A seldom-referenced New Testament passage helps explain why so many young adults are not in Christian churches today. The Apostle Paul reminded the Corinthians not to associate with sexually immoral people (1 Corinthians 5:9).
Then he clarified that he did not at all mean the people of this world who are immoral and sinners. “In that case, you would have to leave this world. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Exercise judgment on those inside. God will judge those outside.”
In the last several decades a critical balance shifted in the United States. While the majority of Americans still consider themselves Christian, less than half are churched. Yet many preachers continue to operate as if the United States is a Christian nation where Judeo-Christian ethics still apply to all. It is time to teach ourselves to think like Paul and the early Christians living in the pagan Roman Empire.
The current movement toward applying equal rights to homosexuals and marital status to same-sex couples happened quickly in terms of social movements. Young adults take these rights as self-evident. Yet what they hear from so many church leaders is, to them, extremely prejudicial, old fashioned and anything but loving. The result is predictable.
The movement toward applying equal rights to homosexuals and marital status to same-sex couples happened quickly in terms of social movements. Young adults take these rights as self-evident. Yet what they hear from so many church leaders is, to them, extremely prejudicial, old-fashioned and anything but loving.
Based on a recent survey, Brian Kinnaman in his book UnChristian observes that 16-29 year-olds who consider themselves outside Christianity are about 40% of their age group. Among them, 91% see Christianity as anti-homosexual, 87% as judgmental, 85% as hypocritical, 78% as old-fashioned, 75% as too involved in politics, 72% as out of touch with reality. If this is how they see Christianity, what could Christian churches offer them? Recognize also that this generation grew up being warned to stay away from priests who might be child molesters.
Church loyalties are swiftly disappearing. The basic Christian challenge in America now is to demonstrate the practical value of biblical beliefs and teaching for daily living. But the audience out there is no longer just neutral. Many are actively hostile.
One challenge is to help preachers and others who follow the heritage of John Calvin realize that they can no longer presume to project the norms of reformed Christian behavior on the whole nation. Whether or not the United States was Christian at the beginning is irrelevant. We aren’t anymore. For churched Christians, applying those norms in the present culture takes wisdom and sensitivity based on love, not anger.
Paul and the Christ followers in the early centuries knew how to handle themselves as a small minority in a very hostile culture. They had to base their appeal to others on the quality of relationships developed in their fellowships. Theirs was a loving God who interacted with his people through his special Spirit. Our Christian challenge today is to live and witness like early-century Christians in a nation that is no longer predominantly Christian. To do so will be a radical challenge for many preachers and congregations.
Perception is reality in our complicated society. Brian Kinnaman presents well the challenge of today. We can learn to respond to the unchurched by acting the way Jesus did. This means reacting to criticism with the right perspective—not dismissing it as unwarranted, not being defined by it, and by considering the below-the-surface motivations. In other words, we have to be defined by our service and sacrifice, by lives exuding humility and grace. If a young outsider can’t see Jesus in our lives, it is up to us to solve our ‘hidden Jesus problem.’
Kinnaman is a research associate of George Barna, known especially for his surveys reported in The Frog in the Kettle. He used the analogy of a frog which doesn’t sense rising temperature until it is cooked to death. The dying of frog-like churches is now happening.