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Avoiding "unChristian" Preaching

by David Kinnaman

Being a Christian in America is harder than ever.

People are expressing more hostility, doubt, frustration and skepticism toward Christianity – and this is particularly true among young people. Their perceptions of Christians are filled with images of judgmentalism, hypocritical lifestyles and political activism. They also believe Christians have singled out homosexuality above all other sins. They conclude that Christianity is old-fashioned, boring and unintelligent, and that Christians are insincere and too focused on getting converts. The followers of the Prince of Peace are thought to be unable to live peaceably among others.

These may sound like harsh statements, but they spring from extensive research we have done with Americans ages 16 to 29.  Whatever your impressions, these negative views are front and center in the minds of young people in our culture.  In just a decade, the perception of evangelicals has become eight times less favorable among young non-Christians when compared to the image held by Boomer non-Christians.

In fact, one of the most common reactions that young people have about the faith is that present-day Christianity is no longer like Jesus intended.  This is where we initially came upon the term “unChristian.”  In our research with young people, they kept saying things like, “Christians go about things in an unChristian manner.” 

“They have forgotten the point of what it means to be a Christian.”

“The faith has gotten off track with the teachings of Jesus.”


Put Off by Criticism?

When my partner, Gabe Lyons of the Fermi Project, first encountered this, we were both surprised and a little put off.  Are young people right?  Doesn’t Jesus promise that we’ll be persecuted and unloved for following Christ?

Of course.

Yet, the question that nagged at us for several years was this:  what if they are reacting – not to our righteous lifestyles – but to our self-righteousness?  What if we are not actually following Christ in the way we should?  Would that change the balance of culpability?

Of course it would.

As we wrestled with this, new passages of Scripture started to become vivid reminders that, while we may be misunderstood, Christians do not get a free pass to offend their neighbors. We began to meditate on verses like Romans 2:24 – “the world blasphemes the name of God” because of hypocritical faith. And Colossians 4:5-6 – “live wisely among those who are not Christians,” with “gracious and effective” conversation.

While those outside Christianity may not always perceive us accurately, those of us on the “inside” of the faith also have dangerous assumptions that undo our witness.  Here are three unexpected, yet fascinating insights we learned.  First, most non-Christians in America today have a great deal of experience in Christian churches and with Christians.  Most non-Christians are actually de-churched individuals.

Second, the negative perceptions are often just as common among young Christians as they are among young non-Christians.  This means that whether we want to admit it or not, these are not merely image issues for outsiders, but issues of real substance with which young churchgoers wrestle.

Third, we were surprised to find how often young non-Christians communicated nuance and profound insight.  They frequently mentioned that their negative views of Christians were confounded by someone who provided an entirely different, vibrant picture of what it means to be a Christian.  One insightful comment was this:  “I know all you Christians are not bad because I have had a few conversations with Christians I respect.  Basically, I respect them because they respect me.”


Preaching in an unChristian World

If it is harder to be a Christian, it is also more difficult than ever to teach and preach. How does a messenger of God strike the right balance between grace and truth? How does a teacher of the Bible help point people toward a holy God, without creating the opposite effect of putting up false barriers to Him? I don’t have to remind you that Scriptures provide an incredibly high standard for teachers (see Matthew 23:13; Luke 11:52, and James 3:1).

As part of this responsibility, you have one clear responsibility:  maintaining the healthy balance of truth and grace.  Without truth, this generation continues to slip into moral and spiritual hyper-individualism.  Without grace, the unique message of Jesus’ unconditional acceptance is lost to a works-based regimen.  At the most basic level, your preaching and teaching has to provide both of those elements of Jesus’ character (see John 1:14).

One of my friends, Nick, pointed out something really fascinating about truth and grace:  these are not things to be held in tension, like competing teams at tug-of-war.  Grace and truth are embodied in the same person, Jesus.  They seek to accomplish the same thing:  bringing our lives into alignment with God.  One person does not need “just truth” and another “just grace.”  Every soul needs full doses of grace and truth.  Your preaching and teaching should deliver both elements with potency.


Wrangling a Diverse Audience

While everyone possesses a unique soul, consider that there are fairly common types of people to whom you communicate each week.  Your efforts to avoid unChristian preaching might be aided by these prototypical profiles and stories.

  • Deep Danielle. She knows Scripture well, and operates on the basis of a biblical worldview. She loves the truth and resonates with the transcendence of God. Still, Danielle’s struggle is with pride. As Paul writes in Galatians, having begun her life in the Spirit, her pitfall is that she now subtly tries to perfect that spiritual life through human effort. She tries hard to live up to her perceived “strict standards” of following Christ, but she easily forgets that it is “for freedom that she has been set free…not freedom to sin, but freedom to love.” (Galatians 5:13).

  • Stagnant Steve believes in and accepts Jesus as his Savior, but also has shown very little spiritual growth of late.  He tends to think in very black and white terms, and is more concerned about getting something from church than giving himself to the church.  If you could put Steve into a time machine, he would be scandalized by Jesus’ friendship with sinners and tax collectors.  He is easily offended by a broken world, but doesn’t know what to do about it – or frankly, care much.  The depth of how much God has forgiven and loves him is typically lost on Steve, so it is easy to slip into judging others to feel better about himself.

