What unChristian Tells Us About Spiritual Formation

A Conversation with Author David Kinnaman Jan Johnson Part 12 of 20


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David Kinnaman (along with Gabe Lyons) is the author of unChristian, a book that reports and analyzes the Barna Group’s research on what 16- to 29-year-olds who are on the outside of Christianity really think of Christians. After interviewing thousands of young people and listening to their stories, Kinnaman found that the church has more than a superficial image problem; often outsiders’ perceptions of Christianity reveal “a church infatuated with itself.” For example, one young person made this blunt observation: “Christianity has become bloated with blind followers who would rather repeat slogans than actually feel true compassion and care. Christianity has become marketed and streamlined into a juggernaut of fear-mongering that has lost its own heart.” From the research, Kinnaman came up with nine recommendations for new directions Christians need to take. (To learn what they are, read on.) One of his conclusions was this: “It comes down to this: we must become Christ-like again….  In many ways a focus on spiritual formation fits what a new generation is really seeking.” This conclusion made Conversations eager to hear more.

Jan Johnson: In unChristian, you say that in many ways a focus on spiritual formation fits what a new generation is seeking.1 Why do you say that?

David Kinnaman: A new generation is looking for a Christianity of depth and significance rather than “spirituality lite.” Our research points out that four out of five American teenagers spend at least six months in a Christian church, experiencing and testing what we have to offer. They leave because they find it boring, unintellectual, and out of touch with reality. We give young people just enough of Jesus to be bored, but not enough to be transformed. When so many try it and drop out, we have to ask if this is the best we can do.

JJ: The book is based on the seven critiques of the born-again church culture named by those age 16 to 30 who are outside the church: hypocritical, anti-homosexual, judgmental, proselytizing (insensitive to others, not genuine), too political (an understanding of how culture changes), and sheltered (old-fashioned, out of touch with reality). In what ways are these issues of spiritual formation?

DK: Henri Nouwen described the antidote to our persistent problem of self-made American religion, where we talk about being communities of grace but don’t live that out as well as we could. In The Way of the Heart, he says that if we have a problem showing compassion, we don’t just try to do more compassionate things. Instead we follow a pathway of understanding the “other.” “Compassion is the fruit of solitude and the basis of all ministry. The purification and transformation that take place in solitude manifest themselves in compassion.” Nouwen describes how hard it is to be compassionate and then says, “It is in solitude that this compassionate solidarity grows. Our heart of stone can be turned into a heart of flesh, a rebellious heart into a contrite heart, and a closed heart into a heart that can open itself to  all suffering people.”2

So when we consider the Christian community’s posture toward gays and lesbians, we see that it needs to be one of compassion. But we can’t just muster up compassionate feelings toward others. It’s impossible in our humanness. Instead, through spiritual disciplines like silence and solitude, and by truly listening, truly understanding our brokenness before God and realizing how much God has forgiven us, we can start to forgive those who offend our sensibilities and seem completely “other.” Then our compassion is grounded and fueled by our closeness to God, not by efforts to manufacture compassion.

JJ: What prevents this compassion from developing?

DK: The deeper story behind being too political or proselytizing or judgmental is that Christians do not think they have access to the halls of power, whether it’s political or spiritual or economic or media-related, and so they feel out of control. In truth Christians still have a fair degree of influence in those sectors. Nouwen talks about the tension Christianity has with power: “Every time we see a major crisis in the history of the church such as the Great Schism of the eleventh century or the Reformation of the sixteenth century or the immense secularization in the twentieth century, we always see that a major cause of the rupture is the power exercised by those who claim to be the followers of the poor and powerless Jesus. What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love.”3

Being involved in politics or evangelism or discernment is not wrong for Christians, but it doesn’t work to exercise power through those methods without a heart that’s been transformed or without a heart that sees fellow Christians and those who are non-Christians as opportunities for us to express love and compassion for them. Often we end up exercising power rather than the hard task of love.

JJ: How might the spiritual formation community address the issue of compassion?

