David Kinnaman, President of the Barna Group research company, has created a tremendous stir with his new best-seller “You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church… And Rethinking Faith.” His overriding premise – students are leaving the church behind when they head to college. In fact, he discovered that “59 percent of young people with a Christian background report that they had or have ‘dropped out of attending church, after going regularly.’” (p 23)
Kinnaman also learned these dropouts weren’t necessarily leaving Jesus, just specifically leaving the Church. He labels three types of people making up this exodus: “Nomads” walk away from church engagement but still consider themselves Christians. “Prodigals” lose their faith, describing themselves as “no longer Christian.” “Exiles” are still invested in their Christian faith but feel stuck (or lost) between culture and the Church. (p 25)
Much has been made (and many fingers pointed) over the culprits responsible for this mass migration, but that’s not very productive for youth ministers and parents in the here and now. Thankfully, Kinnaman pinpoints some clear-cut symptoms that cause Christian youth to disconnect from church, which makes it easier to identify potential remedies. Addressing these issues within your ministry may improve the chances of keeping those you disciple connected to a church community into college and beyond.
Please note: The following “problem” areas are broad strokes. They may not all apply to your church and youth, but they are indicative of prevalent attitudes running within the Church at large.
Overprotective – Christian youth find the Church to be unreasonably fearful and closed off from the outside world. On pages 97-98, Kinnaman lists the following specific complaints:
1) Christians demonize everything outside the Church. 2) Christians are afraid of pop culture, especially its movies and music. 3) Christians maintain a false separation of sacred and secular. 4) Christians do not want to deal with the complexity or reality of the world.
I believe this to be the touchiest area between parents and youth ministers. There is a crushing drive to make church “safe.” Add in the vast differences between where parents draw their own child’s “safe” line and it’s no wonder we land on bland. I personally experienced tremendous frustration with the vast chasm between what we could discuss in church and what teens were actually dealing with in their lives. By being overprotective, though, we fail to prepare our teens for the real world. We severely hinder our students’ potential for transforming the culture for Christ.
One way I fought the overprotective attitude was through media literacy. Students blindly consumed media without a single thought to the themes, messages, worldviews or content they ingested. I wanted to teach them how to place their media choices through a biblical filter, questioning whether the media agreed or contradicted God’s Word (and thus weed out all the junk they gorged on without remorse). This method took time and required placing appropriate movie clips and popular songs before them in a ministry context. Ultimately, it ruined them – rendered them incapable of interacting with media without first holding it up against their faith. Instead of being overprotective, choose to give your students a godly life skill and trust the Holy Spirit to protect them.
Shallow – Surprisingly, young people do not complain about church being over their heads, too theological or even boring. They do, however, level serious charges against the actual content of what they’re being taught as too simple and even juvenile.
This generation longs to engage their faith deeply in such a way that it significantly affects and infects their daily life.
Kinnaman found “young adults who have only a superficial understanding of the faith and of the Bible. The Christianity they believe is an inch deep.” (p 114) The knee-jerk reaction to this finding might be to get rid of all games, stunts, skits and fun activities from programming. But it’s more a question of focus and depth. What receives the most excitement, energy and focus in your time with students? Is God’s Word and its study the main course, or just vegetables that must be endured before dessert?
Also, don’t take “depth” to mean a seminary dissertation. Going deep means acknowledging and wrestling with biblical Truth we might normally skip over, especially if it’s uncomfortable and seemingly contradictory. It also means finding all the ways the Bible connects with personal, everyday life and not settling for a helicopter view of ancient stories to be revered, not applied. Most importantly, depth means challenging teens to rise up and grapple with big concepts like holiness, righteousness and sanctification. For example, spend a night unpacking Paul’s declaration to “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1) Or unpack Jesus’ promise to answer all our requests. (John 14:12-14)
Antiscience – Students believe the Church and science are at war. This causes tremendous tension since “more than half of church-going 13 to 17 year olds say they hope to train for science-related career. This includes medical and health-related industries, engineering and architecture, research science, technology and veterinary studies.” (p 139)
I don’t believe the majority of churches are antiscience (especially since many rely so heavily upon science and technology for making their church function). It’s far more likely that churches tend to simply remain silent – unless there’s a textbook debate over Intelligent Design. Because the Church only speaks about science when provoked, the perception becomes one of out-of-step ignorance.
Pointing out where the Bible and science intersect will go far in defusing this tension. For example, I heard a fascinating sermon on how the plagues were not only specific attacks on each of Egypt’s gods, but also occurred in a specific order that could be explained scientifically. The speaker made it clear that either way – out-of-the-blue miracle or systematic scientific progression – did not negate the fact that God was the One who orchestrated the plagues that ultimately delivered His chosen people. These details brought Scripture alive for me while strengthening my trust in God’s Word as true, no matter how fantastical it might sound on first read.
