Young Americans today are more skeptical and resistant to Christianity than were people of the same age just a decade ago, says a new study.
Negative perceptions toward the Christian faith have outweighed the positive as a growing percentage of younger Americans associate with a faith outside Christianity.
Only 16 percent of non-Christians aged 16 to 29 years old said they have a "good impression" of Christianity, according to a report released Monday by The Barna Group. A decade ago, the vast majority of Americans outside the Christian faith, including young people, felt favorably toward Christianity's role in society,
Young people have an even lesser positive impression of evangelicals. Only 3 percent of 16- to 29-year-olds who are not of the Christian faith express favorable views of evangelicals. In the previous generation, 25 percent of young people had positive associations toward evangelicals.
"[Evangelicals] have always been viewed with skepticism in the broader culture," said the Barna report. "However, those negative views are crystallizing and intensifying among young non-Christians."
Common negative perceptions among non-Christians is that present-day Christianity is judgmental (87 percent), hypocritical (85 percent), old-fashioned (78 percent), and too involved in politics (75 percent).
For the most part, Christians are aware of the greater degree of criticism toward Christianity. According to the study, 91 percent of the nation's evangelicals believe that "Americans are becoming more hostile and negative toward Christianity."
Half of senior pastors say that "ministry is more difficult than ever before because people are increasingly hostile and negative toward Christianity."
There were also some widely held favorable perceptions toward Christianity including beliefs that Christianity teaches the same basic ideas as other religions (82 percent), has good values and principles (76 percent), is friendly (71 percent), and is a faith they respect (55 percent).
Criticism, however, was not limited to young people outside the Christian faith. Half of young churchgoers said they perceive Christianity to be judgmental, hypocritical and too political. Also, one-third said it was old-fashioned and out of touch with reality.
Moreover, the study showed a new image attached to the Christian faith that is growing in prominence over the last decade. Overall, 91 percent of young non-Christians and 80 percent of young churchgoers say present-day Christianity is "anti-homosexual."
"As the research probed this perception, 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," the Barna report stated.
Young Christians largely criticize the church, saying it has made homosexuality a "bigger sin" than anything else and that the church has not helped them apply the biblical teaching on homosexuality to their friendships with gays and lesbians.
Among other common impressions, 23 percent of young non-Christians said "Christianity is changed from what it used to be" and "Christianity in today's society no longer looks like Jesus." Young born-again Christians were just as likely to say the same (22 percent).
"That's where the term 'unChristian' came from," said David Kinnaman, president of The Barna Group who presents the findings in his new book unChristian. "Young people are very candid. In our interviews, we kept encountering young people – both those inside the church and outside of it - who said that something was broken in the present-day expression of Christianity. Their perceptions about Christianity were not always accurate, but what surprised me was not only the severity of their frustration with Christians, but also how frequently young born again Christians expressed some of the very same comments as young non-Christians."
Research further revealed that those outside of Christian faith have had significant experience with Christians and Christian churches. On average, young non-Christians said they have five friends who are Christians; more than four out of five have attended a Christian church for a period of at least six months in the past; and half have previously considered becoming a Christian.
"Older generations more easily dismiss the criticism of those who are outsiders," Kinnaman said. "But we discovered that young leaders and young Christians are more aware of and concerned about the views of outsiders, because they are more likely to interact closely with such people. Their life is more deeply affected by the negative image of Christianity. For them, what Christianity looks like from an outsider's perspective has greater relevance, because outsiders are more likely to be schoolmates, colleagues, and friends."
The declining reputation of Christianity correlates with shifting faith allegiances of Americans, the study pointed out.
Each new generation has a larger share of people who are not Christians, which includes atheists, agnostics, people with no faith orientation or people associated with another faith). Among adults over the age of 40, only about one-quarter associate with a non-Christian faith compared to 40 percent of 16- to 29-year-olds.
"This is not a passing fad wherein young people will become 'more Christian' as they grow up," according to the report. "While Christianity remains the typical experience and most common faith in America, a fundamental recalibration is occurring within the spiritual allegiance of America's upcoming generations."