You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church … and Rethinking Faith

David Kinnaman: "What's Old Is New" (Excerpt: Chapter 11)

What’s Old Is New
(Or, Three Things I Learned Studying the Next Generation)

The church in the West is struggling to connect with the next generation. We are dealing with the immense technological, spiritual, and social changes that define our times—the changing nature of access, new questions about authority, and increasing relational and institutional alienation. We are learning how to pass on a faith worth claiming in a new context. How can we prepare the next generation to live meaningfully and follow Jesus wholeheartedly in these changing times? And how can the next generation rise to the challenge of revitalizing the Christian community for our mission to and in the broader culture?

Now that we have met the nomads, prodigals, and exiles and explored their perceptions of the church and Christianity, allow me to share three things I have learned from studying the next generation: (1) the church needs to reconsider how we make disciples; (2) we need to rediscover Christian calling and vocation; and (3) we need to reprioritize wisdom over information as we seek to know God. As I have argued throughout this book, the Christian community needs a new mind—a new way of thinking, a new way of relating, a new vision of our role in the world—to pass on the faith to this and future generations.

As it turns out, this “new” mind is not so new. After countless interviews and conversations, I am convinced that historic and traditional practices, and orthodox and wisdom-laden ways of believing, are what the next generation really needs. This may sound like great news, and it is—but it is not a shortcut. Walking the ancient pathways of faith together in this new environment will not be easy. Yet I also believe that as we dig deeper into the historic Christian faith to nurture younger generations, the entire Western church will be renewed. Young Jesus-followers need older Christians to share the rich, fulfilling wine of faith, and the established church needs new wineskins into whom we can pour the church’s future. We need each other.

Let’s take a closer look at the three areas in which I believe God is calling us to renewed thinking.

Rethinking Relationships

Our modern idea of generations is overrated and may even distort our vision of how the church is designed to function. While generational demographics will remain an important way of approaching what I do as a market researcher, I have come to believe that we in the church must recapture the biblical concept of a generation. Chris Kopka is the one who turned my thinking upside down in this area. “David,” he said one day, “you seem to assume that the church is a collection of separate generations, with the older generations given the responsibility of raising young people.”

“Yes, I think that’s true. Don’t you?” To me, this way of thinking was obvious.

“That may be part of the picture, but there is a much bigger reality. A generation is every living person who is fulfilling God’s purposes.” Chris paused, probably because I looked confused. “In other words, while it is true there are different age groups represented in the church, the Bible seems to say that everybody in the church at a particular time make up a ‘generation,’ a generation that is working together in their time to participate in God’s work.”

The picture Chris painted that day was an aha moment for me.

Original assumption: The church exists to prepare the next generation to fulfill God’s purposes.

New thinking: The church is a partnership of generations fulfilling God’s purposes in their time.

What does this mean? The Christian community is one of the few places on earth where those who represent the full scope of human life, literally from the cradle to the grave, come together with a singular motive and mission. The church is (or should be) a place of racial, gender, socioeconomic, and cultural reconciliation—because Jesus commanded that our love would be the telltale sign of our devotion to him (see John 13:35)—as well as a community where various age demographics genuinely love each other and work together with unity and respect.

Flourishing intergenerational relationships should distinguish the church from other cultural institutions. The concept of dividing people into various segments based on their birth years is a very modern contrivance, emerging in part from the needs of the marketplace over the last hundred years. As goods were mass-produced, marketers sought new and effective ways to connect a given product or service to a specific niche or segment. Age (or generation) became one of those helpful “hooks”—a way to pitch, advertise, or attract a certain kind of buyer to one’s wares.

In a misguided abdication of our prophetic calling, many churches have allowed themselves to become internally segregated by age. Most began with the valuable goal that their teaching be age appropriate but went on to create a systematized method of discipleship akin to the instructional model of public schools, which requires each age-group be its own learning cohort. Thus many churches and parishes segregate by age-group and, in doing so, unintentionally contribute to the rising tide of alienation that defines our times. As a by-product of this approach, the next generation’s enthusiasm and vitality have been separated from the wisdom and experience of their elders. Just to be clear, I am not saying that we should suddenly do away with children’s Sunday school or programs for youth. I am saying that our programs need to be re-evaluated and revamped where necessary to make intergenerational relationships a priority.

Rather than being defined by segregated age groups, however practical they may seem, I believe we are called to connect our past (traditions and elders) with our future (the next generation). Christians are members of a living organism called the church. In Scripture we find the infinite variety and eternal cohesiveness of this organism described in mind-blowing detail:

You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to countless thousands of angels in a joyful gathering. You have come to the assembly of God’s firstborn children, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God himself, who is the judge over all things. You have come to the spirits of the righteous ones in heaven who have now been made perfect. You have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people.
Hebrews 12:22–24 NLT

Intergenerational relationships matter on earth because they are a snapshot of Zion, a small but true picture of the majesty and diversity of God’s people throughout the ages, who are citizens of the new reality God inaugurated in Jesus Christ. How can we recapture that sense of historical continuity, of a living, breathing body of Christ—of a divine assembly of the saints alive today and throughout the ages?

