If you spend any time at all around the church and pay any attention to what’s going on in the western church, you know that there is a trend of younger generations leaving the church. Not only are children not being raised in the church but those children who have been raised in the church are going off to college, leaving church and sometimes faith behind.
Over the years, David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, one of America’s leading research companies, has written much based upon the research that his organization has done. Together with Mark Matlock, he seeks to tackle this topic head on that research in his latest book, “Faith For Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon.”
The authors pull no punches in speaking truth. I the introduction, they write that it is their contention, “that today’s society is especially and insidiously faith repellent.” While the history of God’s people has shown that they can resiliently walk our their faith, they also contend that the kind of resilient faith that lasts and allows one to walk through difficulties, trials, and antagonistic culture is tougher to grow today.
While that might seem like bad news for some, the authors speak of how faith can grow deeper and stronger in unsettled times and dark places. The current climate may cause some to head for the hills and hide, but the authors are offering this book as a challenge that resilient faith can be grown, it just takes intentionality and hard work.
The authors speak of the importance of culture and its influence. They use biblical examples of characters who have walked in direct opposition to the culture surrounding them, the culture in which they have been immersed. One of the greatest examples may be Daniel and his three friends who found themselves exiles living in Babylon, a culture dramatically different and even opposed to their Jewish homeland.
Complicating our culture is the medium of technology and how it pulls us and the next generations away from productive things, particularly spiritual things. Screens demand our attention, they call us to be their disciples. Jesus himself said that we can’t serve two masters, so how do we can we be disciples of him and screens at the same time?
Matlock and Kinnaman suggest that we are exiles living in digital Babylon. While we would like to go back to Jerusalem, our home and safe haven, we don’t have that luxury and we need to find a way to live out of faith in this somewhat hostile environment. Fortunately, the story of exile isn’t limited to Daniel and his friends, it’s a story that plays out over and over again in the biblical narrative. We see God’s people living as exiles in lands that are foreign and often hostile.
The authors propose that discipleship today has the goal of developing Jesus followers who are resiliently faithful in the face of cultural coercion and who live a vibrant life in the Spirit. They go on to reveal some of Barna’s research as they define four different kinds of exiles: Prodigals (ex-Christians), Nomads (unchurched), Habitual Churchgoers, and Resilient Disciples. Among 18-29 year olds today, 10% are resilient disciples, 38% are habitual churchgoers, 30% are nomads, and 22% are prodigals.
The book goes on to lay out five practices that have led to resilient faith. These practices are based on a decade of work and research. Not only are these authors experts in researching this material but they have also experienced this personally with their own children, experiencing how these practices make a difference.
The five practices that the research has shown build resilient disciples are: forming a resilient identity and experiencing intimacy with Jesus, developing muscles of cultural discernment, developing meaningful intergenerational relationships, training for vocational discipleship, and engaging in countercultural mission.
Intimacy with Jesus is about so much more than weekly worship gatherings. As the authors write, “we too easily mistake the starting point for the destination, oversimplifying Christianity to mere decionism.” This isn’t about merely following rules and habitually attending church and programs, it means creating an intimate relationship with Jesus, allowing young people to see that God speaks to us. Discipleship is growing in an understanding that one can hear and respond to the voice of Jesus in their lives.
Developing muscles of cultural discernment means combatting the easy and convenient teaching and learning that can be gained through technology. As they define it, cultural discernment is the ability to compare the beliefs, values, customs, and creations of the world we live in (digital Babylon) to those of the world we belong to (the kingdom of God). It means we don’t bury our heads in the sand and we take a posture of learning and counterculturally speak. It’s not so much about protecting young people but preparing them for what they will face and how they will respond and live.
Developing meaningful intergenerational relationships means being devoted to fellow believers we want to be around and become. It means mentoring and being mentored. It means to combat a culture of isolation and mistrust with deeper and spiritually significant relationships with those who have gained wisdom in experience. In digital Babylon, technology takes the place of real relationships, so those real relationships need to be forged in resilient disciples so that they won’t settle for cheap alternatives like technology. These relationships are not forged by steamrolling questions and looking past legitimate doubts but sticking around long enough to work them out.
Vocational discipleship is about training up the next generation to know how to think about work and calling. It means finding meaning in what we do, not simply surviving. It means understanding talents and abilities, listening to God’s call, affirming those things, and being a church that enables and trains them to work this all out. Vocational discipleship does not mean full-time vocational ministry for all but it means being a full-time disciple regardless of your vocation, or even living out as a disciple through your vocation.
Finally, countercultural mission means living differently from cultural norms. We are privileged to be invited by God to join him in his mission to the world. This isn’t necessarily a safe mission, living in exile is not safe. Kinnaman and Matlock write, “Too many of our ministry efforts prepare people for a world that doesn’t exist, undercutting our witness and passing flimsy faith to the next generation.” The church needs to improve by focusing more on safe living than on faithful living. We need to help people believe and know how to express themselves and those beliefs in a spirit of love and respect.
Having read other books by Kinnaman, I was looking forward to reading this book. Much of what the authors share coincides with research that has come out of the Fuller Youth Institute as well. That kind of consistency should be encouraging for the church and should spur her on to the mission of raising up resilient disciples.
In order to fulfill this mission of raising up resilient disciples, we can no longer settle for a church that expects everyone to come to them, seeking good to be consumed and comfortable spaces to be coddled. Instead, we should be willing to venture into sometimes unsafe places, not just physical, in order that we might live out our faith resiliently, faithfully, and effectively.
If you care about the next generation and care about the church, “Faith For Exiles” is a book to be read with a message to be heeded. Matlock and Kinnaman offer not just problems but solutions. Their ideas are not some nebulous or fantastical theories but are based on thorough research. This book is a call to action, the question is whether or not the church will heed that call.
(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)