We’ve been talking about David Kinnaman’s 2011 book You Lost Me, which is about how modern fundagelical churches are losing young people right and left–and how they can perhaps reverse that tide through the magic of discipling. But there’s another magic spell he wants to teach Christians to cast here, and that spell revolves around reframing unpleasant and negative ideas so that churches won’t have to change anything they’re doing with regard to all the stuff that people cite as reasons to steer clear of Christianity.
Another Reframing Game.
It didn’t take me long to notice that the author has to walk a very, very careful tightrope in his book regarding his tribe’s self-important self-image and their love of culture wars. He has to reassure them constantly that the criticisms against them might not be totally charitable or accurate (but then again they sure might be, I thought as I read) and that while they might have to change a few cosmetic things about how they present themselves to others, they certainly don’t have to totally throw out all the stuff that they love about being fundagelical–all that hatred, exclusion, disdain of others, bigotry, xenophobia, and gibbering, frothing disgust with every single person who criticizes them and refuses to bend knee–or worse, who rejects them after years of unquestioning obedience.
Instead of actually changing any of their essential fundagelical traits, he teaches, Christians can instead reframe how they talk and think about those traits.
We’ve seen that reindeer game before in Christian lit. Preston Sprinkle’s entire approach is reframing when you get down to it. By subtly shifting their word choices and demeanor while engaging in those previously negative things, Christians can pretend that they’re talking about something really positive and great instead. It’s sorta like how one parent might tell a kid, “You have to go to church today,” while another tells the same kid, “You get to go to church today, how awesome is that?” At the end of the day, the kid still has to go to church either way and will probably not like it, but the parent at least can pretend that they’re offering something fun and enjoyable to their kid instead of an onerous slog that the kid will gleefully reject as soon as humanly possible.
Reframing in this way is very dishonest, but it’s literally all toxic Christians have at this point to avoid making changes to stuff they really don’t want to change. If they don’t want to change something but recognize that people are getting super turned off to their religion because of that thing, they can just relabel that thing and change a little of how they talk about it and pretend that’s a viable, meaningful change! And then when people still aren’t fooled by the slight shift in word choice, Christians can blame them for not understanding all the hard, difficult change that’s already happened.
It’s almost funny to see David Kinnaman constantly have to reassure his ruffled-up readers and smooth their feathers. After describing early in the book (p. 11) how young people feel that “the institutional church has failed them,” his very next sentence begins, “Whether or not that conclusion is fair. . .” He needs his readers to know that he is actually totally one of them and this is all just a terrible misperception problem, one that is easily enough corrected.
Don’t misunderstand here, however: he might be slightly criticizing a tiny bit, but he is still totally one of them. He completely disapproves of LGBTQ equality. He applauds the anti-abortion culture war that is at its heart a bunch of men doing their best to strip women of all of their bodily rights. He’s even on board with the newest crusade against sex trafficking (though he doesn’t understand, any more than his peers do, that sex trafficking and the abortion rate probably have an awful lot to do with religious zealots’ erosion and negating of women’s rights–so by opposing women’s rights to control both their reproduction and their sex lives, fundagelicals actually and ironically help prepare the way for both sex trafficking and the abortion rate to get worse). And he’s as deep into science denialism as any other fundagelical, though he’s very careful to avoid mentioning exactly what kind of Creationism he’s into.
And he knows, he totally knows, that his religion’s culture wars drive away young people. He’s completely aware of how many young people cite the Creationism debate as a reason for dissatisfaction with the religion, or how disgusted they are with Christians’ policing of other people’s private lives, or how repelled they feel by the hatred they see in their peers and leaders alike. He knows that fundagelicalism, as a system, seems designed from the ground up to completely alienate and drive away young people in particular. He knows that his tribe supports and pushes causes that are drastically unpopular with a whole bunch of people, while fighting against other causes that are nearly universally accepted by most young people (whether Christian or not).
David Kinnaman knows all this stuff, and he knows it better than probably any other true-blue fundagelical in his entire tribe.
Change Without Change.
But he also clearly knows that his tribe could no more change course on any of these matters than it could suddenly find evidence for its claims (an inference I make after seeing him slam the whole idea of having evidence for claims as “scientism” in the “anti-science” chapter*).
So he’s only got one avenue he can pursue if he want to improve things: he has to keep everything the way it is, but try to make it look more appealing to the people who currently want nothing to do with his tribe.
Reframing is how he accomplishes that impossible feat.
Reframing lets him position his tribe’s existing outlook and rules in a way that he thinks will sound much better to outsiders, and with very little effort can be demonstrated to be painless to his tribemates.
That’s how he moves from the negative aspects he identifies as sticking points for young people to positive virtues that young people will, he promises, agree with and like.
The important part I want you to remember, in the next section, is that absolutely nothing is actually changing except a bit of wording and phrasing. That’s how we know that he’s just playing the reframing game–and doing it in a way that implies that his end goal is to lay the blame for his religion’s continued decline on the young people who will, without a doubt, not respond at all to this farce he’s trying to start up.