If you are a young Christian, whether a nomad or an exile, pursue wisdom from older believers. I want to really emphasize the idea of pursuing wisdom. One of the overriding themes of Proverbs is that wisdom is elusive. It’s like love. It seems obvious and easy at first but then turns out to require patience and long-term commitment. Likewise, finding a wise and trustworthy mentor doesn’t happen by accident. Knock on doors, send emails, make calls.

If younger generations are to avoid the mistakes of the past, young leaders desperately need a sense of what has gone before—and you can only get that sense from soul-shaping friendships with older Christians. Often I am surprised at how teenagers and young adults believe they are the first to think of an idea, a cause, or a way of doing something. (I know because I have thought this very thing.) Eventually most find that their idea was not so revolutionary after all; it just seemed hip and new. Meaningful relationships with older adults who are following Christ will help to ensure that your fresh ideas build on the incredible work of previous generations and that your passion to follow Jesus in this cultural moment is supported and upheld by this whole, living generation of believers.

If you are a Boomer or an Elder, I encourage you to come to grips with the revolutionary nature of the Mosaics’ cultural moment. Young Christians are living through a period of unprecedented social and technological change, compressed in an astounding manner, and the longer we take to acknowledge and respond to these changes, the more we allow the disconnection between generations to progress. Ask yourself how available you have been to younger Christians. The generation gap is growing, fueled in part by technology, so it takes extra effort to be on the same page. Frankly, deep relationship happens only by spending time, and big chunks of it, in shared experiences. I encourage you to be ready for a fresh move of God, buoyed by young adults. Are you open to “reverse” mentoring, wherein you allow younger leaders to challenge your faith and renew the church?

From Outreach Magazine  The Power of Unity in a Divided Society

If you lead a faith community, prioritize intergenerational relationships. For the most part, these connections won’t happen by accident. You will need to catalyze them in your community and model them in your own life. This means you may have to challenge prevailing assumptions of “cool” ministry or chasten elder Christians focused on traditionalist preferences.

Perhaps you will have noticed that the “turns” in each of You Lost Me’s chapters in Part 2 have a relational aspect.

Overprotective » Discernment
We cast out fear by discerning our times and embracing the risks of cultural engagement.

Shallow » Apprenticeship
We leave shallow faith behind by apprenticing young people in the fine art of following Christ.

Antiscience » Stewardship
We respond to today’s scientific culture by stewarding young people’s gifs and intellect.

Repressive » Relational
We live by a relational sexual ethic that rejects traditionalist and individualist narratives of sex.

Exclusion » Embrace
We demonstrate the exclusive nature of Christ by rekindling our empathy for the “other.”

Doubting » Doing
We faithfully work through our doubts by doing acts of service with and for others.

The relational element is so strong because relationship is central to disciple making—and, as we’ve said, the dropout problem is, at its core, a disciple-making problem. As we rediscover the centrality of relationship, I believe we must be willing to reimagine our structures of discipleship. Not all the programs we have put in place should be abandoned, but as we identify systems that are not effective, will we be willing to give them up?

God-centered relationships create faithful, mature disciples. In the final chapter, you’ll find ideas for forming these meaningful relationships from older Christian leaders and from young nomads, prodigals, and exiles. It is my prayer that these practical ideas will start conversations in your community that lead to reconciliation between generations and fearless disciples of every age.

Rediscovering Vocation

The second thing I have learned through the process of our research is that the Christian community needs to rediscover the theology of vocation. There is confusion about this term, the use of which is often limited to trade or “vocational” education. But in Christian tradition, vocation is a biblically robust, directive sense of God’s calling, both individually and collectively. Vocation is a clear mental picture of our role as Christ-followers in the world, of what we were put on earth to do as individuals and as a community. It is a centuries-old concept that has, for the most part, been lost in our modern expressions of Christianity.

For me, frankly, the most heartbreaking aspect of our findings is the utter lack of clarity that many young people have regarding what God is asking them to do with their lives. It is a modern tragedy. Despite years of church-based experiences and countless hours of Bible-centered teaching, millions of next-generation Christians have no idea that their faith connects to their life’s work. They have access to information, ideas, and people from around the world, but no clear vision for a life of meaning that makes sense of all that input.

I believe God is calling the church to cultivate a larger, grander, more historic sense of our purpose as a body and as individuals. Let me illustrate with baseball.

