Why Young Christians and Leaving the Church and Rethinking Faith – David Kinnamen
The shallowness equation has two sides. On the one, we find young adults who have only a superficial understanding of the faith and the Bible. The Christianity they believe is an inch deep. On the other, we find faith communities that convey a lot of information about God rather than discipling young believers to live wholly and deeply in the reality of God. Thus the Christianity some churches pass on is a mile wide. Put the two together and you get a generation of young believers who’s faith is an inch deep and a mile wide – too shallow to survive and too broad to make a difference. – David Kinnamen; You Lost Me; Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith
I first discovered the work of David Kinnamen and the Barna Research Group, the organization he heads up, with his first book, unChristian. That work was a look at what the current generation of atheists and agnostics think of the Church. It was so well researched and made so much sense to me that the minute the follow up was released it went on my must read list.
I was on the waiting list at my local public library for almost 6 months before I got my chance, clearly there are quite a number of others out there who feel the same way. The question of why young people are leaving the faith, or as in the case of unChristian, why they never give it a chance, is not new but I think that in the last few decades the issue has resurfaced with a different level of urgency. Our population is aging and churches are struggling to keep the doors open, we as Christians must take seriously the lack of engagement from the younger generation. This book and the work of the Barna Research Group should be required reading at seminaries across North America, especially for those planning on going into young ministry.
I don’t agree with everything Kinnamen concludes, but to my knowledge he’s the only person who is taking the time to ask the questions and stare unflinchingly at some inconvenient truth they the answers reveal.
First off Kinnamen defines the young people he is studying as those between the ages of 18 and 30, college students and those just starting their careers. At this age people are leaving their parent’s home for the first time and are exposed to differing world views, philosophies and ways of life that they may never have considered before. He then breaks down the typical choices these former Christians make into three categories; they become Prodigals, Nomads or Exiles.
Prodigals are those that reject the church and its teaching and go off in search of something completely different. These are typically the ones who look at the way they were raised and the way the world speaks to them and say, “I was lied to, I can’t reconcile what I was taught with the way I see things now.” As a result most prodigals become atheists and never return to faith at all.
Nomads attempt to incorporate their Christian upbringing with the messages they receive from the world. They waffle from one belief to the next and look for common ground. They are usually the ones that accuse the church of being too exclusive and insular in its teaching. Nomads become most comfortable in an ecumenical gathering of people of faith but stop short of identifying themselves as Christians so as not to offend anyone or paint themselves into a corner.
Finally the Exiles are those who remain strongly self-identified with the Christian faith but who through personal study and conviction of the Holy Spirit can no longer reconcile their understanding of the bible with the teachings they have heard from the pulpit, church history or their own experience of hypocritical activity in the church itself. They leave the “church” because they no longer fit in but they do not ever really leave the faith. Personally I most closely identify with the exiles. During my late twenties and early thirties I went through a time when I felt as though the Church I was attending missed the point of it all. I grew increasingly frustrated and would go several weeks without attending a service. I drifted from one church to the next constantly looking for something I could connect with both on an intellectual and spiritual level but never really found it. Thankfully just as I was about to give up and leave the church entirely I found a community of people who weren’t afraid to really wrestle with the same kinds of questions I had and yet remained faithful to the scriptures and each other in community.
That is perhaps the greatest lesson Kinnamen is trying to portray with this book.
Honesty, Integrity and Community are the antidotes to the forces that pull young Christians away from the church. More information about what we believe is not going to help. We live in the information age. The young people of today have grown up with the internet, search engines and social media. Information about things is as easy to find as water from a tap. What our society is lacking is wisdom, and practical answers to the why questions. Information can be attained quickly and cheaply, wisdom on the other hand can only be acquired through experience and community life.
Community building needs to start almost immediately when I child is very young. One of the things that Kinnamen points to as the culprit for this is age and stage segregation of our entire society. We need to be more inclusive in the way we shepherd the young. It is important he says that as young people begin to formulate their questions about faith and how to apply it that they learn from the examples of those around them. The wisdom of the elders is an important piece of the puzzle that has been lost in society as a whole and most churches today would do well to lead the way in regaining this important building block for community.
I opened this review with a quote about the lack of depth in the faith of so many believers, both young and old. I believe it is true that the biggest challenge facing the church today is the question of how to pass on a deep and focused faith but as Kinnamen points out too many churches are teaching a faith that is an inch deep and a mile wide. As I read that I was reminded of the parable of the sower.
Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. [Matthew 13:3-8]
The challenge of the church today is to provide good soil. Soil that can encourage and support deep roots so that birds don’t eat the seeds, the sun doesn’t scorch the pants and weeds don’t choke out the growth.