You lost me

Why young Christians are leaving the Church . . . and rethinking faith

By David Kinnaman

Why young Christians are leaving the Church . . . and rethinking faith

By David Kinnaman

Five years ago, unChristian became a bestseller when it revealed how young non-Christians view the Christian faith. Drawing upon groundbreaking research conducted by the Barna Group, unChristian showed that a new generation was describing Christianity in “extraordinarily negative” ways—as hypocritical, judgmental, too political, and out of touch. Yet co-author and Barna Group president David Kinnaman made an even more shocking discovery: Young Christians agreed.

Kinnaman and the team at the Barna Group decided to further probe how Christians in the Mosaic generation—those born between 1984 and 2002—describe their experience with faith and the Church. After extensive research and interviews, they found that “the majority of young people dropping out of church are not walking away from the faith; they are putting involvement in church on hold. [. . .] Overall, there is a 43 percent drop-off between the teen and early adult years in terms of church engagement.”

As Kinnaman—who addressed the BIC community at its 2012 General Conference this July—illustrates in his most recent book, You Lost Me, any body of believers committed to witnessing to the world should be concerned with sharing the good news not only with those living on the other side of the world, but also with those in the next generation.

Kelly grew up in an evangelical Protestant church, and both her parents are committed churchgoers. Kelly describes struggling with an anxiety disorder and never feeling that she fit in with the youth group or, later, at her college’s campus ministry, where the focus was on “quotas for getting people saved.” But, she says, “The third strike [against the Church] was the judgment my parents received from their church friends about me. They told my parents that they did a bad job raising me.” Despite these negative experiences, Kelly prays and reads her Bible often. She told me, “I never lost faith in Christ, but I have lost faith in the Church.”

Mike grew up in the Catholic church, but his love for science and his razor-sharp wit—which was sometimes perceived as disrespect—regularly put him at odds with parish leaders. After a period of searching and wrestling with his faith, he says, “I just stopped believing in those Christian stories.”

Nathan, the lead singer of a successful band, had parents who were fixtures in an evangelical church. Then they split up. In an interview with Relevant magazine, this young musician described his “enormous cynicism toward all things institutional Christianity.” He and his bandmates were “all really embarrassed by and ashamed of a lot of the [Christian] subculture we came from, but not necessarily ashamed or embarrassed by the beliefs we had.” Nathan’s faith is still intact and was largely saved by his association with other young artists who were honest about their struggles and willing to help each other heal. The magazine describes Nathan and his band as “asking questions and resisting some aspects of their own conservative upbringing—yet still searching for something more from their faith.”*

While the story of every person is unique, these accounts echo the experiences of about 8 million twentysomethings in the U.S. who were active churchgoers as teenagers but who will have left the Church—and sometimes the faith—by their thirtieth birthday.

Most young Christians are struggling less with their faith in Christ than with their experience of church.

Most young Christians are struggling less with their faith in Christ than with their experience of church, which they view as an unsafe and inhospitable place to express doubts. Many feel that they have been offered slick or half-baked answers to their thorny, honest questions, and they are rejecting the “talking heads” or “talking point” they see among older generations. Whether fair or not, their response—“You lost me”—signals their judgment that the institutional Church has failed them. It’s not that they’re not listening; it’s that they can’t understand what we are saying.

Disconnection, explained

When the Barna Group embarked upon its investigation, I suspected that we would uncover one big reason for why young adults disconnect from the Church or walk away from their faith—maybe one or two. Instead, we identified six themes that capture the overall phenomenon of disconnection between the Mosaic generation and the Church.

While people in every generation may experience similar feelings, the combination of our cultural moment and the discontinuity of the next generation** makes these attitudes among young adults particularly combustible. Many twentysomethings are not hesitating, as have previous generations, to burn the bridges that once connected them to a spiritual heritage.

Here are the broad reasons they offer for dropping out. They find the Church to be:

Overprotective

The impulses toward creativity and cultural engagement are some of the defining characteristics of the Mosaic generation that are most obvious. They want to reimagine, re-create, rethink, and they want to be entrepreneurs, innovators, starters. To Mosaics, creative expression is of inestimable value. The Church is seen as a creativity killer, where risk taking and being involved in culture are anathema.

How can the Church peel back the tamper-resistant safety seal, making space for imaginative risk taking and creative self-expression, traits that are so valued within the next generation?

Shallow

Among Mosaics, the most common perception of churches is that they are boring. Easy platitudes, proof texting, and formulaic slogans have anesthetized many young adults, leaving them with no idea of the gravity and power of following Christ. Few young Christians can coherently connect their faith with their gifts, abilities, and passions. In other words, the Christianity they received does not give them a sense of calling.