I was privileged to meet the lead architect of PNC Park, the new stadium that the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates call home. Talking about his design, David Greusel said, “The old Tree Rivers Stadium was built the same basic way as the donut-style, industrial-looking stadiums in Philadelphia and Cincinnati. It was a very cookie-cutter design. Even though it required enormous amounts of engineering and architectural planning, there was this sense that doing it the same as everyone else would save money and make for a congruent look to all these stadiums. But none of these stadiums were built to look like they belonged, embedded in the cities and contexts where they were built. They looked like alien ringed saucers, just landed from outer space.

“In designing the new ballpark, I spent weeks and weeks on the ground, walking downtown Pittsburgh, thinking about how the new stadium could belong. I wanted it to fit the work ethic and beauty of this city.”

David accomplished that, as anyone could tell you who has seen Pittsburgh’s skyline from the iconic yellow bridge that spans the outfield gap. I asked David about that picturesque view.

“We wanted fans to be able to see the city, the bridge, the river. The irony is that old Three Rivers Stadium was originally designed to have an outfield gap, which would have had a similar panorama of the city. But the owners at the time told the architect to take it out. You know why?”

“More seats?” I guessed.

“Exactly. It was all about getting more paying customers into the stadium. I am convinced that if Three Rivers had been built with that gap, it would still be here today. Sure, it would have needed refurbishing. And yes, the owners would have had to make do with fewer seats to sell,” he said. “But it would have lasted. Their vision for what a stadium should be was shortsighted, and it cost the people of Pittsburgh more in the long run to build, tear down, and rebuild. PNC Park is a stadium that will last, not simply because of its beauty, but because it takes into account the city of Pittsburgh, its unique geography and ethos, and the people who built it.”

Why do I tell you this story? Because I think we have a shortsighted vision for our ministries to young people. I think we are constantly building, tearing down, and rebuilding our youth and young adult development regimens based on the fallacy that more is better. The more “disciples” we can cram in our programs, the better. The more seats we can fill, the more good we will do … right?

We need new ways of measuring success. If you are in church ministry, one metric of success might be to help young people make one or two relational connections, younger to older, that lead to significant mentoring bonds that will last for several years. These relationships would not be solely focused on spiritual growth, but should integrate the pursuit of faith with the whole of life. What would it look like to begin measuring things like teens’ and young adults’ knowledge of and love for Scripture, their clarity about their gifs and vocation, their willingness to listen to the voice of God and follow his direction, the fruits of the Spirit in their lives, and the depth and quality of their love and service to others?

I can almost hear you saying, Kinnaman, are you kidding? How could we ever measure those things? I think it is possible to make accurate assessments, not in a mechanistic way, but from a place of relationship and apprenticeship. A mentor knows intimate details about the progress of his or her protégé. An effective, discerning parent has a pretty decent sense of what’s working and not working in a child’s life. Jesus was in close enough contact with his disciples that he was able to shape the rough-hewn edges of their faith and ministry. Jesus knew his followers. If our churches are too large to cultivate this type of knowing, then our ministries are likely too large to disciple as Jesus did.

If you are a parish or church leader or direct a faith-based institution, think about how the story of PNC Park also shows the importance of discerning institutional decision makers. Our work at Barna Group has given me an up close and personal look at the power of great leadership to transform lagging businesses, churches, and other organizations. And even though one factor in the you-lost-me problem is that we have tried to mass-produce disciples, this does not mean that institutions are unimportant or should go away; nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that the reinvention of our colleges, schools, ministries, and local churches will play a significant role in helping the church as a whole develop our “new mind.” Whether you influence a civic organization, ministry, church, business, or nonprofit, your wise, intentional choices can produce different and better outcomes for the next generation. We need new architects of faith formation within our established (and soon-to-be initiated) institutions.

From Outreach Magazine  Michael Fletcher: Empowering Leadership

If you are an older believer, become a mentor who is committed to nurturing the faith and life of a young Christian. When you spend time with the teen or young adult whom you are mentoring, don’t just talk about the Bible (though that’s important). Get together because you enjoy each other’s company and friendship. Be attentive to what matters to the young adult. Help him or her get into the right school. Offer money for tuition. Be ready to guide decisions about gap years and dating relationships. Humbly share your struggles and your wisdom. Avoid impatience and the intent to control. Help the young person find God’s unique and empowering vision for his or her life.

If you are a parent, cultivate your own sense of vocation and calling. Your life should reverberate with the rhythms of a life in pursuit of God’s presence and mission. Sadly, many young people do not have a sense of vocation because millions of Christian parents have a vision of following Jesus that avoids anything more demanding than faithful church attendance. Our children can’t “catch” what we don’t already have. I pray that God will give us a vision for our lives and for theirs.

