correlation of 0.60 between atheism rates and level of intelligence, which is “highly statistically significant.”  Indeed, I remember making a comment to my family after observing this same phenomenon personally over many years of church attendance.  I probably remember it best because the notion was met with vehement disbelief by a couple of family members, who naturally disagreed with my observation.  They were wrong; I had hit that one on the head.

There are a couple of points worth making about this situation, I think.  The first one is that intelligence is not always the best measure of “correctness”.  Several factors are involved in being right or wrong.  While intelligence provides the intellectual horsepower to reason and understand, our primary measure of determining what is right and what is wrong is the Bible – specifically the 10 Commandments.  That simple set of guidelines provided by God thousands of years ago remains the foundation of most human law today.  While we need fundamental intelligence to read and apply those rules, one doesn’t need to be Einstein to understand, based on what they say, the difference between right and wrong.  Indeed, on may occasions human intelligence is perverted by our own selfishness and pride in order to distort these principles.  We use that combination of intelligence and egocentricity to rationalize our actions even when we know in our hearts that they are wrong.  In that sense at least, intelligence is over-rated.

In addition, there is a significant difference between intelligence and wisdom.  One aspect of that difference that is especially relevant here is that wisdom requires humility (Proverbs 11:12).  It comes from God (Proverbs 2:6), and it is far superior to anything that mankind can produce without Him.  Anyone who follows the news these days can find many examples of intelligence gone awry.  Professors at some of the world’s most prestigious universities have become so enamored of knowledge itself and so depraved in their own vanity that they are virtually beyond moral reach, and they are infecting many of our youth with their views.  A couple of recent examples from the news include William Ayers and Ward Churchill. 1 Corinthians Chapter 1 tells us: For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

God has rarely selected the most articulate, the most intelligent, or the most attractive people to be His most beloved servants.  Moses was a timid public speaker, David was just a young man when he defeated Goliath, and none of the Apostles were rock stars in the secular world.  The majority of the closest followers of Christ were fishermen.  One was a tax collector.  Even Jesus Christ was not esteemed among men.  Isaiah 53:3 prophesied the coming Savior this way: “He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.

In his recent review of the Kinnaman and Lyons book, Clint McCoy reports: “In summarizing, Kinnaman writes that young men and women are mentally and emotionally disengaging from Christianity, skeptical about the faith. “The nation’s population is increasingly resistant to Christianity, especially to the theologically conservative expressions of that faith.”  That certainly doesn’t surprise me.  American society is increasingly liberal, and increasingly turning away from the God who has so richly blessed this country.  Like spoiled children, we increasingly turn our backs on God, and flaunt His providence.  2 Thessalonians Chapter 2 seems to indicate that this will only get worse in the years to come. The world – including the community of self-proclaimed Christians – is becoming increasingly liberal in their thinking.  They are much more prone to “interpret” the Bible and biblical doctrine by applying it in diverse ways, making it fit better with changing societal norms and customs.  A growing number – already a majority – of Christians no longer consider the Bible to be an immutable yardstick by which Christians determine what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil.  (http://biblicallythinking.com/2011/bible-and-constitution) These Christians regard the Bible as merely a guide – a generally correct in principle, but not hard-and-fast truth table for day-to-day Christian living.  In many respects, the Bible is essentially reduced from the “inspired word of God” to the level of “Chicken Soup for the Soul”.

This of course enables self-professing Christians to embrace concepts like homosexuality in spite of numerous extremely clear condemnations of homosexuality throughout the Bible (http://carm.org/homosexuality ), and acceptance of women in the pastorate (http://www.gotquestions.org/women-pastors.html) – also in spite of the New Testament admonitions against that practice.  In other words, we simply ignore those elements of biblical direction that don’t support what we want to do.  It’s very like a child telling his parents that he won’t obey their rules if he doesn’t want to behave that way.  It wouldn’t work for child rearing – if Christians are the children of God, why do we believe that approach is appropriate for us?  In our human hubris, we appear to believe that we are better at evaluating what is appropriate and inappropriate, acceptable and unacceptable, than the God that created us.

Kinnaman asserts that young people, those who are professing Christians and those who are not, “do not want a cheap, ordinary, or insignificant life, but their vision of present-day Christianity is just that – superficial, antagonistic, depressing.”   Here is where I disagree with Kinnaman, because I know he is wrong.  He would probably have been correct if he has said: “young people, those who are professing Christians and those who are not, REPORT THAT THEY “do not want a cheap, ordinary, or insignificant life.”  The truth is that a cheap, ordinary, and insignificant life is EXACTLY what the vast majority want.  That is what the vast majority has ALWAYS wanted.  If young people wanted a genuinely meaningful life, a life of real significance, they would be trying to change the world for the better.  They are not.  They are increasingly turning to entertainment, sports, and leisure as their primary pursuits.  It’s just too easy to call Christians hypocrites and walk away, eschewing one’s self of the need to stand before an absolute standard of right and wrong.  That’s the easy way out – the way of the lazy.  The Bible describes it well in Matthew 7:13-14: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

Kinnaman also concludes that: “The generation of young people from 16 to 29 years old yearns for a faith expression in which honesty, integrity, enthusiasm, energy, joy, humility, service, community, loyalty, faith, hope and love are self-evident in the lives of people. They are looking for congruence between what is spoken and what is lived. It is an enormous challenge presented to any congregation to cut through the curtain of skepticism that has been woven into the fabric of current American life.”  I have an answer for them.  If they want a genuine life, filled with happiness and integrity and enthusiasm, then they need to lead one – and stop looking to others for an example.  The example is Jesus Christ; all the rest of us are imperfect.  There is one source of truth and fulfillment in the universe, and that is Jesus Christ.

