Saturday, October 20, 2007

America Comes of Age

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I will get back to the part II of "Can the Resurrection be Historical?" I have been aware of this Barna study on the image of Christianity in America since it came out a few weeks ago, and have been waiting until I had time to do something on it.

New study findings for the Barna group indicate ill portents. Is this a real paradigm shift in culture or hope to sell a book?

A New Generation Expresses its Skepticism and Frustration with Christianity
The Barna Group (website),September 24, 2007

(Ventura, CA) - As the nation’s culture changes in diverse ways, one of the most significant shifts is the declining reputation of Christianity, especially among young Americans. A new study by The Barna Group conducted among 16- to 29-year-olds shows that a new generation is more skeptical of and resistant to Christianity than were people of the same age just a decade ago.
The study of Christianity’s slipping image is explored in a new book, entitled unChristian, by David Kinnaman, the president of The Barna Group. The study is a result of collaboration between Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons of the Fermi Project.
Rising Reactions

The study shows that 16- to 29-year-olds exhibit a greater degree of criticism toward Christianity than did previous generations when they were at the same stage of life. In fact, in just a decade, many of the Barna measures of the Christian image have shifted substantially downward, fueled in part by a growing sense of disengagement and disillusionment among young people. For instance, a decade ago the vast majority of Americans outside the Christian faith, including young people, felt favorably toward Christianity’s role in society. Currently, however, just 16% of non-Christians in their late teens and twenties said they have a "good impression" of Christianity.
One of the groups hit hardest by the criticism is evangelicals. Such believers have always been viewed with skepticism in the broader culture. However, those negative views are crystallizing and intensifying among young non-Christians. The new study shows that only 3% of 16 - to 29-year-old non-Christians express favorable views of evangelicals. This means that today’s young non-Christians are eight times less likely to experience positive associations toward evangelicals than were non-Christians of the Boomer generation (25%).

The research shows that many Christians are innately aware of this shift in people’s perceptions of Christianity: 91% of the nation’s evangelicals believe that "Americans are becoming more hostile and negative toward Christianity." Among senior pastors, half contend that "ministry is more difficult than ever before because people are increasingly hostile and negative toward Christianity."

This is a very alarming finding. It really bodes ill as a major cultural shift away form a positive image for Christianity can only be a prelude to the decline of Christianity as a major cultural force. Christianity as a "cultural force" was a tenuous propagation at best anyway. We never did actually live up to the teachings of Jesus, now Jesus is perceived less as a positive cultural icon.

I had a professor at Perkins who used to say that Christianity is just 'something to leave the grand kids" meaning he had written off his own children as former believers. He felt that the faith would have to skip a generation. This was more than a decade ago. But the thing is, if it skips a generation, how can it even be available to the grandkids?

Least we think our efforts at apologetics are colossal failures, this shit has nothing to do with message boards or the issues we argue on them.It is not the victory fo the atheists and has nothing to do with the "new atheists" or the Dawkinisians. We Christians can take comfort in the fact that we shot ourselves in the foot.

The Set of Perceptions

While Christianity has typically generated an uneven reputation, the research shows that many of the most common critiques are becoming more concentrated. The study explored twenty specific images related to Christianity, including ten favorable and ten unfavorable perceptions. Among young non-Christians, nine out of the top 12 perceptions were negative. Common negative perceptions include that present-day Christianity is judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), old-fashioned (78%), and too involved in politics (75%) - representing large proportions of young outsiders who attach these negative labels to Christians. The most common favorable perceptions were that Christianity teaches the same basic ideas as other religions (82%), has good values and principles (76%), is friendly (71%), and is a faith they respect (55%).
Even among young Christians, many of the negative images generated significant traction. Half of young churchgoers said they perceive Christianity to be judgmental, hypocritical, and too political. One-third said it was old-fashioned and out of touch with reality.

