You Lost Me: Why Young People Are Leaving Church & Re-Thinking Faith

David Kinnaman, co-author of the 2007 book unChristian, has recently released his latest book, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Church.  The book deals with 6 reasons Kinnaman has identified that young people are disconnecting from church during middle to late adolescence. David, backed by research from the Barna Group, offers a great detail of stories and interviews that were conducted over the course of the study that gives a portrait of the faith of young people in America. I would highly recommend this book. It’s a wonderful read. I think it’s certainly worth the time if you are interested in faith and young people. It can get a little technical with the study, and you’ll never want to see the word Barna again, but it’s completely worthwhile. These are the six conclusions that he drew along with a little reaction/debrief from me. The statistics are red-lettered in case you want to skim.

Reason #1 — Churches seem overprotective

A defining characteristic of the modern culture of young adults is that they are the most tech-savvy generation that has ever existed. This can bring about both positives and negatives. One of Pete Ward’s observations in his book Liquid Church, is that many adults see church as a refuge site for their kids to hide them away from the big, bad culture of today’s world. Not only does this not line up with their experience of that culture, but it also paints the church in a pretty bad light. One-quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds said “Christians demonize everything outside of the church” (23% indicated this “completely” or “mostly” describes their experience). Other perceptions in this category include “church ignoring the problems of the real world” (22%) and “my church is too concerned that movies, music, and video games are harmful” (18%). 

Reason #2 — Teens and 20-somethings experience of Christianity is shallow.

I had a conversation with my brother in a Target parking lot once and asked him point blank why he didn’t feel like going to church anymore — not to antagonize him or anything like that, but I was just curious. He told me that it didn’t really add anything to his life. He felt like he could still live a complete life not going to church. In the Barna research, one-third of people surveyed said that “church is boring” (31%). One-quarter of these young adults said that “faith is not relevant to my career or interests” (24%). In a very telling sign to the church, many of these young adults surveyed who attended a church as a teenager said that “God seems missing from my experience of church” (20%). Whoa…

Reason #3 — Churches come across as antagonistic to science.

It has become a stereotype of a lot of the more conservative Christian groups to be “anti-science”. This tension between faith and science is one deeply felt by young adults. In the research, the most common perception in this conclusion is that “Christians are too confident that they know all the answers” (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that “Christianity is anti-science” (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have “been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.” Ever since the Catholic church wanted to execute Galileo, the church has always seemed out of sync with the scientific advances of modern times.

Reason #4 — Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often overly simplistic and judgmental.

These last three mark a turning point, for me, in the group. These next three really seem to highlight the aversion that young people have to the black-and-white attitude through which some people experience life. This seemed particularly true in the area of sexuality. Research indicates that most young Christians are as sexually active as their non-Christian peers, even though they are more conservative in their attitudes about sexuality. One-sixth of young Christians (17%) said they “have made mistakes and feel judged in church because of them.” The issue of sexuality is particularly emphasized among 18 to 29-year-old Catholics, among whom two out of every five (40%) said the church’s “teachings on sexuality and birth control are out of date.” This black-and-white attitude combines with the perceived lagging behind to create quite a mess that can prevent churches from speaking meaningfully into people’s lives.

Reason #5 — Young people wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity

Religious pluralism has become mainstream for many young Americans, but many churches seem particularly against this new wave of religious tolerance. Particularly in the wake of 9/11 religious tolerance has lately seemed to be lacking. The political arena certainly doesn’t help this cause. Most young adults want to find areas of commonality with each other. Three out of ten young Christians (29%) said “churches are afraid of the beliefs of other faiths” and an identical proportion felt they are “forced to choose between my faith and my friends.” One-fifth of young adults with a Christian background said “church is like a country club, only for insiders” (22%). These are pretty troubling conclusions and are really a call to change course and quickly.

Reason #6 — The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt

This is the final reason Kinnaman gives that also exhibits the black-and-white-ness of a lot of young people’s perceptions of church. The (mis)perception is that church is a place for only the faithful. If you don’t have faith all of the time, you cannot be there. To a lot of people this may seem fairly absurd, but it doesn’t necessarily matter if perceptions are, in reality, false, they are still held by a large number of people. Some of the perceptions in this regard include not being able “to ask my most pressing life questions in church” (36%) and having “significant intellectual doubts about my faith” (23%).

All in all, it was a pretty troubling book to read as a young Christian who happens to be planning on working in the church for a good portion of my life. As a 25-year-old, I can see a lot of these problems. I like to think that I am becoming a pastor to help move through and away from a lot of these problems and perceptions. Hopefully there will be a church on the other side with me.

Cheers,
Eric

Sorry this post got so long. I tried to highlight/summarize the best I could to make it readable more quickly.

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