You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…And Rethinking Faith David Kinnaman (Baker) $17.99 David Kinnaman was catapulted to fame when he produced for the Barna Group the research that became the bestselling book UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity and Why It Matters (Baker; $18.99) which explored what unchurched North American young adults thought about Christianity and church life. I hope you know that book because it is a wonderfully written and powerful glimpse into the religious attitudes of many young adults. Author and leader of Q Ideas Gabe Lyon co-authored it and he and Kinnaman offered lots of hopeful ideas, offering sidebars and excerpts of interviews with lots of very thoughtful and relevant Christian folks who chimed in throughout the book. These interviews and essays from other voices illustrate that the cranky attitude and serious criticisms of evangelical faith that are commonly held by outsiders to the faith are, in fact, only partially true. There are wonderfully creative, interesting, kind and just folks who’s faith catapults them into the thick of contemporary life. So that book is both depressing (so many young adults are convinced traditional faith is unattractive or worse) and hopeful–a lot of good folks are working hard to repair our bad reputation. It’s important and interesting.
YOU LOST ME
In that research one of the interesting things that the Barna group found was that many of the unchurched who had disinterest or hostility to the faith were previously active in church and in some cases still saw themselves as active Christians. A phrase they heard regarding these young adults’ sense of their own story went something like this: “I was active for a while. I loved God and cared about my church. But then, you lost me.” Of course, this is no real surprise; every BookNote reader knows somebody like this. The dropout problem is so common that many older church folks just expect it, and some think it is normal for young people to put their faith—or at least their connection to a church—on the shelf for a while. I don’t know about you, but I think this is tragic (both the dropout problem and the church’s casual acceptance of it.)
Mr. Kinnaman continued his research, this time documenting the views and attitudes and stories of younger adults who were, in fact, raised within the Christian churches, but who have chosen to leave. He wanted to find the church dropouts and hear their stories. Many of us are so, so glad for these findings since we now have more data and more tools to think about this problem that we so seriously care about. We all have intuitions and hunches. We have had conversations about this. We have our own stories, perhaps, and those of our children, our friends, our colleagues or classmates. But beyond these individual episodes, what are the documented trends? What does the research show? What can we make of it? Kinnaman can help, and, because of his own great passion for this topic, he’s a perfect person to interpret the data for us. I couldn’t recommend this book more strongly.
So, many young adults drift from church; of those, some are still on a spiritual journey and many would say they are not. Why is this? Kinnaman uses the punchy phrase (used by more than one of his millennial interviewees) “you lost me” to indicate that these folks were open to faith, perhaps deeply involved in Christian practices and life, and at some point determined that they were no longer on the same page as their adult congregational leaders. Kinnaman is passionate that we must understand the demographics of this cohort and we must “start a conversation” about this crisis of generational loss, and, more importantly, with this cohort themselves. Why are younger Christians disengaging from church?
I found the book to be very well written, really, really engaging, and a godsend for anyone interested in young adults–it is a vital read for those in youth ministry or those who work in campus ministry. Parents who fret about their own grown children or young adults who are sad their their old friends from youth group seem to be no longer walking with the Lord will find much here. The conversational tone is clear, the voices compelling, the insights and proposals very helpful. Kinnaman is a good, good guy, a solid thinker and a real ally for those of us who want to somehow help make faith and Christian discipleship and church involvement a plausible reality for our young friends.
Of course, not everyone who drifts from church–or bolts from church as the case may be—has the same experience or the same (dis) interests. Kinnamam sees three major constellations of disinterest, three sorts of folks who walked away from church. (Each name seems to resonate with a Biblical theme or type, even, so this is really interesting!)
NOMADS, PRODIGALS, EXILES
First there are what the book calls nomads. Although each one has a unique story, these are folks who are still seeking; the still haven’t found what their looking for. Most likely they will say they are “spiritual but not religious” and they just might return to a traditional congregation. Or they might hold to an admixture of new age beliefs, bits borrowed from various world religions, or might just be wandering through a variety of more or less intense beliefs or worldview. Prodigals, however, are another group he found and these are folks who are aware that they have left the church, perhaps for good. They may or may not be bitter (and it is surprising how many are not particularly angry) but they are disappointed. They’ve grown disinterested and they are far from faith. Exiles are another group that the research brings to our attention and, again, it may be a bit surprising to some (or not at all surprising if you are paying attention.) Exiles are those who feel that they still want to follow Christ, they are interested in some sort of discipleship and faith and they believe, rightly or wrongly, that they must reconfigure their faith in ways that traditional congregations find unacceptable. In fact, some said in their interviews that in order to maintain faith in God and a sense of seriousness about the gospel they simply must stay away from the institutional church. These are folks who have dropped out but still see themselves as Christians. They may even be worshiping in a house church or may live in an intentional community or be interested in the emergent faith conversations. Nomads, Prodigals and Exiles. Fascinating, eh? And helpful, I’d say.