How can the Church nurture a deep, holistic faith in Christ that encompasses every area of life?

Antiscience

Many young Christians have come to the conclusion that faith and science are incompatible. Yet they see the mostly helpful role science plays in the world they inhabit—medicine, personal technology, travel, care of the natural world, and other areas. What’s more, science seems accessible in a way that the Church does not; science appears to welcome questions and skepticism, while matters of faith seem impenetrable.

How can the Christian community help the next generation interact with science positively and prophetically?

Repressive

Religious rules—particularly sexual mores—feel stifling to the individualist mindset of young adults. Consequently, they perceive the Church as repressive. Sexuality creates deep challenges for the faith development of young people.

How can the Church contextualize its approach to sexuality and culture within a broader vision of restored relationships?

Engaging the next generation

David Kinnaman’s keynote message to General Conference 2012 will be available for viewing from September 14–16 at bic-church.org/gc2012.

We hope you’ll tune in to learn more about the faith journeys of Mosaics and the prophetic role of the Church among this new generation.

Win a copy of You Lost Me

Want to read the rest of You Lost Me by David Kinnaman? In Part is giving away five signed copies!

For a chance to win, leave a comment below about what you appreciated or felt challenged by from this article. We will randomly select five winners from those who have entered comments by September 17.

This contest is a sweepstakes. No purchase necessary to enter or win. Void where prohibited. A purchase will not increase your chances of winning. Offered only to residents of the U.S. and Canada who are 18 years or older. Limit one entry per person via any method of entry. Entries must be received by midnight (Eastern Time) on September 17, 2012. To enter, leave a comment below or send a standard 3˝ x 4˝ postcard with your name, address, email address, and proper postage to: You Lost Me Sweepstakes c/o In Part magazine, 431 Grantham Rd, PO Box A, Grantham, PA 17027 USA. Complete rules and details are available here.

Exclusive

Although there are limits to what this generation will accept and whom they will embrace, they have been shaped by a culture that esteems open-mindedness, tolerance, and acceptance. Thus, Christianity’s claims to exclusivity are a hard sell. They want to find areas of common ground, even if that means glossing over real differences.

How can the Christian community link the singular nature of Christ with the radical ways in which He pursued and included outsiders?

Doubtless

Young Christians (and former Christians, too) say the Church is not a place that allows them to express doubts. They do not feel safe admitting that faith doesn’t always make sense. In addition, many feel that the Church’s response to doubt is trivial and fact focused, as if people can be talked out of doubting.

How can the Christian community help this generation face their doubts squarely and integrate their questions into a robust life of faith?

The turn toward connection

Once we begin to understand the problems the next generation experiences with the Church and Christianity, our second task is to determine how those areas of disconnect are challenging the Christian community to change. Are there ways in which the struggles of the next generation ought to shift our thinking and practice? If we ignore or discount the spiritual journeys of the young, could we be at risk of missing a fresh move of God in our time?

The Spirit-inspired interplay between generations is a common theme in Scripture. As one example, consider the story of Eli (the older generation) and Samuel (the younger generation) described in 1 Samuel 3. You may recall the episode: In the middle of the night, God calls to Samuel, but the young prophet-in-training repeatedly mistakes God’s call for the voice of his mentor, Eli. Finally, it occurs to Eli, after Samuel has interrupted his sleep several times, to instruct his protégé to say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”

Once I heard present-day leader and pastor Jack Hayford observe that the younger generation needs the older generation to help them identify the voice of God, just as Samuel needed Eli to help him know God was calling him. Hayford also observed that helping in this way requires that we recognize, as Eli did, that God is speaking to the younger generation.

My hope is that You Lost Me can, in some way, catalyze this vital dynamic between generations—that it will help young dropouts turn their reason for leaving into a hunger for deeper faith and help the Church’s older generations turn our frustrations and occasional feelings of failure into renewal.

If you are a younger Christian, this means it’s your turn to listen.

If you are a “well-established” believer, maybe it’s time to trust in a deeper way the work of God within the next generation.

Adapted from You Lost Me ©2011 by David Kinnaman, with permission from Baker Books (Grand Rapids, Mich.)

* Kevin Selders, “No More Secrets for the Cold War Kids,” Relevant (January–February 2011), 56–59.

** Kinnaman describes seismic cultural shifts that have resulted in Mosaics being “discontinuously different” from previous generations in their unlimited access to people and ideas through technology; alienation from family, community, and institutions; and skepticism of authority.

This article originally appeared in the summer 2012 issue of In Part magazine.
David Kinnaman

David Kinnaman is author of You Lost Me (2011) and unChristian (2007). He is president of the Barna Group, a private, nonpartisan research and resource company in Ventura, Calif. He and Jill, his wife, have three children and live in California.

