Why Are Young Christians Leaving the Church? An Interview with David Kinnaman
David Kinnaman, the President of Barna Group, recently released You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church And Rethinking Faith. In many ways, the book is a follow-up to 2007′s UnChristian. However, instead of looking at how those outside of the church perceive Christians, You Lost Me considers how young Christians themselves, many of whom aren’t regularly involved in the church, perceive the church. David talked with FaithVillage about his new book.
FV: How did you arrive at the Barna Group?
David Kinnaman: I went to Biola University and expected to be a pastor. I read one of George Barna’s books and decided I was interested in research. I thought it would be an interesting internship, a way-station between college and getting into fulltime ministry at a church. It’s been 17 years in February since that happened.
FV: Did you know that You Lost Me was going to be the follow-up to UnChristian, or was there an inciting incident that led you to start research for You Lost Me?
DK: In a weird way, I did UnChristian knowing that it would be consistent with what I wanted to do with You Lost Me. We didn’t have the title yet for You Lost Me, but I did want to work on this question of why young adults leave the church. So that question was actually before the notion of writing a book with Gabe [UnChristian] on this subject. That was the inciting incident.
FV: When you begin these projects, do you ever have preconceived notions of the outcome, despite your best intentions?
DK: Any good researcher will tell you that they’re as unbiased as they can be, but every researcher has their own history, their own sets of questions, ideas, or hypotheses that they’re trying to assess. Does the fact that a young person has a clear purpose in life . . . is that a factor or not? We come at it without a predetermined outcome as to the results we’ll find. Good research will give you things that you expected to find and things that you didn’t expect to find. You can be surprised if your assumptions are correct or not.
The other side to that, and this is a little bit more about how I craft a project, I read as much as I can in the space around a subject, but I’m also very careful not to read too much of the books that I think are right within the exact center of the target that I’m trying to write to or work on. I try to do my best to read as much as I can to be aware of who’s writing and broadly what people are saying, but I also try to be very careful until after the book is done to read too much of that center of the target. I respect authors, I respect researchers, but I don’t want to say the same things they’re saying.
FV: What finding in You Lost Me surprised you the most?
DK: I thought that college, and particularly non-Christian colleges, would be a huge factor in what caused people to walk away. That’s a factor, but it’s not, certainly, the leading factor. They end up losing their faith in college for a lot of reasons beside college. They’ve already begun to leave before college, or the church hasn’t taught them to think. There’s all sorts of other social or sexual factors that are taking place in their lives as they’re maturing. The church just really hasn’t given them the tools.
It’s a spiritual principle that you see in Scripture, and not to get into a theological backwater of predestination or once-saved-always saved, but just this notion that Jesus teaches that there will be some that fall away or that some seed will be taken away from actually taking root. That’s the kind of thing that you see so often in the research—that there’s this real question about “How does faith actually connect?” So, the notion of college making a difference or not was one of the things that really surprised me.
FV: Of nomads, prodigals, and exiles, the descriptive terms you apply to those that have been lost along the way, why are nomads the most common?
DK: If you think about our nation today, one of the things that you could very clearly describe us as is a nation of superficial Christians. Most of the adults in America today have some sort of Christian background. So, the real question we need to keep asking ourselves is, “Why is it that so many Americans are Christian in name only?” That’s where the nomads come in. They’re people who grew up that had some sort of experience with Christianity at one point but then something gave way and the rest of life made them hang back. Nomads are really the most common, followed by exiles, and the least common are the prodigals.
FV: You use the phrase “discontinuously different” to contrast the Mosaic generation with every generation that has come before. Why is it often difficult for older generations to understand just how different this generation is?
DK: In some ways, even with the Boomers, their generation was discontinuously different than their predecessors, just as the World War II generation had a discontinuously different setting by comparison to the generation that grew up before them.
The thing that really struck me about that was the acceleration of so much of life and the pace of change—changes related to technology and access, that, if you look beneath the surface, it’s not simply that the culture is so dramatically different, or the generation is—it’s that everything is so dramatically different for all of us, and young people are the Geiger counter for this increase in cultural change. There are so many distractions now that keep them from paying attention to faith in a way that would not have been prevalent 15 or 30 years ago.
FV: Of the six different themes of disconnection described in You Lost Me (overprotective, shallow, antiscience, repressive, exclusive, doubtless), is any theme more pronounced than any other, or are they fairly even across the board?
DK: Each one is more pronounced for specific kinds of people and specific kinds of traditions. In a fundamentalist background, the themes of overprotection and antiscience are more common and more prevalent than anything else. That’s the kind of perception that I think is most common with those kinds of young people because they come from a particular kind of soil. It’s a very protective kind of environment. In other places, like with young mainline students and young Catholics, the perception of shallowness and doubtless are the more common ones that they experience.
That was one of the surprises to me. I expected that we would see, like the UnChristian research, these huge smoking guns or big red flags, like anti-homosexual or judgmental or hypocritical or too political, but what we found with this book was that there was more texture and nuance. As we described in the book, every story matters, so it becomes a real question of the personal, spiritual exegesis we do for people and their back story.
