I have been reading ‘unChristian’ what a new generation really thinks about Christianity … and why it matters’. The book reports research conducted by David Kennaman and Gabe Lyons for the Barna Group.
The research is conducted from a theologically conservative, ‘orthodox’, born again tradition, ‘upholding the standards God has set’, believing that a commitment to Christ alters one’s destiny.
It is based on interviews with a representative sample of sixteen- to twenty-nine year olds, plus interviews with pastors and church leaders. The research finds that young people view Christians as unchristian and hypocritical. One of the key negative themes to emerge was that Christianity is thought to be anti-homosexual – no surprise to those of us engaged in working for a change in Christian attitudes towards LGBT people.
To quote the book: “Outsiders say that Christians are bigoted and show disdain for gays and lesbians. They say Christians are fixated on curing homosexuals and on leveraging political solutions against them.” [p29]
Remember, this is a report written by and for conservative evangelical Christians who want to connect with and evangelise un-churched young people. The research shows that young people within conservative congregations share similar ideas. It is American research but there are surely lessons here those advocating ex-gay ministries in the UK and for those bishops who oppose equality legislation for LGBT people.
The fifth chapter deals with the young outsider’s perception that Christians show contempt for gays and lesbians. The chapter wants to create a new perception, that “Christians show compassion and love to all people, regardless of their lifestyle.” That word ‘lifestyle’ gives away their stance – and the problem they face in trying to achieve their objective.
The research showed that:
“…the perception that Christians are “against” gays and lesbians – not only objecting to their lifestyles but also harbouring irrational fear and unmerited scorn towards them – has reached critical mass. The gay issue has become the “big one,” the negative image most likely to be intertwined with Christianity’s reputation.” [p92]
“Out of twenty attributes that we assessed, both positive and negative, as they related to Christianity, the perception of being antihomosexual was at the top of the list.” [p92]
The negative perceptions included being “judgmental, bigoted, sheltered, right-wingers, hypocrites, insincere and uncaring.” Hostility towards gays has become “virtually synonymous with the Christian faith.” [p92]
The researchers encountered considerable resistance among some Christians towards having their views about gays and lesbians challenged whereas the new generation of adults has significantly shifted its view and now accepts homosexuality as a legitimate way of life.
It says the “…unconventional values of young adults will play an increasingly important role in shaping put society in the years to come, making it much more difficult for those with other views to achieve political traction in this area. As these new generations begin to make up a larger share of the public, homosexuals will gain greater rights and protections – and widespread acceptance – in our culture.” [p100] “The absence of relational and spiritual solutions to “the problem of the homosexual lifestyle” in conservative evangelical churches “has left the church particularly vulnerable.” “While most young churchgoers believe the Bible does not condone homosexuality, their conviction about this is waning, and they are embarrassed by the church’s treatment of gays and lesbians.” [p101]
Because young outsiders are very attuned to people’s hearts and motivations and their respect for others and relativistic viewpoints they “…value what they perceive to be a more embracing and accepting mindset within the gay community.” “Christians who show no compassion, kindness, or grace make them feel at odds with whom they want to be as people.” “If some people interpret the Bible to make gays out to be abhorrent creatures, and if Christians make homosexuals feel like second-class human beings, young Christians start questioning their own loyalty to the faith.” [all p103]
The chapter ends with a patronising conclusion: “If our theology says homosexuality is wrong and sinful, is it still true that homosexuals have deep sexual needs, just like the rest of us? How can we not utter compassionate words and perform compassionate acts?” [p108]
The problem for conservatives is their fundamentalist theological starting point. They are never going to resolve the problem the church has with homosexuality until they abandon it. Meanwhile they are doing incalculable damage to the church, to mission and ministry and to individual lives, as the Barna research so honestly reveals.
I have followed the news stories of the past week in the light of this research – the further revelations about the Pope’s collusion in protecting abusive priests and failing to protect victims of abuse in any way, the letter from Archbishop Henry Orombi to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the GAFCON/FCA Communiqué from Bermuda and another letter from retired Archbishop George Carey, the Bishop of Winchester and others.
All are manifestations of a Christianity which young people are rejecting en masse because they accurately perceive it to be hypocritical; abusive, judgmental, bigoted, prejudiced and unchristian.
Changing Attitude is working towards a very specific goal, the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the Anglican Communion. We hail the approval given by the Episcopal Church to the ordination of the Revd Mary Glasspool as a bishop. We are glad that the Rev. Michael Barlowe — married to his partner, the Rev. Paul Burrows, both friends of mine, is one of those standing for election as bishop of Utah.
Changing Attitude’s agenda clearly has to expand to embrace a holistic vision for Christianity which embraces all that is good and holy, including the lives and loves of LGBT Christians, articulating and arguing for a new paradigm, new rich wine in new bottles. I confess that until recently I have suppressed my conviction that this is the direction Changing Attitude needs to embrace. The Barna research demonstrates the urgency with which we need to challenge the reactionary conservative campaign against gays in the church.