Comments

kristine frey Posted on September 24, 2012

Thanks to everyone who entered the You Lost Me Sweepstakes, and congratulations to the winners: Andrew Bassingthwaighte, Sandy Delaney, Tom England, Sheryl Lindsay, and Rosalie Pannebaker! (We will be in touch about how to claim your prize.)

Daniela Chase Posted on September 19, 2012

Very insightful assessment of the problems at hand, but I would agree that the distaste for church extends beyond the Mosaics. Nearing 50 myself, I have long had the same complaints and wrestle with the apparent points of conflict between churchianity and Christ following. That said, I am fully confident that God is at work and that He is moving, especially among the younger generation simply because they are still honestly seeking and have not come to complacency. And I encourage them to continue to be unafraid to wrestle with God for His ways are higher than our ways.

Pat howard Posted on September 17, 2012

I feel that this arrticle is a great reflection of the true generation that is both leaving and leading the Church. As a soon to be 25 year old living in southern California some of the more moral issuies are causing my generation to exit the church origination, however still growing in non conformed settings.

As a body we must understand that Church, the way we do it, might be evolving and rather try to fight we may need to conform and help be part of the new age teaching methods.

Andrew Bassingthwaighte Posted on September 17, 2012

A great article highlighting what many in youth ministry have been experiencing for a number of years. Definitely food for thought for the current church.

Sheryl Lindsay Posted on September 15, 2012

Hear D. Kinnaman at Gen. Conf. and want to read this book. Our church is definitely in need of the information this
book has to offer ... just look at our empty educational SS classrooms! The young families just are NOT here. After I read this book, I'll put it in the church library for all to read. May God help us reach out in creative ways to this lost generation.

Jenice Posted on September 10, 2012

The Mosaic generation is not the only one the church has lost. I find among the 6 themes listed, the majority of them resonate with me (and I think my generation - baby boomers) - shallow, repressive, exclusive, antiscience, doubtless - perhaps we just express (or repress) them under different terms. I have often reflected that we baby boomers started out so involved, so passionate, so eager to serve - we were for the War on Poverty, against the Vietnam war, deeply committed to the Jesus Movement/Charismatic Movement - would anyone dare to describe us today as eager to serve those in poverty, against war, fully committed to the causes of Jesus? Along the way, we evolved into those who have become shallow, overprotective, antiscience, repressive, exclusive, and doubtless. My disappointment with your article is that you end by TELLING the Mosaic generation that "it's YOUR turn to listen", but you only suggest to we older believers that "MAYBE [emphasis added] it's time to trust in a deeper way the work of God within the next generation." Why not, to the older believers, "it's YOUR turn to trust in a deeper way the work of God within the next generation"?

Amy Posted on September 6, 2012

As one of the "twenty-somethings" with recent and growing struggles with church, reading this article was... relieving. I grew up with strong ties to my congregation and church, but after spending a few years away at college (a Christian college, actually), I came back with a renewed understanding of my faith. It was difficult to realize how uncomfortable I was sharing this new understanding of Christ with the strict traditional structure I had grown up in. I've since stopped participating in services, for several reasons closely related to the topics described above. Reading an article like this does bring me hope, and as I said before, is a huge relief. It is an issue that desperately needs to be addressed, and I'm encouraged to see it gathering discussion.

Fawn Posted on September 5, 2012

Thank you for commiting this month's Inpart issue to a painfully relevant issue within the church. With one child in this age group and one not far behind, it is of great concern to us.

Gene Chase Posted on September 3, 2012

I earn my living helping Christians interact with science positively, as Kinnaman's theme Antiscience encourages me to do. I write professionally on Christian theology and the mathematical sciences. But the topic I want to address in this comment is Kinnaman's "Repressive" theme.

I have directed an ex-gay ministry at my church since January, 1986. When I was a 20-something in the late 1960s & early 1970s there were no resources for gay Christians like me who wanted help being "transformed by the renewing of [my] mind" as Romans 12:2 urged me. Now there is lots of help available, but not so much in the BIC church. I commend to you Bruxy Cavey as an exception to that, and recommend that you check out the following links to provide help in meeting Kinnaman's challenge. May Bruxy's tribe increase, even if you don't agree with him in all particulars.

A sermon:
http://www.themeetinghouse.com/pageid/1809/is-being-gay-a-sin-5090

A summary of a talk at Messiah College:
http://www.bic-church.org/news/churchwide/archives/bruxy_sexuality.asp

A PDF summarizing Bruxy's "third way":
http://www.themeetinghouse.com/teaching/resources/responding-to-gay-marr...