One surprise in the data is the direction taken by positive perception of gays and how that plays out against Christianity:

Interestingly, the study discovered a new image that has steadily grown in prominence over the last decade. Today, the most common perception is that present-day Christianity is "anti-homosexual." Overall, 91% of young non-Christians and 80% of young churchgoers say this phrase describes Christianity. As the research probed this perception, non-Christians and Christians explained that beyond their recognition that Christians oppose homosexuality, they believe that Christians show excessive contempt and unloving attitudes towards gays and lesbians. One of the most frequent criticisms of young Christians was that they believe the church has made homosexuality a "bigger sin" than anything else. Moreover, they claim that the church has not helped them apply the biblical teaching on homosexuality to their friendships with gays and lesbians.

this would never have happened in the America of my childhood. In those days you could on bigotry. It is a shock to me that this has happened.I would never have thought that gayness would be accepted to such an extent that to counter it would be such a huge negative that it would poison the image of even fundamental social institution as Christianity. This causes me to question "is Christianity still a social institution in America?" If not I think I have some surprising analysis as to why it is not. But I will save that of the piece. just suffice to say or now th ti sis indeed an ill portent for an old sociology major.

While the majority of young people still identify Jesus as a positive figure (although I am shocked by what little esteem he is held among atheist ranks) there is less connection with the Church or with Christians as upholders of Jesus' values:

The ‘UnChristian’ Label
When young people were asked to identify their impressions of Christianity, one of the common themes was "Christianity is changed from what it used to be" and "Christianity in today’s society no longer looks like Jesus." These comments were the most frequent unprompted images that young people called to mind, mentioned by one-quarter of both young non-Christians (23%) and born again Christians (22%).
Kinnaman explained, "That’s where the term 'unChristian' came from. Young people are very candid. In our interviews, we kept encountering young people - both those inside the church and outside of it - who said that something was broken in the present-day expression of Christianity. Their perceptions about Christianity were not always accurate, but what surprised me was not only the severity of their frustration with Christians, but also how frequently young born again Christians expressed some of the very same comments as young non-Christians."

yet the most significant finding in the study is demographic. It illustrates clearly that Christianity is over in America. While it will still be around in major strength throughout the next few presidential elections, it will decline more an more until the grand kids of generation y wont even know what it was:

Changing Allegiances

One reason that Christianity’s image is changing is due to the shifting faith allegiances of Americans. Simply put, each new generation has a larger share of people who are not Christians (that is, atheists, agnostics, people associated with another faith, or those who have essentially no faith orientation). The new book refers to this group as "outsiders" because they are describing what Christianity looks like from an outsider’s perspective. Among adults over the age of 40, only about one-quarter qualify as outsiders, while among the 16 to 29 segment, two-fifths are outsiders. This represents a significant migration away from the dominant role that Christianity has had in America.

The Proportion of those "Outside"
Christianity is Growing with Each Generation

Source: The Barna Group, Ltd. 2007

As pointed out in the Barna Update related to atheists and agnostics, this is not a passing fad wherein young people will become "more Christian" as they grow up. While Christianity remains the typical experience and most common faith in America, a fundamental recalibration is occurring within the spiritual allegiance of America’s upcoming generations.
Yet, the research shows that millions of young outsiders have significant experience with Christians and Christian churches. The typical young outsider says they have five friends who are Christians; more than four out of five have attended a Christian church for a period of at least six months in the past; and half have previously considered becoming a Christian.
"Older generations more easily dismiss the criticism of those who are outsiders," Kinnaman said. "But we discovered that young leaders and young Christians are more aware of and concerned about the views of outsiders, because they are more likely to interact closely with such people. Their life is more deeply affected by the negative image of Christianity. For them, what Christianity looks like from an outsider’s perspective has greater relevance, because outsiders are more likely to be schoolmates, colleagues, and friends."

Kinnaman makes his own observations:

Responding to the Research

David Kinnaman, who is a 12-year-veteran of the Barna team, pointed out some of the unexpected findings of the research. "Going into this three-year project, I assumed that people’s perceptions were generally soft, based on misinformation, and would gradually morph into more traditional views. But then, as we probed why young people had come to such conclusions, I was surprised how much their perceptions were rooted in specific stories and personal interactions with Christians and in churches. When they labeled Christians as judgmental this was not merely spiritual defensiveness. It was frequently the result of truly ‘unChristian’ experiences. We discovered that the descriptions that young people offered of Christianity were more thoughtful, nuanced, and experiential than expected."

