09 September 2014
Finding faith in a new generation
by David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group
Our research at Barna Group shows that among US Millennials (born between 1984 and 2002) who grew up in church, six in 10 (59 per cent) drop out of church involvement at some point in their 20s. A recent study conducted by Barna Global in Scotland reveals the UK dropout problem is even more severe: among unchurched Scots aged 18 to 24 half report they regularly went to church as a child or teenager. The pattern is even stronger among Scots who are 25 to 34 years old: nearly three out of five unchurched Scots in this age range were previously churched at some point during their life.
It's easy to find ourselves worrying about the next generation. Sometimes those concerns are unfounded. Yet, in our book project You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith, our studies among this generation demonstrate how the Millennial generation in the West is discontinuously different from earlier generations. That's because the cultural setting in which young people have come of age is significantly changed from what was experienced in the formative years of previous generations.
Few other generations of Christians have lived through a set of cultural changes so profound and lightning fast. Other generations of Christ-followers have endured much greater persecution. Others have had to sacrifice more to flourish or even to survive. But I doubt many previous generations have lived through as compounded and complicated a set of cultural changes as have today's Christians in the West. The last 50 years have been a realtime experiment on the next generation, using free markets, media, advertising, technology, politics, sexuality, and so on as our lab tools. For example, popular culture has become a huge driver of religion for Millennials—that is, teenagers and young adults take their cues about what to believe and how to live from today's dominant sources of media input.
The cultural experiment on younger believers continues, but we can already observe some of the results: fluidity, diversity, complexity, uncertainty. Today's Millennials are being formed under the direct influence of these fast-paced changes. Their expectations, values, behaviours, attitudes, and aspirations are being shaped in and by this context.
And the dropout numbers show that, like a Geiger counter under a mushroom cloud, the next generation is reacting to the radioactive intensity of social, technological, and religious changes. In most cases, we are sending them into the world unprepared to withstand the fallout. Too many are incapable of reasoning clearly about their faith and unwilling to take real risks for Christ's sake.
These shortcomings are indicators of gaps in disciple making. There are three arenas where these gaps are in evidence—and where the Church in the West has a God-given opportunity to rethink our ways of making disciples.
1. Relationships. Young adults are highly relational in many respects. At the same time, 20somethings frequently feel isolated from their parents and other older adults in the realm of faith and spirituality. Many young people feel that older adults don't understand their doubts and concerns, a prerequisite to rich mentoring friendships;in fact, a majority of young adults we interviewed report never having an adult friend other than their parents. Can the Church rediscover the intergenerational power of the assembly of saints?
2. Vocation. Millions of Christ-following teens and young adults are interested in serving in mainstream professions such as science, law, media, technology, education, law enforcement, military, the arts, business, healthcare, accounting, and dozens of others. Yet most receive little guidance from their church communities for how to connect these vocational dreams deeply with their faith in Christ. Can the Christian community prepare a new generation of professionals to be excellent in their calling and craft, yet humble and faithful where God asks them to serve?
3. Wisdom. Young adults have access to more information than any other generation in human history, but many lack discernment for how to wisely apply that knowledge to their lives and world. Becoming wise is a lifetime process of deep transformation through faith in Christ, knowledge of God's Word, living by the power of the Holy Spirit, and engaging in rich community with other believers. How can the Christian community help young Christians live wisely in a culture of mental, emotional, and spiritual distraction?
There are millions of young souls behind these numbers —very real young people who need our wise, biblical response to the trends. And, in fact, we are beginning to see local churches and committed families —and young leaders themselves —begin to work carefully and strategically to stem the tide of disengagement. Millennials are not merely the church of tomorrow, but the group of young adults through whom Christ intends to build his Kingdom here on earth today.