“Not Enough to Be Transformed”: An Interview with David Kinnaman (May-Jun 2008)

By Matt Dabbs

by Keith Brenton
May – June, 2008

David Kinnaman is president of the Barna Group, the research firm formed by George Barna. Challenged by his friend Gabe Lyons of the Fermi Project, Kinnaman undertook a monumental study of how Christians are perceived – especially by those who do not consider themselves to be Christians. Their findings were that Christians are perceived as hypocritical, pushy about salvation, anti-homosexual, sheltered, too politically involved, and judgmental. Each of those perceptions merited a chapter in the book that summarizes the study, which they titled unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity … and Why It Matters (published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group).

The Making of a DiscipleNew Wineskins: This is a book you undertook to write with a lot of getting into the trenches and asking a lot of questions. It has the potential to be one of those books that people will look at like Jim and Casper Go To Church (by Jim Henderson and Matt Casper), or They Like Jesus But Not the Church (by Dan Kimball). What’s been the reaction so far to unChristian?

David Kinnaman: I think it’s been, overall, quite constructive. There has been, certainly, some criticism, but overall I’ve been surprised to find people responding well; responding with a sense of repentance about ways they’ve personally or corporately been out-of-whack with how Jesus wants them to represent a holy and just God to their co-workers, to their neighbors, to their non-Christian friends. I’ve been pleased with the fact that people who are soft-hearted and can hear the message, seem to do so and want to make positive changes to make a difference.

New Wineskins: You expressed a little bit of troublement over what to call people who are not Christians in the book. How did you settle on “outsiders” as a descriptive term?

David Kinnaman: The terms “non-Christian” or “seeker” – some of our common nomenclature – was too much of an “us-vs.-them;” too black-and-white in our descriptions of people. And “outsiders” also has the possibility of being that, although it makes the point that we really do think of people in ways that we shouldn’t. We think of them in broad categories rather than as people. And most importantly, I was trying to make the point “What does Christianity look like from an outsider’s perspective?” To say “non-Christian” or to say “seeker” doesn’t have the same power as saying “We are insiders; what does our faith look like, act like and feel like to somebody who’s on the outside looking in?”.

New Wineskins: You went to a great deal of trouble to research this book, and you could have a great statistical analysis without a lot of commentary. Why did you choose to go into background of the research, possible solutions to the problem, even to contact Christian leaders to get their reactions to the subjects that you’ve covered?

David Kinnaman: Most people don’t have a lot of familiarity with statistical analysis and interpretation. I do this every day for a living; for a lot of different clients and organizations, so the numbers for me have skin and bones and blood; they tell a story. I was trying to help put flesh to the numbers so that people could really react to it; to consider what to do with it. It didn’t actually start as a book project; we didn’t commission the study to end up as a book. We commissioned it as a series of studies to understand why people have barriers to Christ; why do people seem to misunderstand what it means to be an evangelical. We wanted to help provide a broader, lay-person understanding of what it means to be a Christian through why people often misunderstand that.

The idea of including a lot of these other leaders was that we think that things are shifting in a significant way; that even though the problem of Christians being misunderstood or mis-cast is an age-old problem, there is something new about the danger that we’re in of missing the point as the Christian community in an increasingly skeptical culture.

You talked about books like They Like Jesus But Not the Church, Jim and Casper Go to Church, but there are also books from outsiders’ perspectives like God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, or The God Delusion (by Richard Dawkins), or Letter to a Christian Nation (by Sam Harris). The volume, and pointedness, and clarity of the arguments against Christianity and organized religion are starting to become less and less of a fringe movement and they’re becoming more focused, more clear-headed about their arguments. And in many cases, they’re identifying self-righteous religion in a way that we could have a lot of common ground about. They’re calling out Pharisaical attitudes and actions in a way that we would all agree on.

So it’s an age-old problem, but we have to understand the new contours, the new significance, the new challenges – and the new opportunities – that newness brings.

New Wineskins: At one point in the book, you pointed out that a pretty fundamental shift has taken place in the perception of Christians just in the last decade.

David Kinnaman: One of the first reports that I did here (at Barna) found that Christianity has a strong positive image despite fewer active participants. As we narrowed the microscope to look at 16- to 29-year-olds who are not Christians, we found that there had been some really significant changes over the last decade, and it wasn’t just in the last ten years, it was probably a two- or three- or four-decade-long period when things had been shifting in our culture.