What do you think?

15 Responses to “Generation Lost: 5 Ways Today’s Christians Have Alienated America’s Youth”

  1. todd says:

    i do have a question regarding women and their role in the church..if women are to be silent not be in charge of men in the church as so many churches believe, then was the church i grew up in (a GARBC church) wrong to have a woman as sunday school superintendent and in charge of the whole sunday school ministry? where is the line drawn?

    • Bill Duncan says:

      Interesting question, though my view is that this phenomenon is pretty insignificnt until it reaches the level of the pastorate. Its tempting to take the easy way out and simply say that the admonition to keep women out of leadership positions that put them in roles where they hold authority of some kind over men was a product of the culture all those years ago, and is no longer relevant. However, once we start saying this aspect of God’s direction doesn’t really count or that aspect doesn’t really count, the Bible becomes a menu from which we can pick and choose what we want – basically, it becomes an “anything goes” situation where what God says is considered a “general set of guiding principles”. At that point, the Bible is relegated to an equivalent status with “Chicken Soup for the Soul”. My view is that we don’t get to make the rules; God does. When we choose to disregard them, it’s viewed by God as sin. Sin is sin, and we all sin.

      I guess the thing about women in positions of authority in the church is that they often fill roles that no men offer to serve in, and for that matter, speaking from a secular perspective, women are often more qualified than the most qualified available man. So I certainly don’t criticize women who step up where their male counterparts will not – I just think it’s a shame that so many men don’t make themselves available for the work God has called them to do. So many Christians do little or nothing for the cause of Christ, or with their lives in general. I cannot believe that God is pleased with the way we all squander the gifts that He endows us with. So in the end, the women who step forward and serve the cause of Christ in whatever way they can are far less guilty, I think, than the men who failed to do so, and left them in that position.

    • Bill Duncan says:

      We are not empowered or authorized to “draw the line”. God has already drawn it for us, defining what we are to do and not do in the Bible. When Christins struggle with these matters is when we try to rationlize behaving in a way that departs from those guidelines. In other words, we try to reinterpret scripture so that we feel better about our sin. As I said before, sin is sin. We all sin, and “come shortof the Glory of God”. Even the smallest of sins are egregious enough that any one of them would have required the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. So while we relegate “small” sins to a mental “that’s Ok” category, justifying them by saying that we “have no choice” because of other sins are even worse – at least in our eyes – or justifying them bcause we no longer have a choice – one sin has made another sin “neccessary.”
      So in your example, the sin committed by men who would notstep forward to fill the roles God needed them to fill left unfilled church leadership roles. Does that mean a woman filling that role, in violation of scriptural gudance, is no longer sinning when she assumes that position? No, it does not. Sin is sin. Could she do a great job and still be sinning? Yes. Could God still bring about a positive result from situations where sin has occurred? Absolutely – the Bible is filled with examples of this. But is it still sin? God defines violating His word as sin, and niether I nor you nor anyone else has the authority to redefine it – to redraw the line.

  2. todd says:

    i guess that was the point i was trying to get at with my question of where the line is drawn..i have friends that go to churches with women as pastors that are some of the strongest Christians i know..does that means they are wrong to continue to go to these churches even though they are spiritually fulfilled and actually growning in their faith? i struggle with that…

    and you are correct about women taking places of leadership when men fail to “step up” if you will…the lady i spoke of was maybe one of the greatest teachers i have ever seen and the years i spent at that church, the sunday school program was huge….i guess to me it doesn’t really matter in areas like that, as long as the Bible is being taught and there are children who truly learn and grow closer to God.

  3. todd says:

    i would never go to a church myself where there is a woman pastor…i have never felt there is enough evidence to say, “God approves of that”…

    • Bill Duncan says:

      Agreed; I attended a Baptist (using the term loosely) church briefly when I lived in Canada where the pastor was a woman – never could come to terms with that, and did not continue.

  4. todd says:

    the problem i see is exactly what you ssid in your reply…and i don’t mean you are the problem :)…it’s that too often, both sides of the fence, whether it be the conservative or the liberal side of the church, pick and choose what they feel is the “true gospel” and use that to get the agenda across…and i think this goes to the points you made about a.being too political and b. youth perceiving Christians to be idiots…a lot of that, i feel has to do with the press and how they make Christians out to be..i recently got into a discussion on FB regarding someone who went to the very conservative Christian college i attended who now says she is a lesbian…i get frustrated that if you say you don’t agree with the gay lifestyle, you are labeled a hatemonger and a bigot….

    • Bill Duncan says:

      Yes. Here again, I think almost everyone is guilty of doing that – almost a “human nature” thing. Do you pick the passage that says Jesus turned water into wine, or the passage that says not to drink wine after it has “turned” (or fermented)? Often, people choose the biblical passage they need to support their own position – in this case, either to criticize those who drink alcohol so that they can feel superior, or to justify their own consumption of alcohol. Rarely do I find people like myself who say: “I believe the Bible makes it clear that Jesus turned water into wine for the guests at a wedding, and the guests remarked that it was the best of all the wine served – therefore, I believe that as long as we do not “become drunk with wine”, God has no issue with Christians drinking wine.”, even though I myself do not drink alcoholic beverages. Objectivity is a real and continuous struggle.

  5. todd says:

    sadly, that is the way Christians are made to be in the press…

  6. Ingles says:

    really good article…

  7. Reva Lee says:

    Bill : Wish I had more time to read this more thoroughly instead of skimming it. What an article. As I am going through the old testament and reading all the ways God punished the nations that turn from him, I wonder what is going to happen to us in the good old USA. We certainly need to turn back to God. I fear for the next generations. May God have mercy on all of us.

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