Three years of groundbreaking research by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons through The Barna Group,provided insight into how sixteen to twenty-nine-year olds, who consider themselves “outsiders” of the Christian faith, perceive Christianity. Their study results are consolidated in Unchristian: What a new Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…and Why It Matters. Their findings are grim and are meant to be a “mirror for (readers) to see (themselves) and (their) faith more clearly.”
The focus group values relationship, belonging, and individualism. They tend to embrace fair-mindedness and diversity. They are skeptical of leaders, products, and institutions, especially those that seem too perfect. They move comfortably from one thing to another, especially if that thing isn’t fulfilling their needs. Many in this group deem spirituality as important, but faith is just part of a successful life. “Outsiders” overall impression of Christianity is lackluster; their overall impression of “born again” Christians is grim, as they see this group of Christians more for what they are against, rather than what they are for. The most common perceptions revolve around six main themes, where Christians are hypocritical, focused on getting converts, antihomosexual, sheltered, too political, and judgmental. They also believe Christians are old-fashioned, out of touch with reality, insensitive, boring, not accepting of other faiths, and confusing. Though these study results were compiled in 2007, I’d argue little has changed regarding the perception many have of Christianity. In fact, I wonder if these perceptions haven’t intensified in light of the political and religious climate we are currently in?
Kinnaman and Lyons expound upon the six main themes throughout the book, and reach the conclusion that Christians must: relate with people as Jesus related with people, through relationship and friendship; communicate in creative ways; serve and esteem others by listening and being present with them; embrace compassion and truly see other people; and regain a vision and deep love for Jesus, while accepting others as they are, thereby dissolving the us-versus-them paradigm.
In this extensive analysis, repentance is passively mentioned near the conclusion, but I believe is an absolutely necessity before all other reparative steps can be taken. Furthermore, noticeably absent, but woven throughout the text, is evidence of shame driven religiosity by those who profess to be “born again.”
In Tired of Trying to Measure Up, Jeff VanVonderen notes characteristics of shame-based systems, which include:
- Out loud shaming, name calling, telling people, “You don’t measure up.”
- Performance-oriented culture
- Numerous unspoken rules
- Speaking in code, or using a particular language that’s confusing to others
- Idolatry by maintaining excellence and pride, at the expense of truth telling
- Difficulty with kids being kids, teens being teens, etc.
- Preoccupation with fault and blame
- Strong head skills with defensive posturing
- Weak on heart skills, including low emotional self-awareness, compassion, and empathy
- The appearance their needs are being met, while knowing they are not loved, accepted, capable, or worthwhile; people feel isolated and alone.
Though Christianity is vast in its practice and belief, “outsiders” in this study categorize Christians into one basket. That basket primarily contains very conservative evangelical Christians. This group of Christians are by far the loudest and most prominent in the Christian realm. Sadly, they are also spiritually unhealthy and shame driven. Having come from such a background, I know first-hand how toxic such beliefs and practices are.
These Christians are always sinners saved by grace, but still sinners. They adhere to prescriptive behaviors to “prove” they are good Christians, such as passionate worship, friendships with other believers, pursuing faith within their family home, embracing practices such a weekly worship and bible studies, serving others, investing time in spiritual pursuits, and having faith based conversations with outsiders (for the purpose of converting them to Christianity).While these sound holy and good, each practice is riddled with an undercurrent of shame. Their simplistic theological perspective where “the bible clearly says…” makes conversation with them difficult. Nuance and mystery have no place in a belief system that predicates itself on certainty and assurance.
I had a seminary professor say, “Shame drives sin.” As soon as she said this, I knew it was true. Shame didn’t enter into creation after sin, but before. Adam and Eve weren’t rebellious, deliberately disobeying God. They had no reason to doubt God’s love for them. When the Serpent entered and asked the questions, thoughts of lack of worthiness entered. It wasn’t they doubted God’s love for them, it was they doubted they were worthy enough of God’s love for them. Thus, they reached out to the forbidden tree to make themselves more worthy. They believed they weren’t enough, so they tried to fill their “I am enough” buckets by taking control and seeking certainty. Adam and Eve weren’t willful, they felt shameful, which in turn drove them to sin. They then became shame-filled.
Behavior modification, trying hard not to sin anymore, will never bring us closer to the heart of God. Allowing God to heal wounds of unworthiness and shame that reside deep within each of us, deep within our churches, especially our conservative evangelical churches, is absolutely necessary before “outsiders” experience Christians we are called to be. Until then, the loud, self-righteous, performance driven, and judgmental Christian religion will continue to be offensive to those looking in.
Shame has crippled the church for far too long. It’s time to start living into the Grace and Love of God, but to do so requires a willingness to step into Mystery and Unknown. It requires people to lean into the dark places of their hearts and find healing through counseling, spiritual direction, and transformational experiences with the Divine. It requires an opening of our hands to welcome all to the Table, scales to be removed from our eyes so we can see creation as God sees creation, and ears to be open to Truth, whatever form that comes in. The Bible doesn’t “clearly say” anything but does try to reveal a God who clearly loves all people, in all places, and at all times. It is this God that I hope emerges from the spaces of COVID19 isolation. It is this God I hope is revealed to the world through a quiet uprising of God’s people that are defined by what they are for, rather than what they are against. May those on the “outside” see our words and deeds align, revealing we are unequivocally for Love and Grace. In such revelation, few will find offense.
 ““In its 30-year history, Barna Group has conducted more than one million interviews over the course of hundreds of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith and culture, leadership and vocation, and generations. Barna Group has carefully and strategically tracked the role of faith in America, developing one of the nation’s most comprehensive databases of spiritual indicators.” Taken from The Barna Group “About” page. Accessed April 14, 2020. https://www.barna.com/about/.
 David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…and Why It Matters. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007) 17.
 Ibid., 20-21.
 Ibid., 27-28.
 Ibid., 25.
 Ibid., 203-218.
 Jeff VanVonderen. Tired of Trying to Measure Up: Getting Free from the Demands, Expectations, and Intimidation of Well-Meaning People. (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1989) 49-61.
 Kinnaman and Lyons, 78.