Over the last ten years, there’s certainly been an increasing level of activity on the political front for Christians; we’ve got a President who wears his faith on his sleeve; and we’ve seen the Christian community become increasingly activated around political issues. In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing. But when you look at the outcomes of the reputation of evangelicals; how all of this has led us where we are, the people we are most interested in reaching – the young people who are not Christians – they’re having a harder time seeing themselves as ever wanting to become Christ-followers because of all the negative baggage that now surrounds what it means to be a Christian.

Again, if we’re kingdom citizens, we’re not necessarily political as we’re trying to pursue transformational in people’s lives. We can’t say we’re just going to work with the people who are the most open to, and soft-hearted about, our message; the gospel compels us to tell the story, the message to anyone and everyone.

We’ve got to realize that part of the problem is that we’re getting in the way. We’re getting in the way of ourselves in telling that message to some of the hardest-to-reach segments of our population.

New Wineskins: Your research covers more than Mosaics (born between 1984 and 2002) and Busters (born between 1965 and 1983), but you concentrate primarily on them, and you’ve said that this is the segment that we want to reach. You’re pretty honest in the book about the perception problem as going both ways: that there are aspects of the Mosaic and Buster nature that make them perceive things the way they do and that pointing that out helps the rest of us who are older and more entrenched to understand. You explain that there are steps that we can take to overcome some of that (difference). Why study these two generations primarily?

David Kinnaman: Part of that was to use them as a mirror on broader culture, because young people are going to be our future culture-makers – and they are certainly the future of the church – so we wanted to understand just what does that look like. Some older individuals would have many of the same perceptions as the young outsiders, just as you would find older Christians having some of the same disillusionments as some young Christians.

I don’t think it’s exclusively an “age” thing, but we’re all concerned about what’s coming up behind us, and why people have these reactions that they do – and we have a lot of possibility in working with young people. Four out of five American teenagers will spend at least six months in a Christian church. It’s pretty amazing that that’s the case, and some people say that’s just not possible. Four out of five Americans – eighty per cent – say that they’re Christian; the vast majority of Americans believe that the resurrection literally happened; seven out of ten say they’ve made a commitment to Christ before that’s still important in their lives. Almost all those mental connections to the faith start before age 18. We put enough of a foundation down that they align themselves with Christianity, and yet by the time they become adults, workers, and parents, they don’t believe that Christianity has all that much relevance to the decisions, values, perceptions and lifestyles that they pursue.

That, to me, is the real gap. We’ve given them enough Jesus to be bored, but not enough Jesus to be transformed.

That’s a sobering and critical statement; it means we haven’t done the job of discipling young people, but it also means that we can do a better job and actually help them connect the deep truths of the gospel to their lives.New Wineskins

You can hear the remainder of this interview – including comments about disunity, lack of theological common ground, and self-righteousness as barriers to being perceived as genuinely Christ-like – by downloading this MP3.

The Web site for the book unChristian is [http://www.unchristian.com/]; for the Barna Group, the URL is http://www.barna.org/]. You might also be interested in the site operated by Gabe Lyons’ Fermi Project, [http://www.fermiproject.com/] … and a series of sermons delivered by New Wineskins contributor Wade Hodges of Garnett Church of Christ in Tulsa, with the book unChristian at its core:

David KinnamanDavid Kinnaman is the President and Strategic Leader of The Barna Group. He is the author of the best-selling book, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity, and the Barna report, Teens and the Supernatural.

Since joining Barna in 1995, David has designed and analyzed nearly 500 projects for a variety of clients, including Columbia House, Compassion International, Easter Seals, Focus on the Family, Habitat for Humanity, Integrity Media, InterVarsity, NBC-Universal, Salvation Army, Sony, Thomas Nelson, Time-Life, Prison Fellowship, World Vision, Zondervan and many others.

As a spokesperson for the firm’s research, he is frequently quoted in major media outlets (such as USA Today, Fox News, Chicago Tribune, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, and The Wall Street Journal). He is also in demand as a speaker about trends, teenagers, vocation and calling, young leaders, and generational changes.

The son of a lifelong pastor, David has served in various capacities within congregations he has attended, including working with teenagers, teaching, and providing strategic consulting. He graduated from Biola University (La Mirada, California), where he served as Student Chaplain.

David and his wife, Jill, live in Ventura, California, with their three kids.

Keith BrentonKeith Brenton serves as managing editor for New Wineskins. He describes himself at his blog [Blog In My Own Eye] as a “stumbling follower of Christ, husband, dad, writer, occasional Bible class teacher, currently serving as communications specialist at a large metro church. Someone who questions reality and won’t settle for an evasive answer.” That church is the Pleasant Valley Church of Christ in Little Rock [www.pvcc.org]. He occasionally posts at [the New Wineskins blog]. You can reach him by e-mail at [webservant@wineskins.org].

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1579 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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