Recently, I have seen making the rounds a finding from the Barna Group (an evangelical research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture). Barna’s finding comes out of a huge study they did about how the next generation views the church and Christian faith. Their conclusion is: “This generation doesn't just want to know whether Christianity is true; they want to see that it is good.”
I have also seen some people use this conclusion of Barna as a reason to justify doing away with some of Christianity’s more difficult teachings. Not only doctrines like final judgement or the exclusivity of Christ, but also teachings that come up against our current NZ cultural values in regards to sexual ethics. They argue: “people want a Christian faith that is good. These traditional teachings of Christians are not good, so let’s do away with them.”
But here’s the rub: how do we know what is good, unless we know what is true? Just because our culture views something as good does not mean it is actually good. Further, just because people find certain Christian beliefs abhorrent does not mean they are actually abhorrent. Christians have been accused of not “being good” since the beginning. Look at this quote from the Roman historian Tacitus, writing in AD 115–117...
"Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd called Chrestians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital [Rome] itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and become fashionable."
Today is not the first time in history where people have found certain Christian doctrines unappealing!
Ok, what is Barna really trying to say? That the next generation has realized that Christianity is not just about having the correct beliefs (though correct beliefs are important), but that how we live our lives in the light of those beliefs is equally important if not more so.
Christianity is not simply: “Believe this doctrine, and you are good to go”. No, Jesus tells us: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24). Jesus is calling us to action. We need to love God, love truth, and love others. For example, we need to love the truth that Jesus died for us while we were still sinners, and thus love the truth that we also need to love others while they are still sinners.
If we want to reach the next generation, how should we live? Not just by believing something different than our neighbour, but by living and loving, in consistency with the truth both revealed and lived out by Jesus.
Is our life both distinctive and good? Are we spending our money and time any differently than the non-Jesus-believing world around us? Are we just scrolling through social media, watching Netflix, and taking our kids to sport? The next generation is looking for something more. They do want truth. They also want to know that Christianity will do good in the world. They want truth that leads to action on big issues like racial injustice, the environment, and poverty. They want both clarity and grace, on things like sex, identity, meaning and purpose. Jesus reminds us that following him costs something. It cost his life. And Barna’s research reminds us that Jesus calls us to radical life change. That includes loving others at their worst, just like Jesus loves us.
We don’t show love by abandoning truth, so as to be called “good” by our culture. We show love by loving God, loving the truth, and going out of our way to love others.
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Tacitus, Annals 15.44. Translation lightly adapted for readability from Tacitus Annals Books 13–16, Loeb Classical Library 322 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1937), 283, 285. The translation has also been adapted to use the spelling Chrestians rather than Christians.