  • Curious Carol is a person who knows enough about spirituality and the Bible to be dangerous, but she is not a committed, born-again Christian.  Don’t misunderstand:  she often calls herself Christian, but she doesn’t really think of herself as a Christ follower above other roles and responsibilities she has.  While you might consider Carol a seeker, she rarely feels lost or confused about much.  There are more Carols in your congregation each week than you probably suspect, because she looks the part and seems encouraged by your sermons.  She sees the world in more shades of gray than does Steve, but doesn’t really have a cohesive biblical perspective from which she lives and worships.

  • Angry Andy has been hurt by churches.  He might admit to his closest friends that he is really an agnostic, but he puts on the best face possible when he comes to church.  Sometimes, however, his past disappointments and frustrations with other Christians get the best of him.  He is usually more contentious about things and, paradoxically, usually much less pretentious.  He doesn’t try to look good; he let’s people see all his junk and hang-ups.  Andy figures you might as well tell people how you really feel, and his critique of his fellow churchgoers is that they are not authentic or transparent enough.  Yet, Andy has never really been healed from his hurts, so his transparency always has a hard edge.

Perhaps you have other types of people in your church.  How do their unique profiles affect their viewpoints and opportunities for spiritual growth?  The key insight here is that you have to figure out how to move many different people along.  Danielle moves from point R to point S.  Another person has to be moved from point A to point C; others from point Y back to point R.  How can you manage such diverse goals?

As a pastor, you’re far more of an expert than a person who examines numbers and statistics everyday.  A researcher cannot presume to tell you how to do the task for which God has gifted you.  Yet, here are some insights from my research -- interviews with the very type of people who listen to your teachings week after week.  Here are some ways I think you might avoid “unChristian” preaching.  And by unChristian preaching, I simply mean communication that sounds good but fails to produce much spiritual depth in people.

  1. Realize that there is a common thread connecting Danielle, Steve, Carol, and Andy:  an inflated sense of self-confidence and personal reassurance.  This is the viewpoint that says, Critics must be “wrong” since I am most certainly “right.”  People have a very difficult time seeing themselves in plain light.   I believe one of the most important roles for biblical communicators is to help people see their own myopia.  Jesus was just as concerned with self-righteousness as he was with unrighteousness.

  2. A related theme is self-absorption.  People can’t see themselves clearly and they also can’t empathize with how other people see the world.  Consequently, the church often perpetuates us-versus-them thinking, even though it is the only place in the universe where such categories should not exist.  Christians need to be cultivating hearts for outsiders, just like Jesus did – pursuing and rescuing and restoring the broken parts of our world.  Are you motivating people to fear the world and to condemn it?  Or are you helping them catch a vision to lay down their own lives – figuratively and literally – to save people?

  3. In re-orienting people’s perspectives, it is important for people to feel the weight of their everyday conversations and mundane relational choices.  How do their words and attitudes affect the people around them?  This is especially important when people’s interactions with Christians often create barriers to experiencing and understanding Jesus.  Did you know, for instance, that one of the most common reasons that people become unchurched is because of the hypocrisy and pretentiousness of churchgoers?  We need to help people understand the consequences of their unChristian behaviors, but also communicate that Jesus still loves us, despite our flaws.

  4. One of the remarkable themes of the New Testament that seems too rare is the insider-outsider dynamic.  This is hard for Americans – a very Christianized people with a rich Christian tradition – to fully comprehend.  But Paul, living in a clearly non-Christian context, never seems to defend his rights as a Christian.  Instead, Paul seems to accept a sinful and broken world, while holding the people of Christ to account.  He is constantly writing in this dual role.  He is an apostle (a leader of churches) and missionary (an apologist and evangelist to outsiders).  He calls the Christian community to high standards and yet reaffirms that these standards do not apply to those outside Christianity (1 Corinthians 5 is one of the best examples of this).  What is the point for preaching today?  Since your preaching is heard by both Christians and non-Christians, you are both a leader of Christians as well as a missionary to unbelievers.  Finding that right balance is incredibly difficult, but it can be done, with the help of the Holy Spirit.  Part of this task, I believe, is to help your people see their role as missionaries to a culture that is now effectively post-Christian.  You have to help train them to see the world in the same way Paul did.

And, church leaders, I have one final encouragement for you, personally.  Keep in mind that your decisions as a teacher ought to be courageous.  This includes the courage to tell the bold truth as well as the courage to exhibit unhindered grace.  Interestingly enough, I have interacted with many pastors who say that it is much harder to defy the expectations of the Deep Danielles and Stagnant Steves.  It is tempting to preach so that the insiders (i.e., the most generous donors to the organization) feel comforted and esteemed.

But you don’t preach or teach for the approval of human beings.  You do so for the honor and glory and pleasure of a living God who chooses to speak his ways through you.  The life of Jesus and the testimony of Paul attest to the scandalous nature of the Gospel.  Sometimes God is most honored when we make religious insiders uncomfortable.  Are you making your best disciples squirm under the weight of truth and grace?

It is more complex than ever to be a pastor today in America.  And while that creates new and uncharted challenges, I believe this can be the heyday for biblical ministry in our country.


David Kinnaman is president of The Barna Group, Ltd. in Ventura, California (www.barna.org). His book explores more on this subject. It is called, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…And Why It Matters (Baker).