Earlier this month, David Kinnaman, president of the research company, The Barna Group, published You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church . . . and Rethinking Faith. In his book, Kinnaman unpacks recent Barna Group findings that revealed that 59 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds “had or have dropped out of attending church after going regularly.” Why? Kinnaman has identified six basic reasons: young people find the church overprotective, shallow, anti-science, repressive, exclusive, and doubtless.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with David Kinnaman about the Barna Group, his new book, and the “Mosaic” generation.
To start with, could you give us an idea of the mission of the Barna Group?
The purpose of the Barna Group is to educate people about the broader culture, and we also think that part of our goal is to help the culture understand the Christian community.
As you are doing market research, measuring opinions and drawing conclusions about broader cultural implications, how do you and the Barna Group account for aspects of every issue that can’t be measured?
That’s always the balance, and I think our great challenge. You’ll see through the history of the company, this dynamic tension of reporting the things we can report on and trying to raise awareness of what we think may be happening, and then recognizing the limits of research.
One of the founders of the market research industry said, “Certainly research is one of the worst ways to understand how people think and act, except it’s better than all the others.”
So, it’s extremely limited. The idea that we could understand someone’s spiritual journey through a handful of questions in a survey is the height of arrogance. But the kind of self-examination that good research should do of ourselves personally, of our organizations, of our businesses, of our churches, that’s where research is really most potent, when it begins to start a new way of thinking about a subject area. And even when the research itself has limitations, and it does, it becomes a window to the way we live, the way we run our organizations.
In You Lost Me, in addition to the research, you show us the lives of individual young people to help explain the larger cultural trend. Are there risks in telling the stories of young people walking away from faith and church? Alternately, what are the risks of not telling these stories?
One of the risks of not doing research is that you fail to capture some of the important nuances that take place in the real stories and in the combination of the stories plus the research. There’s another risk that you run in people thinking that you are trying to highlight just the bad news or sensationalize the bad news, looking at or pushing people to consider walking away from something they held confidently. I think that’s a fair concern. Certainly Jesus gives a stern warning against people that would pull faithful followers away.
There’s a sense that I feel pretty responsible for having at least helped to elevate the conversation about young people dropping out of church about 7 or 8 years ago when we released something talking about young Christians struggling with their place in churches. Overnight it was just a huge hit on our web site, and people started quoting a lot of the data about 7 out of 10 young people walking away from the church and their faith. Part of my intent [with this book] was to really help clarify and to bring some sanity back to the conversation about the fact that people had really run too far with some the data. It’s a constant battle of urgency because the world is changing, and this generation requires our appropriate response. But also a biblical sense of humility and wanting to be honest and accurate.
In chapter 6, “Shallow,” you talk about the majority of 18- to 29-year-olds in your study reporting that during high school they had no close, personal friends who were adults. The solution, you propose, is a type of spiritual apprenticeship or spiritual parenting. How does this happen meaningfully and organically in churches that are so segregated by age?
In many cases young people are getting connected with older adults and the church is providing that, so I don’t want to look negatively on the good things that do happen. We should celebrate those.
However, we see clearly that the vast majority of Protestant and Catholic young people don’t develop good solid relationships with other adults in the church, and that’s something to be very concerned about.
It starts with just asking the question: what are we doing now in separate age-segregated buckets that could be done more intentionally with other older adults? Are their ways that we could integrate the youth ministry with the men’s ministry, with the women’s ministry, with other aspects of the small group ministry that maybe we didn’t ordinarily consider? As a researcher I’m concluding we’re just not doing enough of that between generations. We have to be willing to rethink the way we do this. Each church will have to work that out given their own size and particular approaches, but there are ways to do it. We’re able to put people in the building for various kinds of programs and services and opportunities, so it’s largely a failure of imagination and courage to do that.