FV: You give flesh to faceless numbers by including personal stories in You Lost Me. Do you have a friend who got lost along the way? What pains you most about their story? Or, which story in the book resonated with you the most?
DK: I have had friends that were young Christians in high school that have fallen away and become either prodigal or nomad, and, in some cases, I think even exiles. It’s a perceptive question. Even as my basis as a researcher, there are a lot of questions that I come at this in terms of what has happened to so many of us, knowing even peers of mine, that grew up in Christian homes and spent so much time wasting their 20s, in my view, at least in terms of their connection with the church.
Some of those poignant ones are the conversations that I talk about, like at the very beginning of the book, about young people that grew up in my home church. I was part of the youth sponsorship team, one of their youth coaches, and seeing them no longer Christian, you play back the history and wonder “Was I really connected as I could be? Did we really have the right structure in place to help Amy and Ashley and Lucas and others develop the kind of faith they could be best served by and that really kept them connected to Christ through those critical years?”
As a side note, it’s a bit of risk for us as researchers to put a lot of personal stories in something like this because, in a way, I’m trying to have these poignant moments for readers to recognize that it’s not just a bunch of statistics. We live in an era with great storytellers and great video and great advertising and marketing, and you run the risk of cheapening these stories, even by including them, or having people question whether we’re real researchers because we’re just good storytellers or we’ve somehow preyed on people’s emotions.
I hope none of those things are true of the book, but it’s a good blend of both great quantitive research, as well as a real sense that we do need to pay attention and listen better. That’s one of the key perspectives I have about this, that there’s got to be a way for us to listen more effectively as leaders about the spiritual journeys that people are taking around us.
FV: Do you believe that in focusing too much on generational segregation the church has lost itself?
DK: I think it’s catered too much to the cultural cues that are around us. You have to have everything really dialed into a particular demographic. You see that in advertising. For instance, you never see a beer commercial that features an older person, I guess, except for those Dos Equis commercials with the guy that says “Stay thirsty my friends.” Still, he’s hanging around a bunch of young people and it’s pitched to young people because of its massive irony. You see in our culture this real intensity of focus on particular age demographics, particular sensibilities, and I think that’s part of this acceleration of culture.
I wasn’t alive before 1973, and certainly I wasn’t alive during the 60s, but I have to believe that before the 1960s, youth culture was something very different, and you can see that from a lot of researchers who talk about the rise of youth culture and the generational separations that have occurred over the last 50 or 60 years. In the early 1900s, from the little data we do have, it’s not as complete a sociological record as we have now in our information era, but from Gallup and others, there does seem to be a huge gap in the early part of the 1900s by age that most young adults said they attended church just as often as older adults. I have to believe that most churches certainly must have had classes for young people, but they must have operated on a different kind of ethic.
I wonder how we could serve as a prophetic challenge to culture that was different than what we see around us. It doesn’t mean we can’t put our kids into age-segregated classes, age-appropriate classes, but how does the church stand as a prophetic response to culture rather than mimicking it?
FV: You talk about the church failing to teach what vocation is. What can be done about that?
DK: The first is to recognize that you can’t teach vocation holistically through the existing models. Vocation isn’t something that’s taught in classroom style teaching. It’s really something that’s caught more than taught, to use that cliché. We really need to rediscover what vocation means. It’s not only about our jobs or professions, it’s also about a whole host of other factors: our relationships, our vocation as a neighbor, as an employee, as a father or a mother. It seems that there’s a lot of work to be done there.
This is so obvious that it’s almost painful, but every young person has particular gifts and abilities, as a leader, as a writer, as a performer, as a counselor, as a journalist, as a lawyer, as a doctor or medical professional, and for so many millions of these young people who go through our churches, they really have no idea, not only what they’re good at, but how their faith or faith community or Scripture relates to that calling.
To me, that’s probably the single largest tragedy coming out of the research is that we’ve really not given young people a sense of the grand scope of vocation and how that could help them reimagine the importance of faith and church in their lives.
FV: What makes you hopeful for the next generation?
DK: I’m glad you used the term hopeful and not optimistic, because I’m very hopeful but I’m not always optimistic. I think there’s a difference. In terms of our obligations as Christians, we should be hopeful biblically, but we don’t necessarily need to be optimistic biblically.
One of the things I really am hopeful about is that they’re very globally aware. Their digital capabilities are astounding. They’re capable of simplifying tension, an idea that we write about in the book of being in but not of the world. I think there’s a capacity that’s being cultivated in the generation to do that that’s really healthy but I think that’s where the church may really let them down. On the other hand, the next ten years could be a real golden era of ministry to a generation that’s capable of synthesizing tension as well as any other. That could be the real legacy of older Christians who are working with younger Christians today and it could be the thing that really helps them prepare to stay faithful in a new cultural context.
You Lost Me was released on October 1, 2011 and was published by BakerBooks. David Kinnaman is on Twitter @davidkinnaman.
Originally posted on November 10, 2011.