Kinnaman backs up my personal experience when he states, “The best-prepared young Christians are encouraged to think for themselves, with Scripture as the viewfinder through which they interpret the world around them, including the world of science. … They are taught how to think well, not simply what to think.” (p 145)
Another great way to cross this perceived divide is to invite a science teacher from your congregation to answer the kids’ questions. Or even hold a “job fair” where adults talk about integrating their work and faith. Providing opportunities for teens to ask questions without judgment and interact with adults who will understand their curiosity and possibly even mentor them will provide huge dividends in the future while also tearing down the perceived wall between science and religion.
Repressive – Kinnaman’s research revealed that “the perception is that the Church is out of step with the times. Many, though not all, view the Church as repressive – controlling, joyless and stern when it comes to sex, sexuality and sexual expectations. On the other hand, many are also dissatisfied with the wider culture’s pressure on them to adopt lax sexual attitudes and behaviors.
They feel torn between the false purity of traditionalism and the empty permissiveness of their peers. (p 149-150)
God created sex and declared creation good. That includes sex (no matter what your mother said). Unfortunately, the Church struggles to translate that Truth into any coherent fashion for 21st century youth. The message typically breaks down into either “don’t do it until you’re married – end of discussion” (which was sufficient when most people got married right out of high school or college) or awkward silence.
Based upon where our culture currently rests and Kinnaman’s extensive findings, it becomes clear that the conversation must move from purely prescriptive (don’t do it) – which unintentionally communicates that sex is all about the individual – toward framing the discussion as a “relational narrative of sexuality. Sex is about selflessness, not primarily about self. It is about serving, not only about personal pleasure. – sex is good and it is about us.” (p 160)
We cannot move the clear lines God has drawn around human sexuality. That said, we must be aware that His prescribed guidelines for sex seem completely quaint and out of step with society today. That’s why it is imperative for the Church to effectively communicate God’s heart concerning His boundaries. Instead of preaching only the line and bitter consequences of premarital sex, we must also make clear the effect such choices have on the community – something near and dear to the Millennial heart. Grace must be offered to those who’ve made mistakes and comfort those struggling with same-sex attraction (rather than ostracizing). While the line won’t shift, the repressive feeling will lift when the Church becomes a safe place to honestly find direction and healing.
Exclusive – As you have undoubtedly experienced first hand, this generation places extreme value upon tolerance and inclusion. To segregate, leave anyone out or create a sort of “members only” mentality is anathema to the Millennial mindset. This value collides head on with Christ’s claims of exclusivity. How are we to bridge this gap with our students?
Kinnaman offers an astute insight when he says, “At the heart of the Christian story, however, is the Triune God’s rejection of both exclusion and tolerance. The Creator was not content to exclude those who had rejected Him, but neither was He prepared to tolerate our hatefulness and sin. So what did He do? He became one of us, one of the “other,” identifying with us to embrace us in solidarity, empathy and selfless agape love – all the way to the cross.” (p 180)
One way to immediately combat a “tolerance at all costs” attitude is to take your students through the Gospel of John. As big fans of Jesus, they will find an in-depth look at His life fascinating. As Millennials, they will constantly be confronted with Christ’s claims of inclusive exclusivity. Jesus welcomes anyone who comes to Him (Matthew 11:28), but He demands that we only come through Him (John 14:6). In other words, God sent Jesus for all (John 3:16), but anyone who ignores His Son Jesus Christ will be judged accordingly (John 5:19-30).
You can help lead students to this place by fostering empathy. Refuse to label groups of people wholesale as evil or hopelessly lost. Every human being spends at least a portion of life as a lost sinner until they encounter Jesus, so there’s not a single person qualified to mount a high horse. Prayerfully encourage students and leadership to pray for God’s vision, seeing every human being as precious, created in God’s image and worthy of respect.
Doubtless – The final factor in youth disconnecting from the Church comes in the façade of complete certainty that some pastors (youth pastors included) feel compelled to project. Kinnaman believes “unexpressed doubt is one of the most powerful destroyers of faith. Our research reveals that many young people feel the Church is too small a container in which to carry their doubts.” (p 192)
For some ministers, to entertain or even openly express doubt about any aspect of the Christian faith is tantamount to heresy. It’s as if God demands lockstep, ironclad conviction of his followers even though pillars of the faith like Jacob, David and John the Baptist had moments of serious doubt.
Inject the antidote to this destructive attitude by allowing students to voice their doubts and making your ministry a safe place to wrestle with them without judgment. Also point out the places in Scripture where biblical heroes express their own doubts.
Kinnaman believes the Church is fully equipped to turn each of these problems areas into positives, spiritual disciplines that activate and engage young believers with their faith, with each other and with the world around them. He states confidently “Wisdom empowers us to live faithfully in a changing culture.” (p 212) Each weakness can potentially become a strength: from overprotection to discernment, shallowness to apprenticeship, anti-science to stewardship, repressive to relational, exclusion to embrace and doubting to doing. (p 205-206)
“You Lost Me” is not a death knell for the North American church. It is a wake-up call that awakens us to the need and gives us a clear picture of what must be remedied so we help keep the bride of Christ healthy and vibrant until the Groom’s return.
All referenced pages come from “You Lost Me” by David Kinnaman (Baker Books, 2011).