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Gabe Lyons
From the beginning, Christianity has had cultural
impact. Martyrs and emperors, reformers and rebels
weve left our marks on the world. But the relationships
between Christians and their wider communities are
usually complex. We in the West live in an especially
complicated daythe world is globalizing, pluralistic
and polarized. How can Christians be confident about
core beliefs while offering a way of genuine love that
serves culture and neighbor?
Its been nine years since David Kinnaman, president
of the Barna Group, and Gabe Lyons, founder of Q
Ideas, wrote UnChristian, detailing the changing attitudes of a new generation toward Christian faith. Their
recent release of Good Faith: Being a Christian When
Society Thinks Youre Irrelevant and Extreme marks another step forward in a mission to help Christian leaders move into todays reality with insight and integrity.
Paul J. Pastor caught up with Kinnaman and Lyons
in the wood and leather mezzanine of Portland, Oregons trendy Ace Hotel, to get the story behind Good

Faith, and wisdom for cutting edge, faithful ministry.

Like UnChristian almost a decade ago, Good Faith
is data-based. Was there an aha moment when you
knew there was a book in the research?
Gabe Lyons: Neither project started with us saying,
Hey, we should write a book. David and I are close
friendsalways asking the other what theyre seeing,
and working to understand our culture.
Good Faith grew out of Barna research that was so
stark, we knew we couldnt just communicate trends to
the church, but that we needed to write a call to Christians. We spent about 30 days praying and processing
the idea with our teams. There was such a sense of urgency and importance to this data; we knew we needed
to do this.
David Kinnaman: Exactly. Barna was researching
religious libertyasking about the future of religious
institutions. For over a year wed worked to understand
the challenges that pastors and other Christian leaders 69

face when they speak out on culturally tense issues. At

one point, Gabe called me. Hey, he said, we should
consider another book.
I can understand the importance, but what gave
such urgency to the book?
Lyons: It was obvious that pastors were uncertain
how to speak about the cultural changes taking place.
As a result, the data
showed a generation
quickly losing confidence that Christianity
can speak to the greater
issues in the world. Addressing that cant wait.
That discussion needs
to happen now.
We believe the gospel can respond to every
concern or challenge
that humanity faces
today. We see a hopeful way forward. What
seemed missing was
an articulation of what
that way forward is
how the church can walk into difficult conversations
with confidence, instead of shrinking away.
Kinnaman: Yes, it was pastoral, a local church
urgency. But there was also a national, even global,
urgency. We knew this would be an election year that
highlighted the role of Christians in the public square.
We had no idea how true that would be, with this election shaping up the way that it is! Even more than we
could have imagined, Good Faith is relevant as Christian institutions face into these days of confusion.

tional Christian faithfulness is viewed, inaccurately,

as bigotry.
What other surprises did the data hold?
Kinnaman: My jaw dropped even further when I saw
the data related to what we term the new moral code
the percentage of Americans who identify the self as
the center of their spiritual lives. They are their own
judge and jury, deciding
whats right and wrong,
which is so counter to
the teaching of Christianity which says that you
find yourself through a
fixed point outside yourselfScripture.
Also mystifying was
the degree to which the
church has become so
similar to the broader
culture. We Christians
live out this new moral
code toobelieving that
we should pursue what
we desire most, that we
shouldnt criticize someone elses life choices, that we should find ourselves
by looking inside ourselves. Based on that research, I
think this is why many topics are so confounding for the
churchlike sexuality, race, consumerism, politics and
so on. Were living out a moral code thats foreign to our
faithbecause weve lost the fixed point of Scripture.
Lyons: That was huge. But what surprised me most
was how deeply practicing Christian millennials feel
that theyre sidelined in this current cultural moment.
Almost half of them feel marginalized59 percent
feel sidelined, 46 percent silenced, 47 percent
afraid to speak up. Thats exactly what were addressingwhen we start to lose confidence that we have
something meaningful to say, we start to be quiet. But
thats not how Christiansespecially our future leadersshould respond.
My concern is that this generation doesnt hear from
their pastors just how much our faith has something to
offer to the world, a world that is asking big questions
these days.
Theres so much uncertaintythis elections highlighted that. In some ways the world is getting flat
again. And that creates a tremendous opportunity for
Christians to leadnot in a way that weve seen in previous generations, which was about political power, but
as a counterculture offering a better way forward.