DK: Currently we are expressing compassion through causes that essentially makes us consumers of that cause. For example, we buy an armband or a T-shirt, or we sign up for a cause online. But we don’t get involved with those who are suffering within that cause. The spiritual formation community can answer by showing what it means to be the gospel in proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor to the captives and to the blind (Luke 4:18–19). We have an opportunity to model a deeper level of discipleship in walking with those who suffer.

But it’s hard to see the perspectives of those who are “other,” so we need activities that allow us to see how broken we are and our nearness to Christ. When we spend time weekly at a community center for the poor, it changes our perspective on politics, on evangelism, and gives us a new urgency for gospel, and it makes us less of a “clanging cymbal” to people around us (1 Cor. 13:1).

The world has taken great offense to our culture as we export pornography through the Internet. The Muslim community has a right to be offended by that, and we Christians should be as offended. So we need efforts to fast and to create whole lives within the Christian community in relation to sexuality. We need a willingness to be Jesus to the pornography industry. My friend has gone to porn industry conventions to distribute Scriptures and provide all sorts of assistance to people who want to escape that. That may or may not be labeled a spiritual discipline, but it helps people cultivate this heart for the other and what traps people.

JJ: unChristian offered these “passions that should define the Christ follower”:

  • worshiping God intimately and passionately.
  • engaging in spiritual friendships with other believers.
  • pursuing faith in the context of family.
  • embracing intentional forms of spiritual growth. serving others.
  • investing time and resources in spiritual pursuits
  • having faith-based conversations with outsiders.4

How do you (or don’t you) see these fitting in with spiritual formation?

DK: One of the most sobering critiques of our spiritual state came up in a survey we released several years ago. We asked born-again Christians, What are the top priorities of Christians? What do you pursue most passionately? The most common response was: trying not to sin, trying to be a better person.

Most Christians didn’t mention these passions. The insight there is that most believers in America see their faith essentially as a glorified form of behavior modification (whether they realize it or not). They try hard to follow the rules described in the Bible, but they miss its message that we’re adopted through God’s unconditional love (expressed to us through his son Jesus), which empowers us to move forward. So spiritual formation could move us away from simply trying to avoid sin to cultivating a heart of compassion, a different level of service, and a different view of our finite and broken natures.

JJ: In what ways might the spiritual formation community speak to our Christian subculture as well as the culture at large to help them move away from these negative tendencies toward the positive ones?

DK: The fundamental issues of the next generation in the American church are narcissism and individualism. We have become quite American in our consumption of Christian goods and services. Instead we’ve got to find a way to reconnect with what it means to be a community of faith.

Narcissism leads us to think we have answers for a dying culture, but when answers are offered without love, we’re only clanging cymbals. People think they’re expressing love when they condemn homosexuality, but love is measured by its outcome, results, and heartbeat for others. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “The church is the church only when it exists for others.”5 The spiritual formation community can help us find ways to unlock this narcissism and consumerism and reconnect us with people who are different from us. Instead of simply trying to export our American style of Christianity to the world, God is asking us to learn from the international church new disciplines of simplicity.

Also, as technology and consumerism continue to strip us down to shells of human beings, spiritual formation can draw us into deeper practices that answer some of our age-old questions. In doing so, we see how Christians of all ages are still being the church and have been for centuries. Then they can see there’s a way out of our technological trap of having more leisure time but being lonelier and less satisfied.

Spiritual formation can also help this next generation in general with their typical skepticism about the Bible, its origins, and its accuracy by providing healthy entry points for the way we teach and approach Scripture. Spiritual formation is a place for skeptics. It’s a place for people to work out their faith, questions, and doubts and to understand there are larger questions and answers. They can discover that God allows us a full range of emotions and is not threatened by that.

JJ: How does spiritual formation help people explore questions and doubts?

DK: Practices such as solitude, silence, community, and service are places where we work through our lack of significance and our finite nature. The culture tells young people they can be anything in the world, but at their core they have doubts about that. They need space to work out these questions. Because we don’t encourage young people to experience these practices, we allow self-absorption to continue. We try to out-cool the culture with great youth programs, but that doesn’t answer the deeper soul-level questions that young people are asking.

JJ: You emphasize that young people prefer belonging and community, saying, “They want to try things out themselves, disdaining self-proclaimed experts and ‘talking head’ presentations. If they are not permitted to participate in the process, they quickly move on to something that grabs them.”6 Please talk about that.