Here is a 9 minute video clip of him talking abou
You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church… raises these questions for us, and anyone involved in
church—mainline, Catholic or evangelical—should pay attention. For
what it is worth (before anyone gets too defensive) he does not always
lay all the blame on the congregation. Still, there is something going
on, this unprecedented dropout rate, this disaffection with Christianity
in the West, and it is a crisis we must deal with. Knowing the facts
of the matter and hearing the stories is certainly a good step
You Lost Me has some other features as well, good and important information for any of us who are leaders in the church or who care about the integrity of the gospel as it is lived out in our time. For instance, Kinnaman offers some statistics–and one fascinating chart that I can’t stop thinking about—about how different generational cohorts understand the obligations of obeying Biblical injunctions. As you may guess, the bar graph decreases with age: the greatest generation insists that we must do our best to follow the teachings of the Bible. Baby boomers have a bit lower commitment to Biblical obedience and Gen Xers even less so. Of the younger “mosaics” (ages 18-28) who self-identified as Christians less than a third strongly agreed that this was important. Does that make them lax and uncommitted? Or does it indicate that they understand the message of God’s grace, that we cannot earn God’s free gift of love? Do they see the rules of religion as intolerably repressive? Or do they have a good handle on what the relationship is between faith and works? Kinnaman explains much of this and he is very helpful as he explains (for instance) attitudes about sexuality, homosexuality, and marriage, that are typical among young adults.
One nice appendix of this important book is a listing of 50 suggestions for “passing on a flourishing, deep-rooted faith” from 50 different authors and leaders, many of whom are writers we know and respect. Listen to the advice from Kenda Creasy Dean, Steve Garber, Walt Mueller, Shane Claiborne, Gabe Lyons, Charlie Peacock, Kara Powell, Donna Freitas, Derek Melleby, David Greusel, Christopher West, Sarah Groves, Rachel Held Evans, Francis Chan, Andrew Root, John Ortberg. And more.
Watch this very cool video clip, a trailer for the project and the book and an invitation to continue working on this. Even those of us who have been at this a while will be glad to hear him say “let’s get this conversation started!” Thanks, David.
SEVEN OTHER RECENT AND IMPORTANT BOOKS ABOUT YOUNG ADULTS
Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood Christian Smith et al (Oxford University Press) $27.95 Well, if Kinnaman does a spectacular job doing basic research through his Barna Group research firm and then popularizing that into usable, enjoyable, insightful books like unchristian and You Lost Me, Christian Smith is his serious big brother. Professor Smith is a research sociologist par excellence and with titles like Moral, Believing, Animals (Oxford University Press) and What Is a Person? (University of Chicago Press) he has made a notable and significant contribution to the social sciences rooted in his ecumenically-minded, catholic faith. This new book, Lost in Transition, is nothing short of magisterial, offering serious and stunning research on the ways in which this young adult cohort has emerged without a clear sense of morals. The book immediately became a conversation topic last month when New York Times columnist and NPR talking head David Brooks wrote about it in a syndicated op ed piece a month ago which whirled around the internet. This new study seems to be a continuation of the major work he and his team did on the faith of young adults which came out in the prestigious Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press; $17.95) and the follow up, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford University Press; $24.95.) You may know of this exceptional work because of the popular book by Princeton’s Kendra Ceasy Dean which appropriated this research. That amazing book was called Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church (Oxford University Press; $24.95.)
Jean Twenge (who wrote Generation Me and other good books on how consumerism affects our youth) says, Smith’s “Lost in Transition is a groundbreaking, compelling, and deeply necessary look at the challenges facing young people today…The results [of their research] are shocking, revealing widespread moral relativsm and precious little civic engagement.” We are obviously very fond of the Kinnaman research on reaching de-churched twenty-somethings. This work on the ethics, values, and moral reasoning of youth is broader and more foundation. For those who are serious about this topic, it is a must-read.
Tweet if You *Heart* Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation Elizabeth Drescher (Morehouse Publishing) $20.00 Morehouse is the publishing arm of the Episcopal Church and, as you might guess, offers here a book that brings the wisdom of the ancient and medieval faith into conversation with contemporary theories of cultural change and the realities of new social media. Drescher, who has great interest in spiritual disciplines and practices, has studied spirituality at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. She writes for the online magazine Religion Dispatches. All of this to say that she is an ecumenical, mainline Christian who is very sharp, very funny, and has a very sophisticated way of combining the postmodern and the ancient, all so we can understand the new ways faith is being practiced, especially among youth and young adults. The title is a tad tongue in cheek, of course, and although she is quite enmeshed in new social media, her study is astute and her insights profound. Very nicely done.
