A review of
You Lost Me:
Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church
. . . and Rethinking Faith
By David Kinnaman.
Review by Josh Wallace.
In an hour, I’ll be drinking coffee with a nineteen-year-old preacher’s kid who’s finding it hard to connect with his father’s church. Tomorrow I hope to call a good friend from my Christian college days to talk about his new teaching job. He’s drifted in and out of churches over the past five years, never quite finding a place that fits. This morning I read an email from a fellow recent seminary grad wondering whether he can stick with a church position in the midst of deep frustration and disappointment with the way his church embodies Jesus’s good news.
David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me has its roots in stories like these. Thousands of stories. Nearly five thousand interviews with and about eighteen-to-twenty-nine-year-olds in the United States. The project conducted by Kinnaman’s Barna Group stretched from 2007 to 2011, launched eight new social scientific studies, and reanalyzed Barna’s twenty-seven years of interviews and polls for data regarding the youngest generation of Americans and their relationship to the church. You Lost Me reads as a capstone report to this research, distilling it, analyzing, suggesting next steps.
You can get the flavor of You Lost Me at youlostmebook.com or in a recent article posted on Barna Group’s webiste, “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church.” As the article’s title suggests, You Lost Me begins from the statistical observation that, though Millennials as teens are among the most religiously active Americans, Millennials as twentysomethings are among the least so. (Note: Millennials comprise the generation born between 1984 and 2002; Barna Group uses the term “Mosaics,” coined by George Barna himself, for this generation.) This 43 percent gap in religious engagement constitutes what Kinnaman refers to as the “Dropout Problem.”
Kinnaman is quick to establish in You Lost Me that this engagement gap is less a matter of faith and spirituality and more one of institutions, commitment, and consistency. It’s less about Jesus and more about the way churches claim to follow him. Religiously disengaged Millennials are consistently point to the church, saying, “Hey, you lost me” (hence the the book’s title).
Millennials give any number of reasons for disengaging: clergy abuse scandals, repressive sexual mores, inadequately addressed intellectual doubts, a sense of mission broader than the churches’ often narrow read on what Jesus is on about. Kinnaman stresses repeatedly throughout the book that every story matters, in all its individuality, in all its heartbreak, disappointment, injustice, and, sometimes, joy and hope. But it is precisely when Kinnaman begins to generalize about these stories, to look for patterns in the reasons Millennials named as pushing them away from churches, that You Lost Me perhaps becomes most valuable.
Kinnaman establishes three types of journeys away from church: that of the Nomad, that of the Prodigal, and that of the Exile. I find this typology helpful in understanding this generation’s struggle with faith and faith’s institutions. Nomads drift away from church engagement without ever rejecting their at least cultural (if not aspirational) identification with Christianity. Nomads, according to Kinnaman, “have a mix of positive and negative feelings about their ‘native’ faith.” They pop in and out of church, off and on, experimenting with other forms of spirituality. They wander.
Prodigals, on the other hand, “deconvert” from Christianity or switch to a different religious tradition. I have trouble with this point of Kinnaman’s typology where I don’t with the other two. Deconversion (something we might better discuss as dis-identification) takes many forms. Kinnaman acknowledges as much by distinguishing between “head-driven” and “heart-driven” prodigals. The former disavow Christianity for its perceived rational defects; the latter leave “as a result of deep wounds, frustration, or anger, or of their own desire to live life outside the bounds of the Christian faith.” But Prodigal feels a bit like a catch-all for anyone who walks away from explicitly Christian faith. True, in a bounded-set model of faith, anyone who dis-identifies with Christianity “deconverts.” But something in my gut tells me the person shipwrecked on the scandal of Jesus’s resurrection, the person confused and angry over the sexual advances of a church leader, and the person opting for the lure of a fast and furious lifestyle are all facing in dramatically different directions.
Kinnaman’s third type, the Exile, is perhaps most helpful. These are people who feel forced out of church, either because churches draws the boundaries of God’s mission too narrowly. In Kinnaman’s words, Exiles “are still invested in Christianity but feel stuck (or lost) between church and culture.” Kinnaman gives two helpful models. One is the artist or entrepreneur or scientist who feel that churches look askance at her life’s work because it pushes up against or crosses the boundaries of the ways churches imagine God to work in the world. It’s the classic, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” criticism. The second model is that of the individual who feels compelled to follow Jesus in mission into places that make the church feel uncomfortable or compromised. Exiles, perhaps more than either of the other two types, wrestle with the question of what church has to do with faith.