We believe the gospel

can respond to every
concern or challenge that
humanity faces today.
We see a hopeful way
forward.Gabe Lyons

David, two words leapt at you from that data

irrelevant and extremist. How did that make
you feel?
Kinnaman: I was shocked, deeply shocked. I really
wrestled with itI mean, the results came back and
people, a lot of them, were saying that praying in public
was religious extremism. I saw at once that there is
no way that any Christian institutionchurch, school,
parachurch, etc.can avoid wrestling with these issues
and sentiments. They have to understand the cultural
implications of this for how they are going to function
in the years ahead.
Jesus doesnt need institutions to accomplish his
work, but it is hard to educate and form the next generation in our society if any sense of public or institu70 May/June 2016 71

Speak personally for a momentwhen did each of

you come to faith?
Lyons: I was 11.
Kinnaman: I was also really young.

But David and I are hopeful. The pressure we feel

right now will purge some things weve long held dear
but that were never part of our true faith. Thats great.
Just difficult.

So do these current dynamics feel different than 25

to 30 years ago?
Kinnaman: Yes, this feels different for us as Gen
Xers, but from our data, we can trace remarkable changes. Our research shows that Christian millennials are
still very committed scripturally; they just dont know
how to express that in a way that makes sense to their
peers. Theyre outnumbered 2 to 1, not just by people
who are indifferent to Scripture, but who are hostile to
Scripturewho believe its a book of oppression.
When Gabe and I
grew up as Gen Xers, and
certainly when our parents and grandparents
grew up as boomers and
elders, culture was more
neutraleven friendly
toward Scripture. Thats
the big shift. Christian
practice is waning, but
even more precipitous is
the decline in attitudes
of confidence in Scripture. People believe its
an ancient book of fables
without much to offer

today. Were able to track

that shift.
Lyons: I grew up in a
small town in the heart of American Christian culture.
There were a lot of assumptions you could count on sharing with your neighbors. We agreed as a society about
what was right and wrong, moral and immoral. That
commonality has shifted.
For example, one of our charts describes how
much pornography has become normalized to the new
Kinnaman: Yes! We asked people to rate the moral
rightness or wrongness of a list of behaviors. Overeating
and not recycling were rated as worse sins than
viewing pornography by teens and young adults. Think
about thatyoure more likely to be judged by a peer
for throwing a recyclable in the trash than for using
Lyons: That is so different than 30 years ago.
Everythings up for grabs. Thats forcing Christians to
rethink how we communicate the gospel.

Tell me more about what these shifts hold for pastors.

Kinnaman: Well, another huge surprise for me was
the degree to which pastors feel pressured to avoid certain topics. They feel pressure both from people outside
the church and people inside. Theres a rising sense that
they have to be careful how they say what they say.
Its an interesting tension. Theres not necessarily just
one audience anymore. Theres a broader community,
people are coming from different backgrounds, you never
know where your podcast will end up, or who will walk
into a service. The world
is becoming very transparent. A pastor has to
contemplate a variety
of audiences. Thats not
easy to do. Pastors are
really struggling how to
work that out.
Couple that with the
sentiment that faith
leaders are seen as only
having something morally relevant to say on
issues of spirituality,
not on culture, politics
or how people live their
lives. Pastors feel constrained, and the culture
is ceasing to even expect
them to speak on topics that intersect complicated issues
of life.

