The Next Generation

Interview with David Kinnaman

by David Kinnaman

The church and Christianity have lost cultural clout among today’s young believing members. Mosaics, as they are called, believe the church has a bad reputation. They see a legalistic church out of touch with society. They feel disenfranchised because the church has not answered their questions. They see the church as more anti than for something. As a result the Mosaic Generation, those ages 18 to 29, are rethinking their faith and many are leaving the church.

Enrichment journal interviewed David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, and author of unChristian, and most recently, You Lost Me. In unChristian, Kinnaman deals with those outside the church and their attitude toward the church. You Lost Me directs the church’s attention toward young believers in Jesus who are skeptical over the established church’s long-standing fundamental attitudes. Kinnaman talks about the uniqueness of the Mosaic Generation and how the church should find new ways to minister to them and challenge them in wholehearted pursuit of Christ.

You have conducted extensive research on the next generation’s attitude toward Christianity and the church. Who belongs to “the next generation”? What cultural forces have shaped their lives?

KINNAMAN: We can think about generations in many ways. One is simply a life stage — like those under the age of 30. But we could also define generations in terms of people who are born and raised during a particular cycle of events and during the emergence of specific technologies.

Baby Boomers — those born and raised in the years following World War II — have a unique sensibility because of the times in which they lived. Similarly, this current generation of teenagers and young adults has a particular stamp they are placing on faith and on the world. We call this next generation Mosaics because of their digital dependence and remarkably eclectic profile.

Our research suggests that the forces that shape their views are access, alienation, and authority. Access is the unprecedented ability to get virtually any content from anywhere at anytime. This is largely a technological shift, but it also is changing what these students think they can make of the world because technology gives them access to making their own websites, music, videos, and so on. Alienation represents the struggle people have with today’s institutions, which is being driven by fundamental reshaping of things like attitudes toward marriage and church. Finally, today’s next generation is skeptical of external sources of spiritual authority, such as the Bible, church, and so on. This is especially true as the church and Christianity have lost cultural clout in today’s America.

In unChristian, you and coauthor Gabe Lyons argue that Christianity has an “image problem” among unbelieving members of the next generation. How do they perceive Christians and the church?

KINNAMAN: Young people think of present-day Christianity primarily about the things it is against, rather than the things it is for. In this way, Mosaics consider Christianity to be hypocritical, judgmental, sheltered, too political, too focused on getting converts, and antihomosexual. In most cases there is a clear biblical reason these perceptions exist. From a scriptural view, there are reasons that non-Christians misunderstand and misperceive Christianity. Isn’t that what Jesus himself predicts?

On the other hand, I am always struck that these perceptions are more like the views we have of the self-righteous leaders of Jesus’ time — of people who know the right answers but have forgotten their true underlying motivation and message. Instead, I think the negative perceptions of the earliest Christians would have been about their crazy, cult-like, sacrificial, community-first living. I wonder if we have the courage to be known for those kinds of things again.

How do these perceptions set up obstacles to the church’s desire to evangelize the next generation?

KINNAMAN: Jesus told the story of the Prodigal Son, which is also the tale of the older brother. These negative perceptions are as much about how we, in the church, are comfortable as “older” brother Christians. This does not excuse younger brothers from their sinfulness. But our perceptions today are akin to what an objective bystander might say about the older brother. And Jesus is just as concerned about self-righteousness as He is about unrighteousness.

A friend, Mark Matlock, says that the purpose of judgment is not to reject and humiliate; it is to guide and restore. It is inevitable that human beings want to be identified with people we want to be like. And we want to be around people who love and accept us. I am not saying we should make church a club where people feel warm and cuddly. People will choose to reject Christ for a lot of reasons, but it should not be because we misunderstood and misapplied the church’s role to demonstrate a proper view of judgment.

What practical steps can the church take to better evangelize the next generation?

KINNAMAN: First, I hope we increase our commitment to disciple those who have accepted Christ. The most significant challenge to evangelism is that much of our discipleship efforts with children, youth, and young adults get lost. I wish I could say why this happens. I really do not know. But I think our passion for evangelism needs a greater parallel commitment to the development of these young believers. Otherwise, we are not really doing evangelism at all, but proselytizing.

I also think we could see some evangelistic fruit among non-Christians by being more personally invested in them. In 1 Corinthians 4:15, Paul said, “Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ,” they only had one spiritual father. We need more spiritual fathering and mothering, which we might define as a more concerted, costly investment of ourselves in these non-Christians.

We have also seen that this next generation (both Christian and non-Christian alike) wants to use their gifts and talents to make a difference. So, I think evangelism could be effective by talking more about how the gospel is the ultimate cause that is worth giving our lives to. This next generation will not come to Christ simply because we enlist them as volunteers. If we do not challenge them to a new way of life, it will not seem like anything more than simple volunteerism.

In You Lost Me, you state that 18- to 29-year-olds dropping out of church is “the black hole of church attendance.” Are there different kinds of dropouts? Haven’t people in this age group always dropped out of church? Won’t they come back when they settle down and start a family? Why do you consider the dropout problem to be so severe?

KINNAMAN: I wrote a whole book on this subject. This, in reality, is a broad subject; but, yes, millions upon millions of young people drop out of church. There are different kinds of dropouts: most are leaving church, but some lose their faith entirely. We cannot hope to help those who have left — and those who remain — without understanding their spiritual journeys. So we invested nearly $200,000 in new research and 4 years of hard work on understanding these faith trajectories.