If you are a young person, take responsibility for your life and your future. Whether you are a prodigal, nomad, or exile—or on some other kind of journey—God isn’t done with your story. I urge you to open your imaginative spirit to a larger, historic vision of the church, the one depicted by the writer of Hebrews: an assembly of saints, past and present, of angels, of God, and of Jesus Christ. You are called to be a part of that assembly, empowered by the Spirit to work alongside your sisters and brothers to serve and restore God’s world.

Following Jesus means finding a vocation. In the final chapter, you’ll find further ideas from young nomads, prodigals, and exiles and from older Christian leaders for rediscovering a deep sense of vocation within the body of Christ. I hope that these practical ideas will lead your community, young and old, to see visions and dream dreams of the work we can do together.

Reprioritizing Wisdom

Finally, I have learned that the Christian community needs to reprioritize wisdom in order to live faithfully in a discontinuously different culture. Submerged as we are in a society that values fairness over justice, consuming over creating, fame over accomplishment, glamour over character, image over holiness, and entertainment over discernment, we need a blueprint for what life is meant to be. How can we live in-but-not-of lives in the world that surrounds us? In a culture skeptical of every kind of earthly authority, where information is dirt cheap and where institutions and leaders so often disappoint, we need God-given wisdom.

Wisdom is the spiritual, mental, and emotional ability to relate rightly to God, to others, and to our culture. We become wise as we seek Christ in the Scriptures, in the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, in the practices and traditions of the church, and in our service to others. As we come to know and revere God—which, according to Proverbs 9:10, is the beginning of wisdom—he will make us wise. But this is often a painful process, as Hannah’s story shows.

Through this research project, I have interviewed many young adults who are not yet willing to submit their lives to Jesus or to commit fully to the church. As one young nomad, Hannah, wrote: “It wasn’t until five years after leaving home that I finally found my way back to God. Those five years were life changing and devastating. I told the church that they lost me, that this was somehow their fault. But really, I lost myself. I lost the sense of who I was in Christ. I stopped seeing that it mattered. If I couldn’t even find myself, how could church leaders? I might blame other people for the mistakes I made, the choices I made, the friends I made—but in the end, the only pronoun I was using was ‘I.’ This was between me and God.”

Hannah may have seemed lost along her faith journey, but she is on the path toward wisdom, toward a right relationship with God, with others, and with the world. We can all learn from Hannah, even those of us who have been faithful. When the Holy Spirit speaks to us as we read Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son, for example, we may see ourselves in the rebel younger brother or the hypocritical older sibling.

If you identify with the younger brother, ask God if it’s time to “come to your senses” as the wayward son did (see Luke 15:17). If you’re a nomad or a prodigal, I urge you to search your heart with the help of the Holy Spirit. Maybe it’s time to return home. If you’ve experienced the ugly side of Christian community, I hope that you will ask God to help you forgive those who hurt you—and that hurts from the past will no longer keep you from reconnecting with those who are stumbling along behind Jesus. These Christians, like me, are trying their best (but sometimes doing their worst) to follow him.

Perhaps, after some soul-searching, you discover yourself in the older brother’s story. I have interviewed older churchgoers who lament the disrespect of teens and twentysomethings in their congregation but have never bothered to learn the names of those very same young people. Like the “older brother,” we may find comfort in the rules and regulations of religion while inwardly nursing offense toward those who are accepted by the Father even when they fail to follow the rules. Let’s be honest with ourselves and release the resentments that have kept us from celebrating God’s children in the next generation. If you identify with the older brother, your faithfulness is to be commended, but only so long as it is not a roadblock to reconciliation. Will you let go of anxiety, fear, control, and impatience and enter joyfully into the feast God has prepared to welcome home his lost ones?

In this iconic parable, Jesus offers a glimpse of the Father’s heart. Through his life, ministry, death, and resurrection, Jesus pulls back the curtain of heaven to show us the very face of God. As we follow Christ, teach and study God’s Word, live in the Spirit, and practice community with the saints, we will become the kind of disciples who make disciples.

Wisdom empowers us to live faithfully in a changing culture. In the final chapter you’ll find further ideas from young nomads, prodigals, and exiles and from older Christian leaders about reprioritizing wisdom. I pray that these practical ideas will ignite in you and in your community a thirst for Jesus that will be quenched only as you seek him together.

David Kinnaman is the president of Barna Group, a leading research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture. He is the co-author (with Gabe Lyons) of unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity … and Why It Matters (Baker, 2007.)

This excerpt is taken from You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church … and Rethinking Faith (Baker). Copyright © 2011 by David Kinnaman. Used by permission. All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced, scanned, copied, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.

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