My concern is that this

generation doesnt hear
from their pastors just
how much our faith has
something to offer to the
world. Gabe Lyons

72 May/June 2016

Is that an informational problem for pastors or a

formational one? Do they just need to learn more,
or is there internal, spiritual work to be done to be
prepared for such conversations?
Kinnaman: Both.
Lyons: Most pastors have good theological training
around the tough issues, but how to convey that into
ministry, into real relationships, into the public square
theres a disconnect. They can teach what you ought to
believe, but struggle with helping their congregations
translate that belief to the wide variety of experiences
and circumstances in our complex culture.
Kinnaman: You want an interesting statistic? Two
out of 5 schoolteachers in America are born again

Lyons: Think about that. Its crazy. The church is

frustrated theres not prayer in schools, but theyre not
seeing it rightalmost half of our teachers are bringing
their faith quietly into class every day. Its not a public
moment, but its who they are. But do pastors know how
to support them strategically?
Pastors understand the social consequences of speaking to some of the difficult topics in our culture. Our encouragement to them is to speak up on these things, and
demonstrate a loving way to talk about how our belief
can lovingly be expressed without giving up what makes
it our belief. The people in our churches want that.
You use the word we in the book, referring to the
evangelical movement. In the day of Trump, is there
still any meaningful we?
Lyons: Yeah, there is. Its not as big as the media and
other polling organizations make it out to be, but its real.
Dave and Barnas definition of evangelical is narrower
than the normit actually requires people to seriously
hold certain beliefs, and be committed to living them
out. Its not just self-identification.
The we were describing are those who take faith seriously in their lives. Theyre trying to be faithful to what
Scripture says, but also trying to be forward facing to the

world, not isolated in a bunker or under the steeple of

their church. They feel that they have social responsibilityto evangelize, and to help their cities flourish. That
we represents about 7 percent of Americans.
Kinnaman: And that 7 percent represents just fewer
than 20 million people, and doesnt include a lot of likeminded believersincluding most practicing Catholics
and some Pentecostals. So, especially considering those
similar populations, thats a huge we. By some measures, 1 in 5 Americans.
What we discovered in the research is that theres a
lot of unanimity of beliefcommitment to the Bible,
belief in the importance of evangelism, often belief in
a real spiritual realmbut a lot less agreement around
how to express that belief. The mainstream media
tends to play up those differenceslike whom we vote
for. So its very important to find areas of unityareas of
the what and the how that bring us together.
What are those areas?
Lyons: We talk about them in the book, as five lenses that can guide our cultural thinking. Theyre Theology, Ministry, Relationships, Politics and Public Square.
A lot of Christians are confused about how to relate to
the wider world when their beliefs come in conflict with 73

what the culture at large thinks. We try to give a cohesive

framework for that, starting with theology.
But once youre grounded in your theology, there
should be freedom within the church on how to express
that. We have Christian bakers who are going to bake
cakes for everyone, regardless of their lifestyle, because
of their Christian beliefs and commitment to love their
neighbor. And some Christians may not be able to, based
on their conscience. We think there should be room for
both. We dont have to have Christian groupthink around
how to express our theology.
It sounds like youre advocating a healthy pluralism.
Kinnaman: Thats accurate. We go to Daniel as a
biblical story rich with meaning for this cultural moment. Hes a wonderful
example of faithfulness in
a hostile culture. Daniel
advocated for the lives of
the pagan magicians, his
religious rivals. He learns
the language and literature
of Babylon. He becomes a
political leader. Hes theologically grounded, oriented around a fear of God,
not man. But hes able to
think through his levels of
engagement in that society.
If we are going to engage
our culture for human
flourishing, we need solid
thinking, not just feelings,
around difficult issues.
We cant just be asking
what some megachurch
pastors are doing and trying to replicate programs. We actually need to have
thoughtful, intentional, personal engagement.