Worlds Apart: Understanding the Mindset and Values of 18-25 Year Olds Chuck Bomar (Zondervan) $14.99 Chuck is a good guy and has a huge heart and amazing passion for doing college ministry. (He has written two books on how large churches near campuses can do young adult outreach ministry among their collegiate neighbors.) Here, he backs up and gives us his most important book yet, a study of this stage of life—what Sharon Parks has called “the critical years.” As the back cover puts it, Bomar brings “understanding, comfort, and direction to all interested in this age group.” Yes, understanding. He gets young adults. Comfort? Well, he is full of hope that God can reach this generation and that we can build meaningful and sustained relationships with this younger cohort. So it may be comforting, I suppose. He offers such clear-headed and practical insight (like “learn to listen”) that it really does give us great encouragement. (Older readers, take note. This really may be a comfort insofar as it will help you with tools to relate to your mosaic-aged friends.) And direction? Oh yeah, he guides us towards paths of understanding, helping us appreciate the mindset and ethos of 21st century college-aged young adults. Huge endorsements from Chap Clark and Dan Kimball on the back, showing that at least evangelical thought leaders are taking this book seriously. You should too.
Generation Rising: A Future with Hope for the United Methodist Church edited by Andrew C. Thompason (Abingdon) $16.00 Whether you are United Methodist or not, this collection of essays by some of the Gen X leaders within Methodism is a real book treat. (John Wesley was in his 30s, by the way, when his heart was “strangely warmed.”) There are unique cultural shifts which those who were coming of age in the past decades experiences and as they now rise to adulthood, they’ve got a particular angle of vision within the church. I liked this quote by Will Willimon who noted “Generation Rising made me marvel at the ability of Wesleyan Christianity to reinvent itself in each generation. Here is Wesleyanism and our church imagined as having a future as bright as our noble past.” Granted, this offers the United Methodist church a prophetic challenge from its younger pastors and thinkers, but all of us should listen to these vibrant and forceful voices. The editor is the writer of the popular “Gen-X Rising” column in the United Methodist Reporter.
Wandering in the Wilderness: Changes and Challenges to Emerging Adults’ Christian Faith Brian Simmons (Abilene University Press) $14.99 This is a fantastic book, surveying the vast quantity of research done in recent years on the “emerging adulthood” stage. (The term was coined by psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, by the way.) Besides helping us understand the research and get a handle on the common changes emerging adults experience these days, Wandering…helps offer guidelines for how they (and their parents) can navigate those changes. The subtitle explains the them
e of this book well for it does study the changes and challenges, and it offers useful directives. Study questions make it ideal for a small group (parents, maybe?) How do those in their twenties tend to look at life and faith? Can congregations or church leaders be more aware and sensitive to their concerns? Simmons is a fine author, burdened to know and care about these very things. (His earlier book was called Falling Away: Why Christians Lose Their Faith and What Can Be Done About It.) He holds degrees from Pepperdine and Purdue and lives in Portland.
Greenhouses of Hope: Congregations Growing Young Leaders Who Will Change the World edited by Dori Grinenko Baker (Alban Institute) $18.00 Some books just really intrigue me and although not everyone will appreciate them, I just have to tell our readers about them. This is an somewhat odd book—deep, serious, playful, remarkable in many ways, describing congregations, including some multi-ethinic ones, that are doing some unusual stuff to attend to and minister with youth and younger adults. Walt Brueggemann says it is “a primer on how to recover vitality and fidelity of the church” although that may be overstating it. Paker Palmer’s offers a more straight-forward observation—these are “well-tested green-house approaches” and notes that it will make you hopeful for the church and world. (The opening rumination on what constitutes Christian hope is marvelous.) Carol Howard Meritt, whose two books, Tribal Church and Reframing Hope I have written about before, notes that it “provides tools, probing questions, and significant resources to grow hope in your own community.” The rich array of stories here are exceptional: they include essays about “radical welcome” in interfaith dialogue and “converging streams.” One chapter by Presbyterian Sinai Chung explains the Korean idea of “mozying” which means “when the young mentor the younger.” An African-American community leader offers a good chapter on the African word (and the theology implied in it) Sankofa. Joyce Ann Mercer writes a very important chapter looking at two congregations (one Lutheran, one Episcopalian) and how their church conflict effected the youth.
At the end of each of these creatively-written narratives about a particular congregation’s ministry and their contribution to human flourishing, there is a section called Engaging VocationCare Practices and another inviting reflection on “Ethnographic Listening.” It is a really provocative and fun and a useful resource, especially for mainline or progressive congregations and those interested in how congregations reflect on their own sense of call. The creation of Greenhouses of Hope was supported by the Calling Congregations initiative funded by the Fund for Theological Education.