“In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I [Jesus] have overcome the world.” – John 16:33
Telling everyday people that I am a Christian—much less a pastor— ranks as one of the top 10 worst things to say at a party. It is a conversation stopper. I might as well say I do animal testing for a cosmetic company.
I understand why the conversation shuts down. I was briefly a Catholic altar boy who did not meet Jesus until I was a 19-year-old college student. I once had a long list of my own problems with Christianity, and I would have felt uncomfortable discussing them with a pastor. So, I’m not surprised that non-Christians who do speak up often pull their punches in an e ort to be polite in person. While I appreciate that consideration, I would prefer to get their thoughts about Christianity unedited. This is not so I can crush their argument, but so I can respond with truth, grace, and, above all, love.
A growing number of people who profess to be Christians have beliefs that are often at odds with historical biblical Christianity. This is particularly true of younger generations. What began as the Emergent Church many years ago has expanded to include so-called Red Letter Christians, Progressive Christians, Inclusive or Accepting Evangelicals, and the Spiritual but not Religious folks, to name a few.
The sentiments driving these groups seem to be an underlying current of deep dissatisfaction with Christianity combined with an unwillingness to abandon it in total. In the meantime, expect their e orts to be trumpeted as prophetic acuity by the Left and pathetic apostasy by the Right. Time will tell, but maybe an entirely new religion will emerge from these Christian movements, much like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons in the past, claiming to still be Christian but rejected by mainstream Christianity.
Regardless what the future holds for such movements, I think it’s clear that the research captured a sentiment and mood regarding historical biblical Christianity that has existed for some time and is just now welding into a moral, political, and spiritual coalition because of the current political and social pressure.
But why now? What has changed that seems to be unifying people’s underlying objections to Christianity into an increasingly unified and combative voice? In part, I think the right atmosphere has been made possible by such things as blogging, social media, and other platforms which allow people to gather into hives online with their own version of the Queen Bee—that is, their own version of whose view is right or perhaps more importantly, whose is wrong. At times, multiple hives can then swarm together like bees to attack a common enemy. For most people, a bee sting or two is not deadly. Hundreds of stings, however, is an entirely different matter. So it is in our digital day where hate, intolerance, and fear are on the rise.
While the phone survey revealed people’s most common objections to Christianity, it didn’t reveal why they held those objections. For that insight, I wanted faces instead of numbers. We needed free- owing conversations rather than one-sided responses. As an objective means to that end, I commissioned focus groups of men and women in four major U.S. cities: San Francisco, Phoenix, Austin, and Boston. These eight focus groups met for roughly two hours each. Most had eight or nine participants, ages 18–44, with an emphasis on 25- to 34-year-olds. Each group was moderated by Susan Saurage-Altenloh, who has personally facilitated more than 1,700 focus groups on a wide variety of subjects in her nearly three decades of work leading Saurage Research, Inc.
Focus group participants all had at least a high school diploma. Roughly two-thirds held a college degree. The majority was Unchurched—that is, these people do not attend either a Protestant or Catholic church, nor have they ever. Some were Dechurched, maybe attending as a kid or at some other time in life, but not anymore. A few Dechurched folks reported going to church for holidays or other occasional visits. The groups included adherents of other religions as well, along with a good mix of Nones who classify themselves as spiritual but not religious.
Notably, participants also included some folks who seemed like they’d be fun to spend a few hours with eating chicken wings and throwing darts. Melissa in Phoenix introduced herself saying, “I’m a mom of three. I have a 17-, 15-, and 12-year-old. I am married to my partner. Been married for a little over 15 years to my wife…. I’m probably an extreme individual. I wouldn’t choose life any other way. Born into a Jehovah’s Witness family with a Baptist father. A good mix. I choose not to go to church today. Swear to God.” Melissa seemed like she’d have fun camp re stories to share.
Lee in Boston jumped in to the conversation saying, “I’ve had a lot of great conversations, for instance, with what I would frankly call ‘more cool,’ laid back Christians, who identify themselves as being very religious, but for example, they have no issue talking openly and plainly with me and my husband. They don’t recoil, like ‘Oh my god, I’m talking to a gay, I might catch the gay.’ That kind of thing. Then there’s the other end of the extreme, like the people who instantly yell out at my husband and me, ‘Repent, ye sinners!’… Things like that are a very big turnoff to me.” Lee was honest, even gracious, and consistently revealed a great sense of humor and wit.
CHRISTIANITY IS VERY OPPRESSIVE
The aim of each focus group was to generate honest conversations about Christianity. Participants were asked about four key concepts used by a number of evangelical Christian groups to de ne Christianity—the Bible, the cross, activism, and conversion.
Bible The Old and New Testaments are the authoritative source for all matters of faith.
Cross God died as a man to save sinners.
Activism Belief in Jesus Christ should lead to practical change in how a person lives and treats others.
Conversion People must be converted to faith in Jesus to escape eternal punishment.
In each group, the moderator explained the goals and ground rules before asking the first question: “What are your thoughts when I say ‘Christians’ and ‘Christianity’ and ‘the Church’ and ‘Jesus’?” What we heard in response was nearly all negative. Many of the women in Austin, for example, said things like:
“I have a negative connotation with all of those words. I feel like they might try to recruit me or the place might go up in flames when I walk through the door. I feel judgment.”
“Part of me goes on the defensive. I feel like I have to defend myself.”
“When you say you’re Jewish, people try to convert you, and it’s like, ‘Okay, met the guy. Not interested. Thank you.’”
“Pushy and unrespectful [sic], because growing up I just felt like I was pushed into going to church.”
“The evil Southern Baptists. There are great Southern Baptists that you drink beer with, and then there are the evil ones that you just want to get away from.”
“I often associate those words with extremists. Though I know that that’s not the case—I have lots of friends who are Christian and go to church every Sunday—but those words generally tell me the extremist view. Extremists of all religions terrify me. It almost invokes fear in me.”
“The concept of Christianity is very oppressive, and it ****es me off most days.”
Loving our neighbors includes sticking around to hear their honest impressions and questions. As soon as you are outted as a Christian in some social setting, people tend to hide what they really think about your faith. Sure, rare people start a discussion. A few want to let us have it on the spot. But the average person wants to sit down and talk about Christianity about as badly as they want to sit next to someone on a flight who has a nagging cough caused by the flu. That’s why we need to find a safe way for real folks to have real conversations about what they really feel about Christianity.