The 5 Sticking Points and Their Reframing Flipside.
As we’ve seen, David Kinnaman has identified five very specific sticking-points that are causing young people (ages 15-30, roughly speaking) to reject Christianity and to leave churches if they were raised as churchgoing kids. He proposes that these supposedly negative traits are actually good, they’re just misunderstood. And so he creates a reframing solution for each one.
- Young people feel that church culture is overprotective. So instead, David Kinnaman wants fundagelicals to stress that they are, instead, trying to teach discernment.
- Young people dislike how shallow church culture is. So instead, that turns into an emphasis on apprenticeship.
- Young people consistently perceive church culture as anti-science. And instead of actually embracing the scientific method or showing respect to the advances humanity has made thanks to its development (which fundagelicals absolutely cannot do and still square it with their idolatry of literalism), the tribe instead should go for stewardship.
- Young people are disgusted with how repressive fundagelicals are. Since they can’t change their culture war at this point, instead the tribe should try to convince those young people that fundagelicals are instead trying to become more relational in their repressiveness.
- Young people are put off by how fundagelicals are so exclusional, and so instead of actually practicing real tolerance, they should embrace others–while still trying to rob them of their rights and trample their consent, of course, because doing it with a hug and squinched-up preacher eyebrows makes everything okay.
Any time he senses that his totally radical ideas might upset or offend his easily-upset brethren, David Kinnaman is quick to explain what he means by these–and as he explains, it becomes crystal-clear that he’s not actually talking about changing anything at all, just how his brethren talk about what they’re already doing and will continue to do.
Let’s take on that first point now to see how reframing works in practice.
A Word About Discernment.
We could do several posts just about the word discernment alone, both as it’s presented in this book and how Christians generally use the term.
It’s one of those Christianese words that doesn’t actually mean anything consistent. Ligonier Ministries, a super-duper-Calvinist bunch, calls it a Christian’s “sixth sense.” Generally speaking, it means one’s own personal judgment about something (anything–Bible verses, what clothes to wear, how to behave in public, anything). But because Jesus is supposed to live inside all Christians, discernment is supposed to be at least partially influenced by that divine infilling–and of course it’s correct and accurate about everything. A good sense of discernment is supposed to not only keep a Christian out of trouble and away from hypocritical behaviors and words, but also to keep that Christian in the religion itself. Bad discernment leads to the formation of weird ideas and hypocritical behaviors, and eventually may even lead the Christian displaying it right out of the religion.
Unfortunately, “Jesus” never talks consistently or coherently about anything to anybody, so what one Christian discerns as true, another discerns as false, and another still discerns as a lie straight from the pits of HAY-ull. Discernment, therefore, becomes considered both of vital importance and maddeningly subjective and unverifiable. There is literally no way whatsoever for a Christian to tell whether or not an opinion–theirs or someone else’s–is what it is because of divine discernment or because of rebelliousness or even demonic influence.
Almost every Christian thinks that there’s a way to tell the difference, of course. And their individual method, whatever it is, validates whatever opinion they hold and is used as a bludgeon to invalidate any and all opposing opinions.
Because there is literally no possible way for two different people to be right about some of a Christian’s opinions, and no literal way possible to figure out which opinion is the correct one between the two, you can imagine the fireworks that start whenever they notice that and start duking it out (because of course they must duke it out–the one thing a fundagelical cannot ever stand is another fundagelical whose opinion varies about anything, especially something doctrinal or culture-war-related). Inevitably, one will accuse the other of having poor discernment in the matter. But again, because of the purely subjective nature of discernment, there’s not really a way for either one of them to demonstrate in any credible or objective way why their discernment is godly while the other person’s discernment is from the flesh (Christianese meaning: from their own head rather than from any supernatural source) or demonic. You will also never really hear a Christian ever admit that their sense of discernment was totally off-base while another one’s was superior and more correct.
(If you’re an ex-Christian who has ever wondered how it is that a given Christian is always so totally sure that you did something wrong as a Christian that caused your deconversion even if they have no idea what, just that you must have, their idea of discernment plays a big part in that erroneous conviction. You will very rarely ever convince a fundagelical that you did everything right and still deconverted. If you had a proper sense of discernment as a Christian, you would not have deconverted–and it’s as simple as that. Ex-Christian = bad sense of discernment. QED.)
(And meanwhile, as I write this Mr. Captain is talking to his pals on Teamspeak about why his favorite Big Stompy Robot is objectively better than all the other Big Stompy Robots. It’s proceeding considerably differently than how two fundagelicals argue about their opinions. He’s tested other builds and has a spreadsheet about reaction times versus weight versus loadout, while they’re arguing based on their feelings about how their favorite build performs. This methodical approach of his might explain why people fear seeing his name show up in the drops. When you have real evidence for your claims, you don’t need discernment quite so much. Or blind faith at all, really.)
It’s downright wacky to see a fundagelical even imply, as David Kinnaman does, that discernment isn’t already a big focus in his religion. It’s always been there and it’s always been of utmost importance. I suppose he’s just moving it closer to the central ring in his mental circus.
