Review: The Outsider Interviews

I just finished a quick read through The Outsider Interviews, by Jim Henderson, Todd Hunter, and Craig Spinks.* It’s billed as a “DVB,” meaning that it’s a book and a DVD together. The DVD has a large number of video clips that are referenced throughout the chapters of the book. I would guess that if this were to be published a year or two from now, the iPad and Kindle versions of the book would integrate the video clips straight into the text. While I read about half of the book away from a TV or computer, I was able to read the other half while sitting next to my computer, and followed the cues to watch the clips.

The content of the DVB was largely driven off of the authors’ interaction with material presented in the book unChristian, by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. That book presents a lot of polling data about younger people inside and outside the mainstream Christian church in the USA. Henderson, Hunter, and Spinks put together conference events in Phoenix, Kansas City, Denver, and Seattle, and interviewed young Christians and non-Christians as a group in from of a live audience. They also did one-on-one interviews with each of these young people on video. That’s where the video content of the DVB comes from.

The authors talk a lot about the well-known cultural shifts that have taken place in recent years, and the way that people are experiencing Christianity. The running theme is that young adult “outsiders” (the people that Christians have typically called lost) and “insiders” (Christians/Christ followers) tend to agree more than they disagree when it comes to how non-believers are treated by believers; what the church has come to be known for, as opposed to what it should be known for; and how Christians should be changing the way they approach others and their own faith.

I found the video content to be very helpful, because it allowed the outsiders to speak for themselves, without added commentary to interpret what they said. The book content engages what is on the video with some interpretation and opinion by the authors. The people in the video were treated respectfully and fairly – with only a couple of exceptions, the authors stayed away from critiquing the opinions offered. Having worked for a number of years with young adults, I found both the insiders and outsiders to be a very good representation of young people in our culture, so this is a good resource for older people that are trying to understand where thekidsthesedays are coming from.

The book content was just so-so for me. A lot of it documents conversations the authors had while debriefing after the interview events. It certainly made for easy reading, and I’m sure that there are many in the mainstream of the North American Christian subculture for whom this will be helpful. But it treads ground that I’ve been personally covering for the better part of ten years, so there wasn’t a lot that was new. This is a better book for my dad than for me. This probably says more about me than the book – for what it’s worth, the main reason this wasn’t new to me is that I’ve been hanging around Jim and Todd for several years, and when I haven’t been hanging around them, I’ve been hanging around the kinds of people they interviewed.

One of the big ideas in the book and video is that followers of Jesus should listen more and talk less, when dealing with outsiders. Start with relationships, pay attention to their stories without feeling the need to judge or correct them, and invite them to follow Jesus through acts of service rather than through debate.

This is where I show some real bias – I have found this idea to be invaluable personally. One of the outsiders interviewed at their Seattle event is a young friend of mine, Charlie. I attended the event, along with several of Charlie’s friends. He’s someone I spent a few years with while working at the Purple Door – an agnostic, with an intensely honest curiosity about the Bible and Christianity. His research into “our” holy book has been thorough and genuine – he rattles off references to the Midianites and Jericho like a Sunday School superhero (even though he didn’t grow up anywhere near church). I learned so much from him during our dozens of conversations – probably totaling in the hundreds of hours. If you watch the video content, you’ll find some incredibly poignant statements from him – separating out the Jesus of the Bible from the USAmerican version of Christianity that has been built up in the culture.

There was a time in my life when I would have considered myself a failure for having spent so much time with a non-believer, without having gotten him to “accept Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior.” But while my love and appreciation for Charlie certainly makes me wish for him to experience Jesus in the way I have, I find myself grateful to God for having given me a friend like him, to shape me and grow me and help me understand the world I’m in. It seems that I’ve been converted through our friendship – I won’t venture to speak for Charlie as to how he’s been shaped by our conversations, but I trust it’s been good for him, too.

Getting back to the review – I think this is a great resource for the many Christians who have spent so much time in the church that they have little or not contact with outsiders. The video clips could be a really helpful conversation starter for small group study, whether you are inclined to agree or disagree with what is said. For those who have traveled the emerging church highway for a while, it may be less valuable. There are some topics and opinions that are certain to make mainstream evangelicals squirm (heaven and hell, homosexuality, politics), but I believe it’s important stuff to hear and consider.

*Two things: 1. I received a complimentary copy of the book from the publisher for the purpose of review, with no expectation/promise of promotion. 2. Jim Henderson and Todd Hunter have been teachers, mentors, and friends of mine for several years, so it’s hard for me to be completely objective.

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