For quite a while now, people have been talking about the “dropout problem”—the grim reality that young professing Christians are leaving their faith behind in droves. Some catastrophize the issue and proclaim it the death of Christianity in America. Others minimize it, shrugging it off and retorting, “They’ll be back when they settle down and have kids.”
David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Research Group and author of You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith, doesn’t believe the problem is so simple. Through his research and analysis of the Mosaic (or Millennial) generation,[1. Kinnaman defaults to “Mosaic,” in part because the Barna Group coined it.] Kinnaman shows that the problem far more serious than some think—but far more hopeful than we might expect.
You Lost Me, like many books on the Mosaics, is quick to point out an important reality: every story matters. It is exceptionally easy to make sweeping judgments about this generation (even in acknowledging its peculiar “Let’s change the world—look at me!” ideology), so much so that it becomes easy to overlook the reality that these are the experiences of real people. And the experience they share, both in the testimonies peppered throughout the book as well as in the research itself, is troubling.
You Lost Me‘s greatest strength is Kinnaman’s assessment of the real reason behind the dropout problem—it’s a discipleship issue. “The church is not adequately preparing the next generation to follow Christ faithfully in a rapidly changing culture,” he explains (p. 21). This bears itself out as he details the frustrations of the Mosaics participating in the study, who find that the church is:
- Overprotective—they see the church “as a creativity killer where risk taking and being involved in culture are anathema” (p. 92).
- Shallow—having been fed a steady diet of “easy platitudes, proof texting and formulaic slogans,” they don’t see how their faith connects to every facet of life and how their passions, gifts and abilities can be used for God’s glory.
- Antiscience—they see faith and science are incompatible, even finding that “science appears to welcome questions and skepticism, while matters of faith seem impenetrable” (p. 93).
- Repressive—”Religious rules—particularly sexual mores—feel stifling to the individualist mindset of young adults,” Kinnaman writes. “Consequently they perceive the church as repressive.”
- Exclusive—Christianity’s claim to exclusivity is a hard sell, simply because of how this generation has been shaped by “a culture that esteems open-mindedness, tolerance, and acceptance.”
- Doubtless—they don’t believe the church is a safe place to express doubts or admit that their faith doesn’t always make sense. “[M]any feel that the church’s response to doubt is trivial and fact focused, as if people can be talked out of doubting.”
These areas of disconnection have direct implications for making disciples. Shallow platitudes don’t build a robust faith, nor does cultural withdrawal assist in connecting with those outside the Christian community. An antiscientific mindset doesn’t help those who are genuinely interested in the sciences feel like they “belong” in the faith. An environment where genuine questions aren’t welcome doesn’t allow us to “have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 22).
Reading the overviews and the in-depth analysis featured throughout the chapters devoted to each issue, I often found myself agreeing with a hearty “yes and amen.” But I also found myself carefully examining the experiences depicted and asking, “How much of this is a genuine problem of the church and how much is a problem with the person’s actions and attitudes?” This again points to the diagnosis that there is a disciple-making problem at the heart of the dropout problem.
For some, it’s because they legitimately haven’t been equipped—so those who believe the sexual mores of biblical Christianity are repressive should read the Puritans[2. True story. Read chapter 23 of Living For God’s Glory by Joel Beeke to see what I mean.] to completely shatter that image. But “repressive” or “exclusive” can often be used as excuses for “presumptuous sins” (Psalm 19:13)—you know something is wrong, you know it’s bad for you, but you’re going to do it anyway.
While some might struggle with the widely ecumenical view of Christianity displayed, perhaps the weakest element of You Lost Me is its lack of gospel application particularly in terms of the questions being asked (at least as far as what was shown in the book was concerned). I can’t help but wonder what the results might have been had the surveys included a question such as “What is the gospel?” My suspicion is that it would only have further illustrated the gaping hole in our discipleship methodology, but it might have also been an opportunity to drive home the reality that the gospel is not something that you accept once and move on, but something you delve deeper into. The only place I recall this playing out at all is in all too fleeting mentions in the final chapter of the book, “Fifty Ideas to Find a Generation” (which carries on the ecumenism displayed by including voices from all across the spectrum such as Francis Chan, Britt Merrick, Drew Dyck—whose quote is perhaps the best in the entire chapter—Shane Claiborne and Rachel Held Evans).
Despite this weakness, You Lost Me is an extremely helpful and revealing look at what is causing young Christians to leave the Church, one that I hope will serva as a wake-up call to those who have become complacent and an encouragement to those who are pressing on in the hard work of making disciples. Read it carefully, give it due consideration and allow Kinnaman’s findings to help address any changes that might need to be made.
Title: You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith
Author: David Kinnaman
Publisher: Baker Books (2011)