The most important thing is that we cannot miss the enormous social and spiritual changes that are taking place. Young people are getting married later, having children later, and are generally less institutionally oriented. So, this generation is looking very different, which requires that we minister in new ways.

For those who simply say, “Let’s wait until they have children,” presents a poor excuse. We do not think this about our own children — well maybe in a moment of weakness. We hope that having children will help them understand the classic angst of parenthood. But I know of no well-meaning Christian parent who excuses his own child’s spiritual wandering by simply saying, “Well, they will go someday.”

Finally, the dropout problem is so severe because — in my opinion — it creates the conditions for most of Americans’ superficial connection to Christianity. Most American adults say they are Christian. When does this commitment begin? As children and teens. When do they drop out? As young adults. So, addressing our collective problem of young adult dropouts creates a pathway to be more effective at solving the nation’s problem of embracing a cultural Christ rather than a personal Savior.

You write that people who drop out of church commonly cite at least one of six reasons for doing so. What are these reasons? And how do they set up obstacles to discipling the next generation?

KINNAMAN: We live in a complex time. Every year life seems to get more complicated. Our research shows that many young Christians do not believe Christianity offers deep, thoughtful, or challenging responses to complexities of modern life.

As a consequence, when we ask young Christians to describe their experiences in churches, they use the terms: overprotective, exclusive, repressive, antiscience, rigid, shallow, and unfriendly to doubt. This is not a picture of robust Christianity, but a faith that comes across as incapable of dealing with the thorniest issues of life.

What’s so sad about this is that Christianity does offer a rich, deep, and thoughtful response to life’s complexities. But that does not become clear to the vast majority of today’s young Christians. This not entirely the fault of today’s churches. But we are certainly not off the hook either.

A common next-generation perception of Christianity, of both nonbelievers and church dropouts, is that the church is antisex. In unChristian, unbelievers perceived the church as antihomosexual. In You Lost Me, church dropouts perceived the church as sexually repressive. In light of the Bible’s clear teaching about sexual morality, can the church do anything to overcome these negative perceptions? Don’t these perceptions reveal the next generation’s hardened hearts?

KINNAMAN: Yes, it is quite likely that these negative perceptions reflect the hardened hearts of a generation. I think this is true, to a certain degree. This is a sexualized generation — our media has seen to that.

But on whose watch has this happened? And whose responsibility is it for the problem? Sexuality is an area in which we desperately must work together as generations on how to live faithfully. I do not mean by this that everything should be a free for all as we glibly try to work out what to do next. But older generations are too quick to dismiss the fact young adults are, by God’s design it seems, the ones who really do influence sexual values and actions.

In other words, we need to enlist their help in trying to address issues of sex, sexuality, rules, relationships, restoration, and what the Bible says about all this. We need to work together as Christians to do this. It is no use preaching values to the young, but we must work out purity and formation as the body of Christ. In many ways the next generation is more conservative about sex and marriage; in some ways, they are more liberal.

You argue that one kind of church dropout — “exiles” — may actually help the church be more faithful to Christ and more effective in discipleship in the postmodern era. Why?

KINNAMAN: The best biblical metaphor for the complexity of our times is that of exiles in Babylon. Exiles are people like Daniel. People who are able to practice faithfulness when the world changes. Or more to the point, when culture is incredibly complex. In Scripture, we learn about Esther, Daniel, and other exiles who had to learn faith and faithfulness in the midst of enormous complexity. This is less like passing a test and more like learning a new language. It is a holy skill set, not mastery of a certain piece of content.

I love hanging out with and learning from today’s digital generation. Their intelligence, their longing for more, their passion for life and meaning, their desire for nuance make me proud to know them. Yet, their brokenness and brittle lives make me concerned about how well they will fare. But in the midst of all this, they are just awesome when they learn to live as exiles, a holy skill set that gives them a foot in culture and a heart in the community of Christ followers. Exiles are true “in, but not of” people. And they inspire me.

What can the church do to more effectively disciple next-generation believers?

KINNAMAN: In light of their unprecedented access, we need a stronger theology of vocation. We need a better way of helping them understand what God is calling them to do.

One characteristic of complexity is that we have enormous amounts of choices. But we cannot define this next generation of disciples — like all disciples of every time period — by all the choices they have, but by the decisions they make.

And as I said earlier, one of the decisions we need to make with this emerging generation is that we are committed to spiritually guiding and caring for them as mothers and fathers. We do not disciple them by their being a part of programs. We disciple them by being in real relationship with them. By apprenticing them.

You have performed extensive research on the attitudes of the next generation toward Christianity and church participation. Based on your research, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of American Christianity? Why?

KINNAMAN: I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic. I am hopeful. I am also very sobered by the reality of the present condition of the church in America. Our world is changing so fast. Islam is an enormous threat to Europe and will be soon in our society. Economic uncertainty is going to be the new normal for nonprofits. Many clergy will need to think of bivocational efforts (i.e., tentmaking). And I do not anticipate that today’s generation is going to warm quickly to Christianity.

Still, despite these headwinds, we have a biblical obligation to be hopeful. I describe this as a decision to be hope-filled about the next generation. God is not surprised by cultural trends and none of this is new to Him. It is a privilege to be serving Him during this era of change. We get to love and serve Jesus in the midst of a true global era.