We’ve been talking about David Kinnaman’s 2011 book You Lost Me. It’s about how modern fundagelical churches are losing young people right and left. In it, Kinnaman suggests that evangelicals can perhaps reverse that tide through the magic of discipling. But there’s another magic spell he wants to teach Christians to cast here. That spell involves reframing unpleasant and negative ideas into huge positives. That way, churches won’t have to change anything they’re doing now. And as a bonus, they get to look down on all the people rejecting their sales pitches! Today, let’s examine the reframing game Kinnaman plays in You Lost Me.
You Lost Me is a long exercise in reframing
David Kinnaman has to walk a very, very careful tightrope in his book regarding his tribe’s self-important self-image and their beloved 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,) At most, he assures them, they might have to change a few cosmetic things about how they present themselves to others.
But don’t worry! They certainly don’t have to totally throw out all the stuff that they love about being fundagelical. They need not discard all that hatred, exclusion, disdain of others, bigotry, and xenophobia. For sure, they need not lose their obvious gibbering, frothing disgust with every single person who criticizes them and refuses to bend knee–or worse, who rejects their control-grabs.
Instead of actually changing any of their essential fundagelical traits, he teaches something else.
In his view, Christians just need to reframe how they talk and think about those traits.
A quick introduction to dishonest reframing games
We’ve seen that reindeer game before in Christian lit. When we get down to it, Preston Sprinkle’s entire approach is reframing bigotry into some kind of weird bonus plan Jesus offers Christians.
By subtly shifting their word choices and demeanor, Christians pretend that they’re talking about something really positive and great instead of something creepy and negative. It’s sorta like how one parent might tell a kid, “Get up! We have to go to church today.” But another tells their kid, “Get up! We get to go to church today! How awesome is that?”
At the end of the day, both kids still have to go to church. It’s not like either kid can refuse to go. They will probably not like it, either. But the second parent pretends that they’re offering a fun and enjoyable outing instead of an onerous slog. (And in a few years, both parents will be utterly shocked that both kids reject religion as soon as they are humanly able to do so.)
Reframing in this way is very dishonest. But it’s literally all toxic Christians have at this point. They don’t want to change. So, they are bargaining like an self-medicating addict with their substance of choice. We can see the results of that bargain in You Lost Me.
Evangelicals don’t want to change anything. But they do recognize that people are getting super turned off to their religion because of how they act. So Kinnaman tells them that they can just relabel that thing. They can change how they talk about it.
Using his advice, evangelicals can now pretend they’ve made a meaningful change! Of course, nobody will actually fooled by this shift in word choice. But that’s fine too. At that point, Christians can blame them for not understanding all the hard, difficult changes they’ve totally made.
How David Kinnaman reframes negatives into positives in You Lost Me
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 culture-warring fundagelicals actually and ironically create the conditions that produce both heightened need for abortion care and sex trafficking). 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.
David Kinnaman knows all this stuff, and he knows it better than probably any other true-blue fundagelical in his entire tribe.
You Lost Me offers change without any changes
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”*).
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 he’ll try to make it look more appealing to the people who reject his tribe.
Reframing is how he accomplishes that impossible feat.
Reframing lets Kinnaman position his tribe’s existing outlook and rules in a way that he thinks will sound much better to outsiders.
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 phrasing. That’s how we know that he’s just playing the reframing game. Worse, he’s 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 pull on them.
Reframing five sticking points in You Lost Me
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, Kinnaman advises an emphasis on apprenticeship.
- Young people consistently perceive church culture as anti-science. But the tribe need not embrace the scientific method or show 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). Instead, the tribe instead should talk up its 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. 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. Doing that 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. As he explains, it becomes crystal-clear that he’s not actually talking about changing anything at all. He only wants his brethren to change how they talk about this stuff.
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 anything—Bible verses, what clothes to wear, or how to behave in public.
But because Jesus is supposed to live inside all Christians, discernment is supposed to be at least partially influenced by that divine infilling. As such, of course discernment is correct and accurate about everything.
A good sense of discernment is supposed to keep a Christian out of trouble and away from hypocritical behaviors and words. It’s also thought to keep that Christian faithful to the religion itself. By the same token, bad discernment leads to the formation of weird ideas and hypocritical behaviors. It may even lead a Christian right out of the faith.
Unfortunately, Jesus never talks consistently or coherently about anything to anybody. As a result, what one Christian discerns as true, another could easily discern as false. Another still could discern it 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—formed because of divine discernment or because of rebelliousness or even through 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. They use their method as a bludgeon to invalidate any and all opposing opinions.
