Anti-Homosexuality destroying perceptions of the Church among young people

For many years now, high profile Christian leaders have been saying that homosexuality is destroying the church. It turns out that it may be their homophobia that is isolating the church and undermining opportunities for connecting with a new generation of non-Christians.

According to a new study by the Barna Group (an evangelical market research firm), perceptions of Christians among young non-Christians has nose-dived over the last decade. According to an article on Alternet reporting on the study:

Ten years ago, “the vast majority” of non-Christians [under 30] had generally favorable views of Christianity. Now, that number stands at just 16%. When asked specifically about Evangelicals, the number are even worse: only 3% of non-Christian Millennials have positive associations with Evangelicals.

These changes didn’t come out of the blue. The study found that the strongest negative trait associated with the church among non-Christians was “anti-homosexual” at 91%. A close second and third were judgmental (87%) and hypocritical (85%). According to the the summary of the study, as quoted on Alternet:

Non-Christians and Christians explained that beyond their recognition that Christians oppose homosexuality, they believe that Christians show excessive contempt and unloving attitudes towards gays and lesbians. One of the most frequent criticisms of young Christians was that they believe the church has made homosexuality a “bigger sin” than anything else.

I’m sure that many Christians will try to spin this as a result of increased persecution of Christians in the US or the influence of the secular, liberal media. But the study specifically highlights that perceptions are based on interactions with Christian friends or attending church. A whopping 80% of non-Christians surveyed had spent at least six months attending church. These are not casual cynics, jaded by the media. They are people who have tried Christianity and found it wanting. In other words, all of us Christians are responsible. We can’t just point our fingers at some other part of the church or secular society.

Although the study makes no mention of Bush, but I suspect 6 years of the Bush administration have also played a factor. This study was focused on the U.S., but I suspect on a global level, the numbers would be even worse. I’ve written here before about corrosive effect of Christianity’s association with American foreign policy I experienced first hand in England. But that corrosion is happening at home as well, and undoubtedly plays a role in those 3% positive association with the term among young non-Christians in this country. Globally, folks are even less likely to distinguish between George Bush’s evangelicalism and the rest of us.

So where’s the hope in all this? This week I started reading “Revolution in Jesusland”, a blog by Zack Exley, a progressive organizer, formerly of and Over the last two weeks, Zack has been going from one Christian conference to another listening to the likes of Shane Claiborne lead 11,000 evangelicals in the Litany of Resistance. His message is the title of his blog: Christians are beginning to discover that Jesus calls us to cross boundaries in revolutionary ways. This weekend he’s at the Christian Community Development Association conference in St Louis. He says:

I’ve had friends who were the children of the Catholic Worker movement–whose parents moved into poor urban areas in the 60’s. I remember thinking that must have been some dying gasp of the Christian progressive (then, socialist) movement.
But, as it turns out, (conservative!) evangelical Christians picked up where that movement left off. A lot of these leaders moved in to their neighborhoods starting in the 80’s and 90’s. And now the movement to move into “broken” neighborhoods seems to be reaching a fever pitch. I don’t have any stats to back that up, and I doubt anyone does. But it’s the new must-do thing for Christians who are “on fire for Jesus.”

So I guess I still have hope in Jesus, who somehow remains remarkably popular among all sorts of people. The most common unprompted comment among those surveyed Barna was “Christianity in today’s society no longer looks like Jesus.” Everyone in American culture, Christian and non-Christian still seems to know that our founder stands for peace, love and compassion. I still remember watching a Daily Show episode where John Stewart made an ironic comment comparing George Bush with Jesus. Everyone laughed. They understood the basic character of Jesus. Do we?

Comments (12)

  1. Adam

    Great post. What are the chances you could get away with putting it up over at your “themennonite” blog?

  2. graham

    Thanks for posting this, Tim.

  3. Huw

    I agree with most of the post – especially the part about gay being a bigger sin for many. That drives me up the wall. Big I disagree that “These are not casual cynics, jaded by the media.”

    6 months? Attending a church for 6 months is not enough time to get to know people’s names… let alone form a non-cynical opinion of that community. There’s no way to grasp the essentials of the faith in that time. I’m afraid that 6 months is about just the right time to become a casual cynic judging the person in the next row.

  4. Pingback: Sarx » Why they hate us…

  5. TimN (Post author)


    You’re absolutely right that 6 months is not long enough to grasp the essentials of our faith. But it is long enough for church’s to model the radical hospitality of Jesus. Cynicism doesn’t just appear out of nowhere. My point is that the church is apparently failing to connect with young adults when they are attending for 6 months (or likely more in many cases). This isn’t to say that the young adults don’t bear some responsibility as well. But I don’t think we can get away with simply pointing a figure at contemporary culture.

    Finally, after saying all that, I don’t think we can get too wrapped up in the 6 months time period. The wording of the survey was apparently “6 months or more”, but many young people may have spent much longer in the church than that.

