Beyond numbers, a real crisis of faith
Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman. “Good Faith: Being a Christian When Society Thinks You’re Irrelevant and Extreme.” Baker Books, 2016. 288 pages. In their latest book, “Good Faith: Being a Christian When Society Thinks You’re Irrelevant and Extreme,” the duo also uses data-driven insights to offer advice for believers as they engage with a world consumed by an ever-growing list of contentious issues — politics, marriage and sexuality, to name a few.
Kinnaman is president of the Barna Group, a Ventura, Calif.-based market research firm specializing in the religious beliefs and behavior of Americans and the intersection of faith and culture. George Barna launched the firm in 1984 to provide research and support for churches and ministries.
Lyons, a longtime minister, is founder of Q Ideas — a learning community that urges Christians to advance the common good in society.
Recently, the authors sat down with The Christian Chronicle to discuss their latest research on Christianity in the U.S. In part one of this two-part interview, they note statistics showing a slow decline in church attendance nationwide. But the reality behind those numbers — including a lagging confidence in God’s Word — is a cause for greater concern, they say.
CLICK HERE TO SEE PART TWO: DON’T FIND YOURSELF — LET GOD FIND YOU
What do you think about the downward trend of the Christian faith in the United States? Kinnaman: It depends on how you measure the downward trend.
In a lot of cases, there’s actually a lot of flatness. The percentage of Americans who qualify as evangelical is relatively stable over the 25 years that we have tracked it at Barna. Church attendance is declining a little bit — but sometimes that’s partly related to the methodology that we use. Online, people report lower church attendance than they do by telephone.
There are a lot of things that are also on the decline. Some of those things are the percentage of millennials who are practicing Christians, the rise of people who say they are of a faith other than Christianity.
There’s a growing lack of confidence among younger generations that Jesus was a real, historic person — or, for example, that the Bible is accurate in the principles that it teaches. There’s a growing gap of confidence in Scripture.
Gabe Lyons, left, and David Kinnaman talk with The Christian Chronicle about the decline in church attendance nationwide.
Those are things that are very worrisome because they represent more than just whether people show up at church on Sunday. They actually represent that people’s hearts and minds aren’t quite into the Christian faith, even though they use the Christian label.
What might church leaders do to address the issues of confidence in Jesus and reliability of Scripture? Lyons: I think they need to talk about it and be honest about the challenges. The people in the pew understand that their kids are questioning faith and that they don’t have the answers to respond to the skepticisms. We’re finding younger people are starting to look to Google and YouTube for answers to their deepest questions. When we were growing up, we would have probably asked our parents or a trusted adult in our life. And today — because of Facebook, social media, the ability for anybody to communicate and really be perceived as an authority — you have people accessing all kinds of information.
We shouldn’t be threatened by that. We just need to recognize that’s happening. So ministers need to start talking about it. They must acknowledge that there is a lot of skepticism in our world. There are a lot of people who are questioning some of the deepest claims of the Christian faith, so this is an opportunity to step into that with confidence that our faith actually has something to say to the world and to any issue or topic that it’s raising.
They must acknowledge that there is a lot of skepticism in our world.
For a long time we have asked, “Where would you go if you died tonight?” And the answer was, “Well I hope I go to heaven.” Well, the questions have become a lot more complex today. Questions like: Where do I find meaning in my life? What is the good life? What is my purpose? How do I deal with the pain, anxiety and fears that I experience daily? Where do I go with these burdens?
These require Christians to be pretty intelligent. So churches are going to have to double down on their efforts to help equip the saints, which is ultimately the purpose of the church.
Kinnaman: Faith leaders actually have to take the journey of a skeptic to understand the kinds of questions that are being asked today.
Some of our peers in ministry are saying that they are noticing that the kinds of questions that young people are asking are very different. They are saying, “What does the scripture say about violence in the Old Testament?” To them, God seems like an angry, vengeful God, and they’ll actually name specific places in Scripture where they see that. They’ll talk a lot about human sexuality and same-sex attraction. What does the Bible have to say about that? What does the Bible have to say about reproductive choices that people might make?
There’s a whole range of very complex questions that are as age-old as humanity, but they are also being expressed in new ways because people can Google and search for particular things, and they are finding wisdom for living in those very human questions.
So faith leaders need to understand the nature of the skepticism and then be able to address that as part of their ministry. Let’s go down the journey of why someone might think differently about these questions from how Christians have historically thought.
So, church leaders need to put themselves into the place of those asking the questions rather than just seeing themselves as providing answers? Lyons: Yes, and that requires humility and the ability to relate to people that might not have the same education that you have or read all the books you have. It requires getting on their level, eye to eye, and being able to answer those questions.
It requires helping people understand why they ought to live by the standard that God created for human beings.
The conflict ministers are dealing with is: Are you going to live your life according to a preset standard or not? And there are going to be a hundred different ways that people are going to have conflict when their belief and their morality are found in what they feel is right, what their friend told them was right, what they think might be right as they’ve thought about this for a few minutes.
Are we actually going to have a biblical standard and go back to the source of truth, which is Jesus himself? That requires discipleship. It requires helping people understand why they ought to live by the standard that God created for human beings. It leads us to actually being fully human the way God designed us to be.
Kinnaman: We think one of the big shifts is this shift from an external source of morality — Scripture, church tradition, even political or media voices — to an internal source of authority. The belief that we can figure out what is best for us. That truth may be right for you, but it may not be right for me. There’s been an inexorable shift to that position in American lives today — that you can determine what’s right for you, that nobody can dictate that for you. The best way to find yourself is to look within yourself. Ninety-one percent of Americans believe that is true.
Lyons: And almost three out of four practicing Christians said that they thought that statement was true, which shows you the crisis of discipleship in our churches.
Related:• A conversation with David Kinnaman