The bulk of You Lost Me explores six themes that emerged from the interviews as Nomads, Prodigals, and Exiles described their journey away from church. Each of the chapters that explores one of these themes is well worth time in reflection and discussion. Kinnaman names dynamics that I have often heard from friends and even felt rumbling in my own heart: Churches are overprotective! They are shallow! They are antiscience, repressive, exclusive! They leave no room for doubt! In statistics and anecdotes, Kinnaman gives voice to the complaints of Millennials leaving the church. But then he suggests “turns”–his word for how churches might grow and change in response to the all-too-often accurate critique of the youngest generation. Churches should turn from overprotectiveness to discernment, from repression to relational ways of imagining sexuality, from shunning doubt to engaging in practice.
Some may complain that You Lost Me is setting up as an ecclesial catastrophe what is really a regular phase of each generation’s life cycle. Gen Xers, Boomers, even the long line of begats before them–each generation needs to dissociate itself from their parents faith, to sow their wild oats and fashion an identity for themselves before they settle down with spouse and offspring and reenlist in the ranks of the (Christian) social institution. Kinnaman grants this perspective is true to an extent. But he insists that the situation facing Millennials is “discontinously different” from their predecessors because culture has changed. Digital technology has brought us unlimited access–access Millennials have never lived without. Economic and social patterns have shifted–from marriage rates to job prospects to the way we use media. Authority structures are thrown into radical doubt. While Baby Boomers got the ball of cultural change rolling, and Gen Xers faced the task of negotiating a new reality, Millennials have known nothing but this cultural reality.
Again and again Kinnaman returns to the phrase “in-but-not-of.” Disciple-making in this “discontinuously different” context must address how Christians can be “in-but-not-of” culture. Each of the turns suggested in response to the reasons Millennials give for disconnecting from church pushes in an in-but-not-of direction. Kinnaman proposes three foci for making disicples of the emergent generation: 1) Relationships, 2) Vocation, and 3) Wisdom. In relationships, especially intergenerational ones, Millennials become apprenticed into a faithful way of being in-but-not-of the culture. Vocation addresses straightforwardly the way God calls us out into the culture, whether as mothers, medical researchers, business-consultants, middle managers, firefighters, or youth pastors. Wisdom is needed to discern the significance and value of the unlimited information and advertising our culture foists upon us through our smart phones. In each the in-but-not-of motif sits shows up from a slightly different angle.
My deepest critique of You Lost Me (a book that otherwise sparks my missional imagination and love for emerging adults) begins from this in-but-not-of motif. In-but-not-of implies that faith (and also fidelity) is something like a content or status. It’s something you carry into the culture, or it’s something you are in the culture. While this is perhaps at times a helpful way to talk about faith, I suspect that for a generation saturated with content (whether web- or otherwise) and obsessed with status (updating it on Facebook and Twitter), talking in this way about faith predisposes Millennials to regard faith (and fidelity) as one more commodity, one more status. Instead, I propose that we talk about faith as an activity, as practice. Faith (and fidelity) is something we do in culture, in response to our cultures, as part of our cultures, for the sake of our cultures. Kinnaman stumbles toward this, I think, in his response to Millennials complaint that churches suppress doubt; he suggests churches invite Millennials to keep doing the faith even when they have a hard time believing it. How might we alter or augment his other proposals for reconnection from this perspective?
Even with my questions about Kinnaman’s rhetoric of faith still in view, I heartily recommend You Lost Me to fellow schemers and dreamers who want to see young adults swept into Jesus’ great and good mission, to fellow lovers of Millennials whose hearts ache as they drift away from the communities that together testifies to Jesus’ good news about God’s love for the world. I especially urge churches in transition to read this book together. As you think through new leaders, new programs, new buildings, new worship styles, let You Lost Me prick your ears for the voices and views of the emergent generation. How will your church respond?
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com