Book Review: UnChrsitian by David Kinnaman

Rating: 3 stars

Un Christian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…And Why It Matters” by David Kinnaman is a very perplexing book. It makes some penetrating observations which Christians should not ignore, but it is also working from a somewhat skewered grid.

So in reviewing this book, let me preface by raising four objections to it (the first two are major, the last two minor). Then, we will see why it is still worthy of our consideration. 

First, I have always been wary of Barna, the Christian polling organization of which author David Kinnaman is president. I have long questioned some of their methodology, including how they categorize who is a Christian. As Kinnaman says on page 46, “To be classified as a born-again Christian, a person has to say he or she has made a personal commitment to Jesus that is still important and that the person believes he or she will go to heaven at death, because the person has confessed his or her sin and accepted Christ as Savior. That’s it.”

It doesn’t take much imagination to realize how woefully inadequate this definition is: there is nothing about what Christian salvation actually is, nor anything about regular church attendance, regular prayer and Bible reading, any attempts to put Christian principles into action, etc. Kinnaman’s definition of a Christian is also worded in such a way that a 40-year-old who “prayed the prayer” at age 7 but only attends services on Christmas and Easter would be qualified as a believer. 

Granted, only God can read a person’s heart. But surely the folks at Barna should have included some more tangible in determining who is more likely to be a believer and who is not. This leads to a problem in Barna’s research and conclusions: since their research inevitably inflates the number of Christians in society, it will overemphasize their impact on our culture. Thus, their conclusions, however eye-opening they might be, should be taken with a grain of salt.

Second, I am very concerned that Kinnaman has given Brian McLaren, a leader of the emergent church (a movement which has serious theological issues) a platform as one of the commentators of his book. This shows an alarming lack of discernment on the author’s part.

Third, he quotes from a very poor translation of the Bible. 

Fourth, Kinnaman often poorly uses the Scriptures in his book. Two quick examples: he makes the common mistakes of applying 2 Chronicles 7:14 to America and uses this as one of his calls to action for Christians, and using 2 Peter 3:9 to come to wrong conclusions about whom God intends to save.

For these reasons, one should be hesitant when considering some of his conclusions. 

All of that being said, anyone reading this might be surprised that I’m still giving this book three stars. But I am because I believe that in spite of these flaws, Kinnaman has nonetheless done the American Christian Church a great service by presenting his research. 

“UnChristian” shows that the younger generation has an overwhelmingly negative view of Christians and Christianity, and why. The words they often associate with believers are in fact the titles of the chapters: hypocritical, “Get saved!”, anti-homosexual, sheltered, too political, and judgmental. 

To his credit, Kinnaman allows for the fact that a hostile media contributes to this perception, and that spiritual factors inevitably lead to unbelief. However, he ably rebuts this by offering both statistics and personal anecdotes from young people who were badly hurt by those who professed to be Christians. 

Simply stated, here is the problem: American Christianity is watered down; Christians are not as Christlike they ought to be. Most particularly, they are not very loving, both to each other and to outsiders. Doubtlessly, young people know that the Bible speaks of love (1 Corinthians 13, John 13:34-35, etc.), and when they don’t see Christians doing it–especially an other-worldly love which only the Gospel of Jesus Christ can produce–the hypocrisy label is going to stick.

So, what is the solution? Authenticity. Unbelievers not only need to know that Christians care, but that they are real, and not putting on an act. Kinnaman’s research bears this out. He has found that today’s younger generation bases their reality not so much upon what is true, but upon relationships. Therefore, he encourages his readers to take the necessary steps of embracing unbelievers, and showing them what true Christianity looks like.

Sadly, the flaws mentioned at the beginning of this review prevent me from fully endorsing this book. Nonetheless, there is a lot of very useful information that could serve as a wake-up call for the American Church to get out of its spiritual slumber, and to be the city on a shining hill that Christ called it to be.

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