One of the confounding problems is that a lot of times, we measure success for youth ministry and college ministry based on the number of people attending. That creates a challenge for many youth leaders because they feel as though they are not successful enough if they go deeper with a smaller number of people. It’s a huge challenge for a senior pastor and senior leaders of a congregation; they have to have the courage as well to say they’re going to measure the success of their youth ministry staff and college ministry staff based on a better, deeper, more wholistic approach to actually helping these young people grow and develop into the people they’re supposed to be.
Another theme in the book is vocation. In your research, many young people said their church taught them little about how to connect their faith and work. How can churches use vocation and calling to reconnect generations and give young people a renewed sense that everything they do matters to God?
One of the first ways to reconnect and de-silo the church is to talk more and more about our professions and our callings and the various vocations in which we serve, vocation being a broader concept than just what we do with our professional interests, although that’s a huge component of it. One of the most important themes of the book is, in my view, that we’ve really failed to connect faith to vocation at an early enough age so that all the most significant decisions that they make about vocation, including education, mentors, reading, travel, their digital lives—not to mention family and relational choices—can be driven ultimately by a sense of vocation.
Everyone has a sense that they want to do something that matters in life. Even if they’re not that sanguine about it, they’re certainly interested in making a living or making a paycheck or earning money on some level. So my concern is we’re simply this: we're not giving young Christians a sense of what the historic Christian faith means for who they are and who they’re becoming. That’s one of the major challenges.
We have a really amazing opportunity because this generation is so cause-oriented, very purpose-oriented, very much asking questions of meaning. I think the church has an opportunity to step in there and expose young people to the breadth and beauty of serving God with our vocation.
What makes the young people of the Mosaic generation, those born between 1984 through 2002, different from members of other generations when they were 18-29 years old?
This is more of an escalator than an elevator, so I don’t think young people are now on floor 50, whereas when the Gen Xers or the Boomers grew up, we were on floor 0. We are all riding this escalator at the same time, and young people are at a significantly different cultural height than we’ve ever seen. Look at just some of the social and technological changes: fatherlessness, going from 5% to 41% births to single moms; institutional skepticism towards Christianity, government, media; everything’s being reinvented, even our economy is undergoing some significant duress. The pace of life is so much different, and a lot of that’s brought on by technology.
My contention is that if we were to look at our culture 50 years ago and 25 years ago and now, I think the spirit of the age is increasingly one like Babylon and the tower of Babel and is one of human self-centeredness, self- aggrandizement, and self-gratification, and a hedonism of technology, of hyper-individualism, of institutions becoming increasingly disconnected from human flourishing and more about the accomplishment of esoteric goals.
We’re in a period of significant alienation from the traditional ways that families and institutions have interacted with humans. Some of these institutions are reaching almost what you would think of as a breaking point. Can politics, can American government work in the way that it has for centuries? And this idea of spiritual authority and hyper individualism, everyone is their own spiritual authority.
When you combine all those factors, you have to start to conclude that young people are facing a different culture than we’ve ever seen before. So it’s our job to have spiritual discernment and cultural awareness to be faithful in that environment because today is different than the 1960s. It’s different than the 1970s when I grew up.
In one of the last chapters of the book, you recount a discussion with a friend that the church is not a collection of separate generations, but a group of people all living at the same time as one generation, being the church. Can you explain more about this idea?
After a conversation with an older friend, I realized I was thinking of “generations” in the church as one generation giving the next generation a faith to pass on, the metaphor of handing off a baton in a race. The church is the one place that ought to stand in opposition to that kind of segregated thinking. There’s a real opportunity for the church to imagine its role as a group of generations, an entire generation alive at one time, serving God’s purposes rather than simply the metaphor of passing on the baton. And that’s the metaphor of the body of Christ, that we all have different functions to serve. To have a whole demographic of 18- to 29-year-olds, 18- to 35-year-olds, essentially missing from most of our churches is a tragedy to that metaphor of the body of Christ.
This is a great opportunity for the church to reconnect; again, there’s a lot of really great things that are happening in that regard, in various families and various churches, so let’s recognize where it’s happening and celebrate it, then look for places where we need that new mind, that new courage to reconnect some of our differences and to begin to demilitarize some of the generational warfare that most of pop culture says is so important to us.