Facing the unChristian reality

Times were hard for the single mother and her 4-year-old son, so she did what hurting people often do -- she joined a church seeking solace and support. But there was a problem, one that drove her right back out of the pews.

"Everyone told me what to do as a parent," she told pollster David Kinnaman, "but no one bothered to help."

This blunt encounter wasn't one of the formal interviews that led Kinnaman and social activist Gabe Lyons to write their book, "unChristian: What a new generation really thinks about Christianity ... and why it matters." But what the young mother said was painfully consistent with what they heard time after time during three years of research, as they focused on the concerns of Americans between the ages of 16 and 29.

The problem wasn't that she was turned off by the Christian faith or that she was an outsider who had never stepped inside a set of church doors, said Kinnaman, leader of the Barna Group in Ventura, Calif., where he has led nearly 500 research projects for both secular and religious clients.

From this woman's perspective, it was crucial that her anger and disappointment were rooted, not in ignorance or nasty media stereotypes, but in her own close encounters with Christians. She believed that real, live Christians had failed to treat her in a Christian manner -- leaving her burned and bitter.

Growing numbers of young "outsiders" say they know exactly how she feels.

"Most Mosaics and Busters ... have an enormous amount of firsthand experience with Christians and the Christian faith," wrote Kinnaman and Lyons, referring to Americans born after the massive Baby Boom. "The vast majority of outsiders within the Mosaic and Buster generations have been to church before; most have attended at least one church for several months; and nearly nine out of every 10 say they know Christians personally, having about five friends who are believers."

Here's the bottom line, according to their research: "Christians are primarily perceived for what they stand against. We have become famous for what we oppose, rather than what we are for."

To be blunt, young "outsiders" think that modern Christians are hypocritical, judgmental, clueless fanatics who choose to live in protective bubbles, except when they venture out to attack homosexuals, run right-wing political campaigns and proselytize innocent people who would rather be left alone. Things are getting so bad that many young Christians -- especially evangelicals -- say they are embarrassed to discuss faith issues with their friends.

It's easy to tap into this kind of hostility and get angry or scared or both, said Kinnaman, speaking at the annual Presidents Conference of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C. Some religious leaders may even be tempted to rush into changes that compromise essential doctrines.

"The thing that we don't want to do is take a poll, figure out what kind of faith people want, and then just create Christianity in that sort of image," he said. "What I am not saying is that we change this, that we somehow lose touch with the biblical reasons why these perceptions exist.

"Jesus talks about sin. The Bible is clear about our brokenness. This is going to lead to the perception, sometimes, that we are judgmental."

But pastors, educators and other religious leaders must realize, Kinnaman insisted, that attitudes among young Americans have truly changed. The culture has moved light years past the skeptical attitudes that believers faced in earlier generations, when many young people rebelled and then, as they grew older, returned to traditional forms of faith.

At some point, he stressed, church leaders must find ways to listen to their critics and take their concerns seriously.

This will lead to hard questions. Can Americans listen to Christians in other parts of the world? Can religious leaders tune in signals from mass media? Can older Christians hear the voices of young people who struggle with pornography, who express their fears by cutting their own bodies, who struggle with issues of sexual identity?

"We have been the party in power for several hundred years," said Kinnaman. "That gives us a different kind of challenge, a different set of opportunities. ... We have been so busy trying to be a Christian nation that I think we may have forgotten what it means to follow Christ.

Canterbury's 'unique' statement

As the college student knelt at the altar rail, another parishioner pointed accusingly and loudly said: "Don't give him communion. He does not believe. He is mocking us all."

Stunned, Father George Carey asked the student for his response. He looked up and said: "I am confirmed. I am here because I want to follow." The priest served him communion.

This scene occurred at St. Nicholas Parish in Durham, England, years before Carey began his decade-plus service as the 103rd Archbishop of Canterbury. Today, he still uses this story as a parable about spiritual seekers and those who are quick to judge.

But this kind of story has several levels, said the archbishop, speaking last week at the 25th anniversary celebration of the Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pa. The student's simple confession indicated that he wanted to start a journey. What spiritual leaders are supposed to do is embrace seekers and show them where God wants them to go.

This implies that there is an ultimate destination and even a true path. It is a sign of the times that making such a claim is controversial. So be it. Carey said he was delighted that the primates of the worldwide Anglican Communion recently took just such a stand.

They said: "We believe that God the eternal Son became human for our sake and that in the flesh and blood of Jesus of Nazareth God was uniquely present and active." The archbishop added: "The statement is a full-blooded recommitment to the historic faith of the church. And to that wisdom of glory and weakness all Christians commit themselves."

The key words in the primate's statement are "uniquely present." Many Anglicans, especially in the Third World, are convinced their communion's powerful left wing believes that all spiritual paths are ultimately the same and have the same end. Jesus is one path to salvation, clarity, enlightenment or whatever. But other paths work just as well.

This fundamental disagreement leads to legions of bitter conflicts about biblical authority, creeds, sacraments and, of course, sexuality.

"God has given us sexuality. It is a mysterious gift," Carey told a circle of reporters, before his address. "But I'm of the belief, and I have been consistent on this throughout my tenure, that any sexual relationships beyond the confines of heterosexual marriage is a deviation from scripture. ... I don't approve of that."

The archbishop is used to hearing this question, because fights over the status of sexual acts outside of marriage have been tearing up the Anglican Communion for decades. This is true of virtually all mainline religious groups.

While known as conservative, Carey is - in keeping with the style of his office - a soft-spoken British diplomat who strives not to tread on ecclesiastical toes. He knew that he was in the United States and that its Episcopal hierarchy has a de facto policy of ordaining non-celibate gays and lesbians and allowing same-sex union rites. A church court has ruled that Episcopalians have no "core doctrines" on marriage and sex.

Yet Carey was speaking at an evangelical seminary, one that has served as a strategic bridge to Anglicans in the Third World, especially Africa and Asia. Thus, he gave journalists a candid answer and repeated this stance in his speech.

It is impossible to separate theology and morality, stressed the archbishop. At some point, church politics bleed into real life. The political becomes the personal.

"There have to be boundaries to pastoral care which result in pastoral discipline, just as there are boundaries to doctrinal orthodoxy," he said. "To say, 'Jesus is Lord,' is to accept his discipline. It is to place ourselves under his obedience. We cannot do what we please or believe whatever we decide suits us personally."

There are those who disagree, often hiding their views in lofty language. Carey said he was reminded of one jester's version of the Caesarea Phillippi encounter which begins with Jesus asking Peter: "Who do men say that I am?"

A postmodern Peter might answer: "You are the existentialist flux of Being shimmering in the signifying chains of inchoate Reality. You are the pre-existent Ground of our Being."

To which, Carey noted, Jesus would certainly reply: "I am WHAT?"