May 15, 2012

How To Win A Culture War And Lose A Generation

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What is the issue?

When asked by The Barna Group what words or phrases best describe Christianity, the top response among Americans ages 16-29 was “anti-homosexual.” For a staggering 91 percent of non-Christians, this was the first word that came to their mind when asked about the Christian faith. The same was true for 80 percent of young churchgoers. (The next most common negative images? “Judgmental,” “hypocritical,” and “too involved in politics.”)

In the book that documents these findings, titled unChristian, David Kinnaman writes:

The gay issue has become the ‘big one, the negative image most likely to be intertwined with Christianity’s reputation. It is also the dimensions that most clearly demonstrates the unchristian faith to young people today, surfacing in a spate of negative perceptions: judgmental, bigoted, sheltered, right-wingers, hypocritical, insincere, and uncaring. Outsiders say [Christian] hostility toward gays…has become virtually synonymous with the Christian faith.

Later research, documented in Kinnaman’s You Lost Me, reveals that one of the top reasons 59 percent of young adults with a Christian background have left the church is because they perceive the church to be too exclusive, particularly regarding their LGBT friends. Eight million twenty-somethings have left the church, and this is one reason why.

In my experience, all the anecdotal evidence backs up the research.

When I speak at Christian colleges, I often take time to chat with students in the cafeteria. When I ask them what issues are most important to them, they consistently report that they are frustrated by how the Church has treated their gay and lesbian friends. Some of these students would say they most identify with what groups like the Gay Christian Network term “Side A” (they believe homosexual relationships have the same value as heterosexual relations in the sight of God). Others better identify with “Side B” (they believe only male/female relationship in marriage is God’s intent for sexuality). But every single student I have spoken with believes that the Church has mishandled its response to homosexuality.

Most have close gay and lesbian friends.

Most feel that the Church’s response to homosexuality is partly responsible for high rates of depression and suicide among their gay and lesbian friends, particularly those who are gay and Christian.

Most are highly suspicious of “ex-gay” ministries that encourage men and women with same-sex attractions to marry members of the opposite sex in spite of their feelings.

Most feel that the church is complicit, at least at some level, in anti-gay bullying.

And most… I daresay all… have expressed to me passionate opposition to legislative action against gays and lesbians.

“When evangelicals turn their anti-gay sentiments into a political campaign,” one college senior on her way to graduate school told me, “all it does is confirm to my gay friends that they will never be welcome in the church. It makes them bitter, and it makes me mad too.  This is why I never refer to myself as an evangelical. Ugh. I’m embarrassed to be part of that group.”

I can relate.

When Tennessee added an amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriage (even though it was already illegal in the state), members of my church at the time put signs in the yard declaring support for the initiative. From my perspective, the message this sent to the entire community was simple: EVERYONE BUT GAYS WELCOME.

Dan and I left the church soon afterwards.

Which brings me to North Carolina and Amendment One.

Despite the fact that the North Carolina law already holds that marriage in the eyes of state is only between a man and a woman, an amendment was put on the ballot to permanently ban same-sex marriage in the state constitution. The initiative doesn’t appear to change anything on a practical level, (though some are saying it may have unintended negative consequences on heterosexual relationships), but seems to serve primarily as an ideological statement

…an expensive, destructive, and impractical ideological statement.

Conservatives in the state — who you would think would be more opposed to tampering with constitutions — supported the amendment, and last night it passed. Religious leaders led the charge in support of the amendment, with 93-year-old Billy Graham taking out multiple ads in publications across the state supporting the measure.

As I watched my Facebook and Twitter feeds last night, the reaction among my friends fell into an imperfect but highly predictable pattern. Christians over 40 were celebrating. Christians under 40 were mourning. Reading through the comments, the same thought kept returning to my mind as occurred to me when I first saw that Billy Graham ad: You’re losing us.

I’ve said it a million times, and I’ll say it again… (though I’m starting to think that no one is listening):

My generation is tired of the culture wars. 

We are tired of fighting, tired of vain efforts to advance the Kingdom through politics and power, tired of drawing lines in the sand, tired of being known for what we are against, not what we are for.

And when it comes to homosexuality, we no longer think in the black-and-white categories of the generations before ours. We know too many wonderful people from the LGBT community to consider homosexuality a mere “issue.” These are people, and they are our friends. When they tell us that something hurts them, we listen. And Amendment One hurts like hell.

Regardless of whether you identify most with Side A or Side B, (or with one of the many variations within those two broad categories), it should be clear that amendments like these needlessly offend gays and lesbians, damage the reputation of Christians, and further alienate young adults—both Christians and non-Christian—from the Church.

So my question for those evangelicals leading the charge in the culture wars is this: Is it worth it? 

Is a political “victory” really worth losing millions more young people to cynicism regarding the Church?

Is a political “victory” worth further alienating people who identify as LGBT?

Is a political “victory” worth perpetuating the idea that evangelical Christians are at war with gays and lesbians?

And is a political “victory” worth drowning out that quiet but persistent internal voice that asks — what if we get this wrong?

Too many Christian leaders seem to think the answer to that question is “yes,” and it’s costing them.

Because young Christians are ready for peace.

We are ready to lay down our arms.

We are ready to start washing feet instead of waging war. 

And if we cannot find that sort of peace within the Church, I fear we will look for it elsewhere. TC mark

image – Phil Whitehouse
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