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"You Lost Me"

"You Lost Me"

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.

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 that 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!)

First there are what the book calls nomads. Although each one has a unique story, these are folks who are still seeking; they still haven't found what they're 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 about this. 

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.

Courtesy of Hearts and Minds bookstore  The views and opinions expressed in this book review are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church.