Donna Grube Posted on August 31, 2012

Thank-you for this insightful article. With 2 daughters in this age group who are no longer attending church you have given me some food for thought. While God remains the same yesterday, today and forever the church needs to change.

Connie Posted on August 30, 2012

I have often wondered why young people in this age category leave the church in droves, even those who are involved in youth groups and seemingly have solid relationships with Christ and their families. While I assumed they were just sewing their wild oats (how's that for a generational gap), this article helped me to realize that it may go deeper than that. I need to be less judgmental toward them and look for ways to make church a place where they not only want to stay, but they want to bring their friends.

Karyn Posted on August 29, 2012

"It's not that they're not listening; it's that they can't understand what we're saying." That might be true for some, but for others it's that they listen and disagree. And that's ok. I think it's good and healthy to question: "What did Jesus teach vs. what has become 'cultural Christianity' that doesn't necessarily gel with Christ?"

Tandy Hartman Posted on August 29, 2012

Un-Christian was a very informative and fabulous read, You Lost Me also looks powerful. I was born in 78, while not a part of the Mosaic generation; In Christian and non-Christian friends alike, I have heard many of these sentiments expressed and felt them myself at times. I appreciate and resonate with this article as it puts words to current trends observed in my interactions with others. I want to thank many friends at Manor BIC of older and younger generations who have made an effort to connect with Jonathan and I and our children in a way that has communicated authenticity, transparency, brokenness healed by Christ, grace, understanding, innovation, flexibility and other focus vs. self-focus. That connection and the overwhelming power of the truth of Christ's story continues to make "church" a safe place for us to grow, learn and develop with hopes to invest in our children and others around us.

Cindy Posted on August 29, 2012

As a parent with children in this age group, I have been very concerned. Thank you for addressing this issue and for being willing to ask tough questions. Our God does not change but we need to be willing to allow Church to change.

Jason Fogle Posted on August 28, 2012

43% drop between the teen and early adult years. I remember those years....and they were not spent in Church...Because it just wasn't as much FUN as hanging out with my friends playing Madden or watching a game. Or I was focused on graduating and going to College....Not Seminary???
As a generation Xer this really opened up my eyes to what I need to focus on as a parent of two young children and for the children of the church...I need to step up!!!! Great Article.

Rosalie Pannebaker Posted on August 28, 2012

Very good assessment of the problem. I'm hoping the book includes gives us a clue on what to do about it. Like what about our church and worship needs to be constant ; what can we change without moving away from the faith. It occurs to me that a revival today would look quite different from one in the 1800's. Let's keep our hearts open so we don't miss it if God sends one.

Sandy Delaney Posted on August 28, 2012

A big THANK YOU to David for taking on the challenge of discovering how we can help the next generation. THANK YOU for bringing to light how we are affecting the next generation even though it may be difficult for us to hear. THANK YOU for challenging us to re-evaluate our hearts and hoping it moves all of us to repentance.

Saundra Wingert Posted on August 28, 2012

Very insightful! Though I am certainly not in the 20-somethings age bracket, I find myself struggling more and more over the past several years with what Mr. Kinnaman referred to as shallowness, exclusivity and an institution that disallows expression of doubt in my own experience as an active member of a BIC church. What I am asking God for is revelation of how to move what we call "church" beyond these 6 reasons for drop-out into what God would define as Church for 2012 and beyond!

Rachel Shetterly Posted on August 27, 2012

Confession: I'm older than the Mosaics. I'm 41...and I feel all the same things they feel about church. And I have 4 children age 15 to 20, and I have no clue how to help them through these challenges when I am facing them myself. We all love Jesus...the church not so much...for all the same reasons as mentioned in the article.

Tom England Posted on August 27, 2012

Great article! I believe the future of the church depends on Christian re-engagement with society, part of which is being open to listening. It is the beginning of a dialogue. With a strong faith you need not worry about being corrupted...we should worry more about being obedient to God's will. I'm guessing God would want us to engage, like Jesus did, and let Him work the conversion.

P. Stephen Long Posted on August 27, 2012

I enjoyed the article. As lead deacon in our church and myself with 5 children ages 17-25, This has been at the forefront of my mind in seeking why a whole flock of young men and women associated with our church as teens have left or wandered away from regularly meeting together. Fortunately my kids still love Jesus, but are themselves somewhat cynical of the church institutional for exactly the reasons that Dave K has found out.

Nelson Martin Posted on August 27, 2012

Am I overly protective and a creativity killer? WOW! I never viewed it in such stark terms. I will investigate my heart. After many years in leadership and ministry I can't say I have relationship with many youth who are disciples pursuing Christ.

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