proach, as I learn from people wiser than me, is what

Andy Crouch saysthat culture changes when we create
more of it. Thats a calling for every Christian.
Our posture is also very important. The days of usversus-them communication has had its day. Theres a
higher emphasis now on truly seeing the image of God in
everyone, regardless of tribe. We want to focus on any
area, with any person, that we see common alignment
for flourishingany opportunity for common ground,
to solve problems together in spite of differences. Were
trying, with excellence, to convey whats true in any age
and apply it to todays moment, to the questions people
are asking today.
Kinnaman: Also, I think the term culture wars is
hyped a bit. To whatever extent previous generations were
focusing on loving, believing and living well, we
think they have the right
idea, whatever mistakes
theyve made. Ive had the
chance to work with incredible leaders throughout the years. Even when
I disagreed with them on
the how, we agreed on so
much of the what.
Its tempting to feel that
Good Faith is some brandnew approach. But were
standing on the shoulders
of many Christians who
have gone before, who
have been thinking this
way not just for decades
but for centuries. Its being humble, yet confident,
confessing our shortcomings, but also advocating a path forward that benefits all
of our culture and communities.

Differentiate this from an updated version of the

thinking behind the culture wars. It seems like Falwell-era cultural assumptions would have agreed with
the goal of human flourishing, but most of us now
look back on those strategies as mistaken.
Lyons: Good distinction. Growing up, Jerry Falwell
was my pastor. Week in, week out, we heard why we must
be involved as a church in culture. But that message was
too narrow. The assumption was that cultural change
would happen because of political power. We need to
understand how culture works, and not exclusively focus
on one sphere of influence, or simply winning. My ap-

Here in my hometown of post-Christian Portland,

theres not just irrelevance or extremism perceptions,
theres deep woundedness behind many peoples resistance to Christians. Whats the place of repentance
by Christians, for our past sins and mistakesin a
Good Faith movement?
Lyons: Youre right on. This is a critical piece of trying to re-engage people outside the church. UnChristian
was very much about us calling out the churchs selfrighteousness, and repentance is key.
We model that in a few of the specific topics in the
bookincluding sexuality for Dave, and race for me.

Christian practice
is waning, but even
more precipitous is
the decline in attitudes
of confidence in
David Kinnaman

74 May/June 2016 75

We had blind spots, and needed to face and confess those to move forward.
We all need to acknowledge the past honestly and bravely. We didnt, say,
put a whole chapter on confession in the book, but its a major implication.
Humility and love. We need to call ourselves out for areas where we have
screwed up personally, or where the church has dehumanized others. But
that doesnt diminish the good that weve done in the past tooor the
tremendous potential that Christians have to bring life and love to this
There is a time for confession and true repentance. But we cant put so
much emphasis on constant apology that we diminish confidence in our
beliefs or the good that we have for the world.
Kinnaman: Yes. Pastorally, this is a huge part of our emphasis. You cant
move forward without a commitment to repentance.
Barna Group has always been willing to be critical, based on data, trends
or expressions of the church that are unhealthy. We try to raise honest
questions. Coming from a market research point of view, were not just
apologists for the church, were apologists for a way of thinking about a set
of human problems that are impacted by Christian theology.
Were just as concerned with self-righteousness within the church as
unrighteousness in the world. We want to be as transparent as we can about
our failuresboth as Dave and Gabe, and as a larger Christian culture.
What are opportunities for living out Good Faith that pastors
often miss?
Kinnaman: How hungry people are for these deeper conversations.
People want to talk about this. But many pastors dont.
I understand the challenges of building a vibrant community. But many
pastors are completely unaware of the level of skepticism and honest conversations happening in their churches. In the digital world, people are
fact-checking your sermons as youre preaching. Sermons from talking
heads are quickly becoming easy to dismiss by a young person as another
voice in the sea of information and marketing demanding their allegiance.
Just one example: We see in our research that an increasing number of
young people think that their youth pastor is paid to be their friend. They
view the youth pastor as church marketing.
We have some soul searching that we need to do about the ministry
industry. How weve done things is going to have to change, while remaining committed to the core beliefs passed down to us. These challenges should lead us to a healthy place of being more capable of building
strong believers.
The dirty little secret of the modern American church is that weve gotten good at producing structures of discipleship and churchgoing, but were
short on transformation. The people in our pews are capable of being in
ministry in the world, theologically and practically, at a much higher level
than most pastors are prepared to accept. How are we equipping them?
Gabe, why do you two see hospitality as a key response?
Lyons: About three years ago, I visited Amsterdam to try to understand
how church leaders there were approaching church planting in a postChristianeven anti-ChristianEuropean context. Hospitality was the
one constant in their thinking and practice. They loved people well, they
built friendships, and they did it in the context of their daily lives. They
76 May/June 2016