"Some Christians fear the changing reputation of Christianity and it certainly represents an uncomfortable future. Yet, rather than being defensive or dismissive, we should learn from critics, especially those young Christians who are expressing consternation about the state of faith in America. Jesus told us to expect hostility and negative reactions. That is certainly nothing new. But the issue is what we do with it. Is it a chance to defend yourself and demand your rights? Or is it an opportunity to show people grace and truth? Common ground is becoming more difficult to find between Christians and those outside the faith. When the Apostle Paul advises believers to 'live wisely among those who are not Christians' and to 'let your conversation be gracious and effective,' (Colossians 4:5-6, NLT) he could be writing no better advice to committed Christians in America." The book also includes exclusive perspective from 30 Christian leaders, including Mark Batterson, Chuck Colson, Louie Giglio, Dan Kimball, Brian McLaren, Kevin Palau, John Stott, and Rick Warren. Kinnaman described their contribution as an effort "to make sense of the complex and challenging project - both why the problems exist as well as what Christians ought to do in response to the information. We looked for the biblical space in order to respond to the sharpest criticism. Beyond simply reporting the problems that we discovered among a skeptical generation, my partner Gabe Lyons and I want the book to help Christians find a way forward, to read positive examples and find hope that their life can provide a clearer picture of Jesus to skeptical people around them."

We we should fear the results it' sa total disaster, I am not surprised, however, this shift has been in the making for over a decade. I first realized it would come in the late 80s when reading Bonehoffer's letters and papers from prison. Bonehoeffer says that the attempts of fundamentalists to turn back the clock merely seeded it up. The logic there is the attempt to go back bring to a head conflicts brewing between traditionalists and those of a nostalgic bent, with those who are caught in the train of new styles and fashions. If the conflict occurs too early, before the traditionalists factions are able to deal with the necessary compromises and if the forces of change have gathered momentum, the changes will come and the clock will speed up. I realized this would happen as a result of the Reagan era. Sure enough we had the postmodern boom of the first part of the 90s and the gay lib movement that succeeded to such wild degree that they got 90% of non gays to push their line. It has something to do with treating people fairly or something I don't understand it (yes, atheists that is that "sarcasm stuff").

As the research indicates, this is not the result of political pressure or advertising it has to do with the insular subculture of fundamentalism. If Evangelicals do not learn this now we are doomed. Rather a lot of people are doomed who would otherwise find Jesus, and we will have a much harder time of it in the apologetics racket. We, American evangelicals, because a subculture that was so arrogant and contemptuous of the rest of society that we alienated everyone else and failed to grasp the changes as the happened. I'm extrapolating fr

There are some other trends that I believe have added to the reaction. In Eastern Europe we saw that after the cold war and the fall of communism major trends of secularism set in. Why? People hung on to faith all those years that they were under the gun and when they are free to seek God, they give up and seek consumer goods and discos instead.It's because there is something very alluring about modern autonomy. When they no longer needed faith as a social cohesion to stand oppression, they are free to seek modern autonomy. This exacerbates the trend because no one is more into modern autonomy than Americans. As long as it was confined to consumer products that was ok, America remained predominately Christian, but Christians sought wealth and spent opulently and allowed themselves to become vapid and uneducated. Part of that consumer society came to reflect the idea of sexual preference. People began to understand themselves as "sensual beings" and what had previously been understood as "dark forces of libido" became a basic human right. One that happened you really can't go back. you can't put that back in the bottle and return to the simple days of "the old time Gospel hour." Once you realize that you are sexual being and you have a "preference" and it's your right to explore what that is, you cannot return to the good old days of innocent virtue. This changes the way people see themselves and the way they understand how to be in the world, as long as we haven't grasped that we can't relate to them. The two groups are alien creatures to each other.

In summation it is really Bonehoeffer who proves to be the prophetic force here, and who may be our guide. His idea that modern man had come of age scandalized the Evangelical world. Bonehoeffer said this while in prison waiting to be executed for taking part in the plot to kill Hitler. Many wondered how the heck could he say that this insane frenzied Nazi culture had "come of age?" Because he didn't say it grew up to be a "splendid young person" only that it was old to be kept under the tutor. No German society had grown up dysfunctional but it was still too old for knee paints. This is what has happened in America. We are not the fine young adults we wish we were, he have issues. We have problems, but we are grown. We are no longer willing to be kept under the tutelage of the Church. We are now independent, bearers fo modern autonomy and we are going make our own mistakes.

That is just what we are going to do.

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