For many years now, high profile Christian leaders have been saying that homosexuality is destroying the church. It turns out that it may be their homophobia that is isolating the church and undermining opportunities for connecting with a new generation of non-Christians.
According to a new US study by the Barna Group (an evangelical market research firm), perceptions of Christians among young non-Christians has nose-dived over the last decade. According to an article on Alternet reporting on the study:
Ten years ago, “the vast majority” of non-Christians [under 30] had generally favorable views of Christianity. Now, that number stands at just 16%. When asked specifically about Evangelicals, the number are even worse: only 3% of non-Christian Millennials have positive associations with Evangelicals.
These changes didn’t come out of the blue. The study found that the strongest negative trait associated with the church among non-Christians was “anti-homosexual” at 91%. A close second and third were judgmental (87%) and hypocritical (85%). According to the the summary of the study, as quoted on Alternet:
Non-Christians and Christians explained that beyond their recognition that Christians oppose homosexuality, they believe that Christians show excessive contempt and unloving attitudes towards gays and lesbians. One of the most frequent criticisms of young Christians was that they believe the church has made homosexuality a “bigger sin” than anything else.
I’m sure that many Christians will try to spin this as a result of increased persecution of Christians in the US or the influence of the secular, liberal media. But the study specifically highlights that perceptions are based on interactions with Christian friends or attending church.
A whopping 80% of non-Christians surveyed had spent at least six months attending church. These are not casual cynics, jaded by the media. They are people who have tried Christianity and found it wanting. In other words, all of us Christians are responsible. We can’t just point our fingers at some other part of the church or secular society. Where have we failed to model the radical hospitality of Jesus?
Although the study makes no mention of George W. Bush, I suspect six years of his administration have also played a factor. This study was focused on the US, but I suspect on a global level, the numbers would be even worse. I’ve written here before about corrosive effect of Christianity’s association with American foreign policy I experienced first hand in England. But that corrosion is happening at home as well, and undoubtedly plays a role in those 3% positive association with the term among young non-Christians in this country. Globally, folks are even less likely to distinguish between George Bush’s evangelicalism and the rest of us.
So where’s the hope in all this? Recently, I started reading “Revolution in Jesusland”, a blog by Zack Exley, a progressive organizer, formerly of Moveon.org and GWbush.com. Over the last two weeks, Zack has been going from one Christian conference to another listening to the likes of Shane Claiborne lead 11,000 evangelicals in the Litany of Resistance. His message is the title of his blog: Christians are beginning to discover that Jesus calls us to cross boundaries in revolutionary ways. This weekend he’s at the Christian Community Development Association conference in St Louis. He says:
I’ve had friends who were the children of the Catholic Worker movement—whose parents moved into poor urban areas in the 60’s. I remember thinking that must have been some dying gasp of the Christian progressive (then, socialist) movement. But, as it turns out, (conservative!) evangelical Christians picked up where that movement left off. A lot of these leaders moved in to their neighborhoods starting in the 80’s and 90’s. And now the movement to move into “broken” neighborhoods seems to be reaching a fever pitch. I don’t have any stats to back that up, and I doubt anyone does. But it’s the new must-do thing for Christians who are “on fire for Jesus.”
So I guess I still have hope in Jesus Christ, who somehow remains remarkably popular among all sorts of people. The most common unprompted comment among those surveyed Barna was “Christianity in today’s society no longer looks like Jesus.” Everyone in American culture, Christian and non-Christian still seems to know that our founder stands for peace, love and compassion.
I still remember watching a Daily Show episode where John Stewart made an ironic comment comparing George Bush with Jesus. Everyone laughed. They understood the basic character of Jesus. Do we?
© Tim Nafziger. This article first appeared on the web dialogue site Young Anabaptist Radicals, and is reproduced with grateful acknowledgement.
Tim Nafziger is a Ekklesia consultant. He has been active with Christian Peacemaker Teams in the UK, USA and Colombia. In 2006 he returned to the USA after working with the Anabaptist Network UK. He is a web developer and writer and he blogs at The Mennonite magazine.