Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
During periods of philosophical transition, old verities no longer work and the new ones have yet to be discovered. In the early stage of a transition, the focus remains on the past. The middle stage begins once the obsession with the past subsides, but the future still remains murky. This middle stage holds the most uncertainty, but it also offers the most potential for innovation; that is, until the final stage comes into focus. Because the church currently finds itself in this middle stage, statistically-based research adds great value to the conversation.
David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons’ new book, Good Faith, starts by posing this question:
“What does the future hold for people of faith when people perceive Christians as irrelevant and extreme?” (12)
The purpose of their book is “to make a case for good faith” (15) which they described as having “three essential ingredients”, which are: “how well you love, what you believe, and how you live” (72). Kinnaman and Lyons explain these three ingredients in terms of loving God and loving others, remaining biblically orthodox, and living a lifestyle consistent with the two (72-74).
So why do people perceive faith to be irrelevant and extreme?
Irrelevant. Kinnaman and Lyons see the perception of irrelevance as a combination of apathy and ignorance (21-22).
Apathy jumps out of some basic statistics. Three out of four Americans have some Christian background, but only two in five Christians actively practice their faith (27). The good news is that the share of Christians who practice their faith has remained relatively stable over the generations (224).The decline in the share of nominal Christians, however, normally dominates the headlines.
With little or no social pressure to maintain ties to the church, many American remain ignorant of the role of the church in our culture. For example, many people do not realize that religious groups “make up the largest single share of national charitable giving” (30). When the Obama administration wanted to make progress on prison reform, hunger relief, combating sex-trafficking, and fighting poverty, they called on Christian-led organizations who did the most work in these areas (21). The Christian influence is not understood, in part, because people do not know that many American institutions, including school and universities, hospitals, labor unions, public libraries, voting rights for women and minorities, and endowments for the arts and sciences, began as Christian initiatives (33).
If you still believe that faith does not matter, consider a secular study done by economists at the University of Pennsylvania which looked at the economic benefit (or “halo effect”) of a dozen houses of worship (ten Protestant churches, one Catholic, and one Jewish) in Philadelphia. The study estimated the economic benefit to be $50 million per year (238). Another study, sponsored by World Vision in 2014, found that people generally believed churches should be involved in public issues like child protection and human rights, but were less tolerant of church involvement in their own spiritual lives (239).
Extreme. Christian faith appears extreme, not because it is dangerous, but because it is different (22). Pluralistic culture presumably preaches love and individualism, but endless corporate advertising homogenizes perceptions around consumerism and conformity, debasing real love and making a mockery of individual gifts, differences, and preferences.
Kinnaman and Lyons ask a pointed question: “Is it extremism when people live according to what they believe to be true about the world?” (40) Many Americans apparently would answer yes. Kinnaman and Lyons observe:
“While not majority opinions, millions of adults contend that behaviors such as donating money to religious causes, reading the Bible silently in public, and even attending church or volunteering are examples of religious extremism.” (41)
Because many Americans believe that Christian faith is extremist, conversation across the faith divide has become more difficult. A majority of Americans, for example, find it is more difficult to speak with an evangelical (55%) than someone in the LGBT community (52%) (45).
In part 1 of this review, I have provided an overview of the author’s problem statement. In parts 2 and 3 I will look at their suggestions for how to deal with the problem.
In their new book, Good Faith, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons explore the perceptions that Christian faith is both irrelevant and extreme, employing empirical studies and data to make their case. Their analysis bears examination and discussion by practicing Christians, seminary students, pastors, and researchers.