Most pastors have good

theological training
around the tough issues,
but how to convey that
into ministry, into real
relationships, into the
public square
theres a disconnect.
Gabe Lyons

shared meals constantly, invited people into

their homes.
Its funny to think
about it, but that simple acthospitality
is totally countercultural today. But its so
simple for Christians
to doand a practice
of the Christian community that has been
part of Christian life
for 2000 years. Its how
the faith has grown no
matter what kind of
context were in.
Its also a lost art
in modern culture. To
get to know people,
to have long dinners
together, to share conversationits countercultural.
open up around the table. Jesus really exhibited this;
so did the early church throughout the New Testament.
These simple, countercultural ideaslike how we
relate to technology, for example, or practicing a Sabbathshow a better path for the world around. They
stand out. If were living them.

Lets come back to that founding data response of

irrelevant. Henri Nouwen wrote in 1989, The
leaders of the future will be those who dare to
claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world
as a divine vocation. (In the Name of Jesus.) Hes
speaking of how some of the deepest elements of
Christianity dont carry perceived value for the
world. They seem foolish. How do we understand
cultural leadership in light of that?
Kinnaman: Theres nuance to what it means to be
irrelevant or extreme as Christians. Id rather see the
church do more irrelevant and biblically extreme
things than to try to see us tone down our distinctive.
The answer is not to water down our belief or practice
in response to those perceptions in the data, but to
increase the good and countercultural aspects of it.
Our research shows that millennials are more willing to be challenged than the church is willing to challenge them. But what we have to understand is that the
call to follow Jesusto have that kind of irrelevance
youre talking aboutis not a call of mass appeal. Its a

call to the narrow way.

need to consider the
ways that they will
challenge people to be
irrelevant, to be extremist in the ways
that Jesus calls us to.
That way goes against
culture, but also goes
against quite a few ingrained Christian habits. Our path for that
is threefold: Christians
need to Love, Believe
and Live.

I love that: Love

BelieveLive. Which
is hardest for us?
Kinnaman: From
the research, the older
generationsboomers and eldershave
to grow in their Love and their Live. Especially their
Love. They dont really understand the mindset of deep
skepticism that the newer generations have. Older generations have an easy time believing, but a harder time
loving people at cost to themselves. Millennials are
very strong on that Love, much less strong on Believe.
But we all have to work on living out all three for faithful engagement.
Lyons: Yes, the pre-eminent virtue of the Christian faith is love. But the definition of love should be
grounded in belief, and lived out in balance. Love says
that you can be honest about how what you believe can
lead to people flourishing, to a better life. I daily wrestle with how to live out my Believe and my Loveto be
faithful in my own family and community.
Ill tell you firsthandits not easy to practice. Its
the reality of Christianity. We need the courage to continually ground our belief in love, and live that out in
our culture. But do you know what happens when we
do that? Good Faith.
And as we change, the world changes.
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Paul J. Pastor is author of The Face of the Deep: Exploring the Mysterious Person of the Holy Spirit. Follow
him on Twitter @PaulJPastor and visit him online at 77