    Adam, a summary of the posts here at YAR is published in Tmail, the weekly email publication of The Mennonite. It goes out Monday, so we’ll see if we get any response then…

  6. DevanD


    A Christian discussion group that meets at my apartment is actually going to be reading through the book UnChristian, which publishes the results of the Barna Group study along with reflections by (mostly) American and Canadian leaders of faith on how to respond to these observations made by non-Christians today. We are reading it with a few local leaders of faith who are interested in hearing how young adults understand faith and discipleship today.

    I immediately turned to the chapter on homosexuality. I read through the results, which appear pretty damning as you show above.

    The response of the Christian leaders I found a bit flat. Their responses were supposed to be fresh, new, exciting ways to move forward. Instead, they sounded about 20 years behind. The overarching message was, essentially (and it is actually said by Kinneman) “Love the sinner, hate the sin”. This has been hashed out by other folks on the blog who can better articulate the point then I can, but this response by Christian leaders, while good intentioned, still outright condemns committed homosexual partnerships. This condemnation has thin (or no) scriptural basis.

    One Christian leader who worked in “homosexual ministry” said that we should love homosexuals and welcome them, but encourage them to be celibate.

    What?!? After spending the chapter talking about how homosexuality is no worse a sin than any other sin, the book doesn’t even follow its own logic. It expects of those who are queer a celibacy that would never be expected of a heterosexual of faith (in fact, churches are in a rush to marry their young to save their souls from lust!)

    Also, the overall consensus of the authors and contributors is that “scripture says” being queer is a sin, yet never once is scripture quoted to back that up.

    I suppose the authors and contributors want to make a small step: reminding the church that we should love those who are queer rather than marginalizing and oppressing them despite believing they are sinners.

    It’s a sad state, though, when we have to remind Christians to love their neighbors……

  7. Huw

    “6 months or more” More a comment on the methodology of the survey, then. Sorry about that!

    Hospitality: that’s our problem!

  8. Skylark

    “This study was focused on the U.S., but I suspect on a global level, the numbers would be even worse.”

    I remember reading on YAR a few months ago Mennonite Christians in the Third World tend to be more conservative on moral issues (e.g. homosexuality) than the common positions put forth on this blog. An MK who grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, told me Satan is a real and tangible figure for Kenyan Christians, while in the U.S. we talk in minimal ways about Satan’s influence on our lives and the lives of others.

    How do evangelical spokespeople around the world address glbtq issues? While a Chinese Christian’s view of the U.S. and evangelicalism here may be affected by Pat Robertson and James Dobson, how the Chinese Christian lives his/her life is affected most by the opinion leaders in his/her life like parents, pastors, study groups, etc.

    Are Christians worldwide looking to Christians in the U.S. for cues on doctrine and practice?

  9. Brian Hamilton

    The answer to your last question, Skylark, seems to be a resounding no, as the (arguably) imminent rupture between the Episcopalian Church and the global Anglican communion makes clear. The most outspoken opponents to the Episcopalian position on lgbtq ordination and marital union have been from Africa. On the contrary, the American church is commonly seen as being in full decline from having sold out culturally–not only by Africa and Latin America, but even by certain European voices. It would be quite interesting to see a similar survey to this one from other areas of recent Christian flourishing.

  10. Andy Armitage

    Christians of the gay-hating variety have really shot themselves in the foot, and I can’t say I’m displeased to see the Anglican Communion pulling itself apart over this. It will really sort the men from the boy – the men in this case being those who can stand up to the homophobes, the boys being the childish homophobes themselves. (Sorry about the men/boy thing, ladies: it’s hard to use the “men from the boys” cliché and then talk “him or her” and “he or she”!)

    Not only do gay people themselves bristle at this silly behaviour on the parts of the gay-hating Christians and other religionists, but in these days of civil partnerships and far, far more acceptance of the fact that to be gay is natural and not evil, you’ll find that most straights have some gay friends, too, so they are going to bristle likewise.

    Fortunately, there are some good Christians out there making the right noises. I may not go along with their beliefs, since I’m a nontheist, but I admire them if they stand up to the childish (frankly unintelligent) homophobic bullies, who are really just today’s equivalent of the religious elements in the KKK early last century and before.

  11. drdanfee

    Wow many thanks for your study and work and witness and discussions. If you are part of the young folks coming up in our next generational wave, I am ever so grateful for your openness that still aims to follow Jesus as Risen Lord. Too bad you as more open believers are not running things yet. Keep going, please. Thank goodness, thank God.

    Too bad that so far as conservative believers tend to go in the realignment campaign among Anglicans-Episcopalians, the Anglican Communion has outlived its intelligently broadened usefulness as a coherent religious community. But Jesus and we remain. Imagine that.

  12. DevanD


    Thanks for stopping by the blog.

    I wonder if, amongst the many posts you put on your blog that prescribe an evangelical atheism and tend to give a lot of attention to what you view as malpractices among Abrahamic faiths, you could also highlight the internal dialogue happening amongst Christian churches on this issue – even link to our blog here. I went to your site and did not see a post mentioning this dialogue – perhaps not shock-worthy enough for the “free thinkers” visiting the blog I suppose.


Comments are closed.