How Discernment Gets Reframed.
One of the most frustrating aspects of this book, for me at least, was reading about exactly how David Kinnaman suggests his tribe go about reframing “overprotectiveness” into “discernment.” As I said, it’s dishonest–and out of every criticism I have of Christianity, its adherents’ stone-cold dishonesty is what irks me the worst. So when people asked me to discuss this particular reframing attempt, you can guess that I plunged right into that murky lake.
Here’s a quote from the book (p. 104) that illustrates what I mean about this author’s dishonesty:
Overprotectiveness characterizes everything that is not Christian as evil.
Discernment helps young people understand that other people are not our enemies, but that there is fundamental brokenness in humans and an adversary who intends to derail us in every way.
How exactly is that second thing any different from the first? They may be weasel-wording it as “brokenness,” but brokenness equals sin, and sin equals evil. Did you notice that he didn’t actually say that people aren’t evil? Instead, he shifts the word “evil” to “enemies,” and tries to make the case that people outside the tribe are not the tribe’s enemies.
But even there he fails completely to make the case that he’s saying anything new or advising that his tribe do anything differently.
Anything involving Satan (the “adversary” whose name apparently must not be spoken) is by definition evil to a Christian. Further, the idea that people are naturally evil without the Christian god’s mitigating influence and power–and that, therefore, TRUE CHRISTIANS™ must fight against them for control over society–is a foundation of fundagelical thought (and for that matter that’s the case in most Christian groups). The tribe’s enemies are, by definition as well, evil.
If you told a Christian young person that oh no, people aren’t evil per se, but they are totally broken and sinful and driven by the Adversary, who is actively seeking to oppose and thwart fundagelical goals, I sincerely do not think that young person would fail to draw the connection that actually, people are in fact evil–and that they are enemies.
So all he’s really advising is that the tribe quit calling outsiders evil, instead using this milder wording to mean exactly the same thing.
Want another? (Of course you do. I know I do! This is fun!)
Overprotectiveness makes strict rules about media consumption to “save the kids from smut.” It avoids watching, reading, and talking about current events and pop culture in the hope that they will just go away.
Discernment reads “the Bible and the newspaper” . . . Rather than steering clear of secular films, music, websites, books, and television shows, let’s watch, listen, and read together and do “cultural exegesis” as a faithful community. [“Exegesis” is Christianese for “interpretation.” — CC]
My first reaction: WOW, nothing sounds more enthralling to any Christian young person than sitting down with their pastor, youth minister, and church brethren to watch The Wolf of Wall Street to identify all of the reasons why they don’t want anyone to watch it.
My second: Young people are already disobeying those rules and most of them are doing all that stuff already–and seeing that it’s really not that bad. They don’t need to sit down with the whole church to criticize it.
And what happens after the whole church watches this movie (which I thought was really good, actually) and decides that it’s the worst thing ever and that it’s the dead opposite of a proper fundagelical’s entertainment? Do they just say “Well, go ahead and watch it then and we won’t bother you” or will they totally judge that person and treat them as less-than for watching and enjoying it? Will they be happy to allow the young people in their group to use their own discernment after they’ve gone through this mortifying exercise in futility to learn what they already knew their elders and leaders would think about it?
Yeah, I thought not.
So it ends up working out to there being strict rules, just that they’re not as explicitly stated in David Kinnaman’s perfect fundagelical world.
One more? (Sure, why not?)
Overprotectiveness oversimplifies the tough stuff of life–suffering, failure, relationships–and offers formulas instead of honest, contextualized answers.
Discernment is transparent about the hazards of being human and teaches the full witness of Scripture, which is messy, complex, and ultimately, wonderfully true.
So are they suggesting instead dropping all their formulaic, sexist, gender-role restricted rules for men and women? Shyeah, right. See that thing about “being human?” Remember, humans are broken and therefore sinful and therefore evil. When you see the word “contextualized,” that bit of Christianese means that they’re going to say something that their marks won’t like and they know it ain’t gonna be welcome, so they want to gussy it up with Bible verses to borrow a little extra authority.
David Kinnaman is by no means suggesting here that the formulas are wrong or that he doesn’t hold them as true. He’s certainly not suggesting that fundagelicals change any of those formulas–just to couch them in more Bible verses.
See what I mean here?
He’s not changing anything at all. He’s not suggesting that fundagelicals actually do anything different. He’s just trying to make it sound nicer to young people.
And I don’t know if he thinks young people will fall for it. I genuinely don’t. But I do know that he hopes against all hope that fervent fundagelicals will–and that they will in turn keep buying his books (and Barna Group’s materials) as a consequence. By the time the religion hits rock bottom and dissolves as a cultural force in America, he and his like-minded peers in Christian leadership will be hell and gone.
Next up: Rapture scares! See you then!
* There is, of course, only one reason why fundagelical Christians hate “scientism.” It’s not a very flattering reason, but in Christianity, reasons very rarely are.