When contradictory discernments collide
Unfortunately for Christians, there is literally no possible way for two different people to be right about some of a Christian’s opinions. Even more unfortunately, there’s no way possible to figure out which opinion is the correct one between the two. So, you can imagine the fireworks that start whenever they start arguing about contradictory opinions. (Because of course they must duke it out. The one thing a fundagelical cannot ever stand is another fundagelical whose opinion varies about anything they care about.)
Inevitably, one Christian will accuse the other of having poor discernment in the matter. But again, discernment is purely subjective. There’s not really a way for either Christian to demonstrate their claim in any credible or objective way. Nonetheless, they’re positive. The other person’s opinion derives from the flesh (Christianese meaning: from their own head rather than from any
supernatural imaginary source). Or it’s actually demonic.
You will also never hear a Christian admit that their sense of discernment was totally off-base while another one’s was correct.
(If you’re an ex-Christian who has ever wondered how it is that a judgey Christian is always so sure that you did something completely wrong as a Christian, this is why. Their idea of discernment plays a big part in that erroneous judgment. 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. It’s as simple as that. Ex-Christian = bad sense of discernment. QED.)
Sidebar: a striking difference between critical thinking and discernment
As I write this post, 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 of its class.
And their discussion is just so strikingly different from how two fundagelicals argue about their religious opinions that I’ve got to share it here.
My husband has tested other ways to build a Big Stompy Robot. He has a huge spreadsheet about reaction times versus weight versus loadout versus who even knows what other metrics. So, he knows objectively which builds work best. But the people arguing with him are doing so on the basis of their feelings about their own favorite build.
This methodical approach of his might explain why other players fear seeing his name show up in matches (“drops”). And why, when they see him, he tends to become the entire enemy team’s #1 target.
When you have real evidence for your claims, you don’t need discernment quite so much. Or blind faith at all, really.
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, bald-faced dishonesty 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.
Christianese 101: The Adversary
In Christianese, the “adversary” means Satan. Apparently, Satan is He Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken. So, anything to do with this “adversary” is, by definition, evil to Christians.
Further, many fundagelicals think 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. That belief forms the basis of their entire culture-war mentality. They think they are fighting against forces of great evil. So, the people on the other side of their culture wars are, by definition as well, evil.
If you tell a young Christian that oh no, people aren’t evil per se, but they are totally broken and sinful and driven by “an adversary” who is actively seeking to oppose and thwart fundagelical goals, no young Christian will fail to draw the connection that actually, people outside their tribe are in fact evil—and that they are Christians’ enemies.
So all Kinnaman advises here is that the tribe quit calling outsiders evil. They should instead use this milder wording. It means exactly the same thing, but it sounds much nicer to them.
More reframing fun from David Kinnaman: worldly media
Want another? (Of course you do. I know I do!)
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.
How this advice goes completely off the rails in practice
Let’s say that a church’s pastor decides to go through with that last bit of advice about media.
What happens after the whole church watches The Wolf of Wall Street (which I thought was really good, actually)? What if the church’s leader decides that it’s the worst thing ever? That it’s the dead opposite of a proper fundagelical’s entertainment?
Does this pastor tell the younger congregants, “Well, go ahead and watch it then and we won’t bother you”? Or will everyone in church totally judge anyone who does exactly that? Will the church treat someone as less-than for watching and enjoying this movie?
We all know the answers there, don’t we?
So it ends up working out to there being strict rules. They’re just not explicitly stated in David Kinnaman’s perfect fundagelical world.
Yep. There’s no way that can possibly go hideously wrong.
And one last example in You Lost Me: relationship rules
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 evangelicals are asserting something that their marks won’t like.
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. Everyone just needs to couch them in more Bible verses.
The takeaway of You Lost Me
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.
Thanks to the magic of discernment, David Kinnaman is not changing anything at all. He’s not even suggesting evangelicals change anything.
Instead, he’s uses cheap reframing tricks on fundagelicals’ current control-lust and authoritarianism. He promises his readers that these tricks will totally make evangelicalism sound more palatable to young adults.
That said, I don’t know if he thinks young adults will actually fall for it. I genuinely don’t. But I strongly suspect that he hopes against all hope that fervent fundagelicals will—and that they will in turn keep buying his books (and Barna Group’s products) as a consequence of that belief. They’re the ones making the purchases, not the young adults he claims to want to recruit. All he has to do is convince his paying audience of his ideas.
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. In this case, the problem is that nothing in real science confirms or supports a single claim Christians make about their religion or culture—be it
supernatural imaginary or natural. If any real science did support Christian claims, they’d never shut up about it.