DK: If we teach a seminar on spiritual formation and unpack it in traditional ways, hoping that young people will sit back and sponge in what we’re saying and walk away with a different way of life, we’ll be disappointed. They won’t be transformed.

Young people want to be engaged. Part of the reason our ministries are hemorrhaging in our influence with young people is that we haven’t engaged them in the process of learning or in spiritual growth.

This often happens because we imagine that we’re the wise ones conveying truth. It’s a question of our posture and pride. If we’re so stuck on what we have to teach and not what we have to learn, we’ve become part of the problem. That’s one of the great challenges.

The reason we’re known as unChristian is that we’ve become too comfortable with our own wisdom rather than relying on the Holy Spirit to give us the right words and the right expression of Christ in our lives with those who critiqued us. Listening to the Holy Spirit drives us to be good listeners, to give boldness and confrontation in the life of friends. There are times to be silent listeners to a friend and times to challenge them on their core assumptions. This is what is lacking so much in our Christian lives today. We as humans can’t discern that without being completely given over to Lord’s leading.

We as established leaders have to understand that God has a heart for the young. In Scripture God anoints people early in their lives (for example: Samuel, David, Jeremiah, and at least a few of the apostles), and we need to listen to them. Our posture has to be that we’ll teach, but we’ll also learn from young leaders themselves because they often experience how God is moving in a fresh way. It will be interesting to see how spiritual disciplines will be reimagined by the next generation.

JJ: What would you most like to say to or request of the spiritual formation community?

DK: The spiritual formation community has many of the antidotes that the church in general and the next generation of Christians in particular are looking for. I couldn’t underscore strongly enough my sense that it’s important for this community to be active and healthy and connecting its thoughts and practices into emerging sectors of the church.

My caution would be not to think of the term “spiritual formation” or its processes as the antidote. The focus needs to be on Christ, not on movements or practices. When we view the latter as solutions, the Holy Spirit is quick to remind us that the way of Jesus is what is central. Just like any other movement, the spiritual formation community could develop a pride in itself, forgetting it’s only one component of what God’s doing in the world.

Spiritual formation is a set of ideas and leaders whose time has come, but it would be true of our adversary that just at the moment when we could help breathe life into the church, we could get in the way ourselves. Becoming shrill and critical of anyone who doesn’t agree with our take on spiritual formation would strip the life out of our practices and mind-set. Every movement struggles with this.

I have great respect and hope for spiritual formation and where it will go in the next decade or two. But we’ll need a proper dose of humility in that process.

Part of the mind-set of the spiritual formation community might be, Just what is it that we, as the gurus, have discovered to teach the next generation? How do we partner with and learn from them as they go through this process of spiritual formation?

New Directions

  1. from being hypocritical to being transparent; acting first and talking second.
  2. from anti-homosexual attitudes to compassion and love to all people, regardless of their lifestyle.
  3. from being judgmental to showing grace by finding the good in others and seeing their potential to be Christ followers.
  4. from being sheltered (old-fashioned, boring, out of touch with reality) to being engaged, informed and offering well-thought-out responses to issues people face.
  5. from being proselytizers (insensitive to others, not genuine) to cultivating relationships and environments where people can be deeply transformed.
  6. from being too political (an understanding of how culture changes) to respecting people, thinking biblically and finding the way forward in complex issues


  1. David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, unChristian. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007, 206.
  2. Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1981, 33, 34.
  3. Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1989, 76–77.
  4. Kinnaman and Lyons, 80.
  5. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison. New York: The Macmillan Publishing Company, 1971, 382.
  6. Kinnaman and Lyons, 23.
David Kinnanman is the president of the Barna Group and author of the best-selling book, unChristian. his work explores the spirituality of teens and young adults, vocation and calling, and the intersection of faith and culture. David has conducted research for many churches and organizations, including compassion, habitat for humanity, InterVarsity, NBC-Universal, the Salvation Army, Sony, The One Campaign, World Vision, and many others. David and his wife, Jill, live in Ventura, California, with their three kids.
Listen to all parts in this Conversations—How We Change series