You Lost Me

You Lost MeYou Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church...and Rethinking Faith (David Kinnaman; ©2011 by Baker Publishing Group) Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman wrote “UnChristian” – a book I studied last year, and that opened my eyes in a number of ways to the challenges that face us in sharing faith with the generations that follow us. Lyons followed up with “The Next Christians” (see above). This is Kinnaman’s follow-up.

“You Lost Me” is about young people who once considered themselves to be Christians, but who have since left the church – and sometimes the faith. Kinnaman summarizes his findings in this paragraph:

I invite you to meet the next generation. As we get to know them together, there are three realities we need to keep in mind: 1)  Teen church engagement remains robust, but many of the enthusiastic teens so common in North American churches are not growing up to be faithful young adult disciples of Christ. 2)  There are different kinds of dropouts, as well as faithful young adults who never drop out at all. We need to take care not to lump an entire generation together, because every story of disconnection requires a personal, tailor-made response. 3)  The dropout problem is, at its core, a faith-development problem; to use religious language, it’s a disciple-making problem. The church is not adequately preparing the next generation to follow Christ faithfully in a rapidly changing culture.

What has intrigued me most about this book is Kinnaman’s understanding that young people who have left the church show three very different patterns, when looking at why they left. He writes:

There are three broad ways of being lost: 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.

He writes, and I agree, that most church leaders assume that those who left are what Kinnaman describes as Prodigals. Actually, there are many young people who still consider themselves Christians, but who don’t find that participation in a Christian church is helpful for their faith. That may not make much sense to those of us who are from more “churched” generations, but it is their reality, and something we need to be aware of if we are going to reach out to them in meaningful ways.

The next generation is caught between two possible destinies—one moored by the power and depth of the Jesus-centered gospel and one anchored to a cheap, Americanized version of the historic faith that will snap at the slightest puff of wind.

 

Part of the problem is related to what Kenda Creasy Dean describes in “Almost Christian” (see above). Young people who are tuned in to the life that Jesus wants for them look at the church, and see an institution that has lost its radical Christian character, and accommodated itself to the culture around it. Longing for something with more depth and power, they have stepped away from the institution, but not the faith.

The next generation is living in a new technological, social, and spiritual reality; this reality can be summed up in three words: access, alienation, and authority.

Kinnaman sees these three As as significant factors for young people who have left the church. They have access to more perspectives, and more religious schools of thought, than any who have gone before them. Much has been said recently about how digital communication is causing us to be more connected and more isolated at the same time. And they are living in a time when there are fewer and fewer who grant the church, the Bible and the faith the kind of authority that was automatic in earlier generations.

For our purposes, let’s define exiles as those who grew up in the church and are now physically or emotionally disconnected in some way, but who also remain energized to pursue God-honoring lives. They feel the loss, in many ways, of the familiar church environment in which they once found meaning, identity, and purpose. They feel lost, yet hopeful.

The group that seems to interest Kinnaman the most are the exiles. They are familiar with church–life, yet struggling to see how their life in the church and their life in the world connect. They understand the history of the church, and at the same time they understand the perspective of those in their own generation who don’t believe. It may be that they are our strongest resource in figuring out how to stay open to those who find themselves in similar situations.

The faith too many of them have inherited is a lifeless shadow of historic Christianity, which insists that following Jesus is a way of life, not a laundry list of vague beliefs that have little meaning for how we spend our lives. I think the next generation’s disconnection stems ultimately from the failure of the church to impart Christianity as a comprehensive way of understanding reality and living fully in today’s culture. To many young people who grew up in Christian churches, Christianity seems boring, irrelevant, sidelined from the real issues people face. It seems shallow.

With Dean, Kinnaman notes the devastating affect that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has had on Christian churches. It has caused the church’s message to seem meaningless to young people. At the same time, a seeming lack of humility on the part of church members and leaders has prevented them from seeing this reality. The road to change begins with repentance and forgiveness.

In our research, we find clear evidence that many parents and churches have expectations of young people that are much too low or much too driven by cultural ideas of success. Often we misread youth involvement in church as growth in faith. However, teen attraction to the newest flash-bang-wow at church may be a misleading indicator of success. Teenagers’ excitement about church, their willingness to attend, and the friends and social connections they make at church are not the same thing as spiritual growth. We must not equate youth attendance at programs with discipleship. Not only do we tend to expect too little of our young people, we expect too little of ourselves, and those low expectations spill over onto our students.

Many parents operate on the principal of encouraging their children’s participation in church life, but not demanding much of them. How many of us can remember childhood experiences of memorizing Bible passages, or sections of Luther’s Small Catechism? That rarely happens today. I have long wondered if relaxing our standards for faith development has increased the odds that our kids will stay involved with their faith through High School (when their parents still have a significant influence on them), but decreased the odds that they will stay involved beyond that. Maybe what’s needed is less coddling, and higher expectations about what they will learn, understand, experience and feel. Kinnaman seems to agree in this following paragraph:

This generation wants and needs truth, not spiritual soft-serve. According to our findings, churches too often provide lightweight teaching instead of rich knowledge that leads to wisdom. This is a generation hungry for substantive answers to life’s biggest questions, particularly in a time when there are untold ways to access information about what to do. What’s missing—and where the Christian community must come in—is addressing how and why.

Another section in this work dealt with doubt. I found it particularly interesting, because I wrestled with doubt a great deal when I was a young person, and still battle my fair share of doubts today. The church often appears to be a place where we are uncomfortable with doubt.

It may seem redundant to say that doubt causes people to struggle with faith, but it is important to remember that doubt is not always faith’s opposite. Theologian and Pulitzer-nominated novelist Frederick Buechner once said, “Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith.” Often doubt acts as a powerful motivator toward a more complete and genuine spiritual life, and our research confirms that not everyone who doubts walks away from faith. Still, our study also shows that doubt is a significant reason young adults disengage from church. We have learned too that doubt

I am often hopeful about young people who express doubts. Many of them are in the midst of the transition between “embracing the faith of my parents” to “embracing a faith of my own.” Yet I am not as hopeful that we, as the church, are often successful at helping young people walk through their time of doubting to a more mature faith. Maybe we need to establish a “doubters club” for people who want to wrestle with these issues together…

A final word from Kinnaman about doubt:

Creating faith communities where doubts of all kinds can be honestly, openly, and relationally explored is one way to make the turn with the next generation. Another is giving young adults an opportunity to put feet to their faith. Many of the deepest truths of Christianity become clear when we put our faith into action; in the doing, believing makes sense. Sometimes the best thing we can do with our unbelief is to stop fixating on it and get busy for the sake of others. We need to help young adults do something with their faith in order to contextualize their doubts within the church’s mission.

Questions for Saint Peter Lutheran Church

  1. Who are our Nomads, Prodigals and Exiles? What unique ministries are we developing to reach them?
  2. What are we doing to evaluate how well we prepare our young people for a future life of faith? Are we entrusting them with a robust faith, and enough theological depth, that they will remain connected to Christ through whatever the next years bring to them?
  3. Is Saint Peter Lutheran Church a safe place for people to express doubts? Are there people and resources available that can help someone move from a place of doubting to a place of faith and trust?
  4. To what degree has Moralistic Therapeutic Deism taken root in our congregation? What ministries are in place to help our members and friends discover a deeper, more significant faith?