Following up with students who have graduated out of your youth group can be one of the most rewarding aspects of that ministry – or one of the most terrifying.
I’ve had the amazing privilege to see students I’ve worked with blossom in their faith after high school. As they experience what it means to follow Christ outside the comfortable cocoon of youth ministry, their faith becomes their own, and they grow deeper in their relationship with Christ.
I’ve also had the heartbreaking experience of seeing students crash and burn once they graduate. Students who once had a passionate faith turn their backs after high school and don’t look back.
This is one of the most unnerving things for a youth pastor, knowing that a majority of your students may abandon the church after they graduate. David Kinnaman addresses this issue of young adults abandoning the church in his new book, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…And Rethinking Faith.
Kinnaman is president of the Barna Group, a private, nonpartisan research company out of California. He’s not new to looking at how the next generation is viewing the church. In his bestselling book, unChristian, Kinnaman explored how young adults outside the church perceive it. In You Lost Me, Kinnaman turns his gaze inward, exploring the perception of young adults who have grown up in the church.
Kinnaman doesn’t see the issue of youth group dropouts as a lack of faith or spirituality, but of commitment to and engagement with the institution of church. Many young people who are disengaging from the church are simply saying, “Hey church, you lost me somewhere along the line because of [insert story]. It may not be for forever, but – for now – you lost me” (hence, the book title). The author’s hope is that churches would hear the concerns and critiques of the disengaged – and respond.
In the book, Kinnaman divides those who have disengaged into three different groups, and assigns each a “cultural icon,” a famous musician who exemplifies each category.
• Nomads: Nomads are those students who walk away from the church, yet still view themselves as Christians. Though they are Christian, they view involvement in a Christian community as optional. They are indifferent about the church and are willing to experiment with different types of spirituality. Cultural nomad icon: Katy Perry (pop singer).
• Exiles: Exiles are still invested in their faith, but feel like their faith doesn’t fit with the culture in which they inhabit. They’re skeptical of institutions, but not wholly disengaged from them, and feel disillusioned with tradition. They have a deep desire to redeem culture and have often seen the worst the church has to offer. Cultural exile icon: Jon Foreman (lead singer and cofounder of alternative rock band Switchfoot).
• Prodigals: Prodigals walk away from their faith and no longer consider themselves Christians at all. This group includes those who “deconvert,” becoming atheists, agnostics, or switching to another faith. They feel deeply wounded and vow never to return to church. According to statistics, the odds of a student in your youth group becoming a prodigal are 1:9. That is really scary! Cultural prodigal icon: David Bazaan (singer-songwriter and front man of band Pedro the Lion).
Looking for a single smoking gun to reveal why 60 percent of young people are getting lost after graduation (though, in reality, this disconnect starts long before students graduate), Kinnaman instead found six issues that cause young adults to become nomads, exiles, or prodigals, and drop out of church.
The six perceptions these young people hold about the church are as follows:
1. The church is overprotective. One of the overarching impulses of the next generation is to rethink and recreate everything. They want to creatively re-imagine what it means to follow Christ and express themselves creatively. The church, however, is seen as a creativity killer, opting out of imagination and leaning too heavily on tradition.
2. The church is shallow. The church is full of easy platitudes which cheapen faith into a slogan or phrase you can put on a T-shirt or WWJD bracelet. To many, the church has traded depth and richness for relevance and comfortable three-point sermons.
3. The church is anti-science. Many young adults were raised believing faith and science are incompatible. Science and technology are often viewed as irrelevant or even evil within the church.
4. The church is repressive. The church doesn’t embrace independent thinking or have room for those with different understandings of issues regarding sexuality. Young people need a place to wrestle with ideas, and the church is no longer that place.
5. The church is exclusive. Mosaics (the generation born between 1984–2002) have been shaped by a culture of open-mindedness and acceptance of all faiths, races, sexualities, and beliefs. The church’s claim of exclusivity is very difficult for many young adults to embrace.
6. The church is doubtless. The church is not a safe place to express doubts and frustrations with faith; the church’s response to doubt is often trivial answers or focused on “solving the problem.”
Thankfully, Kinnaman offers connecting points for each of these areas of disengagement. The heart of re-engaging those at risk of disconnecting is building authentic relationships; mentoring young people in what it means to follow Christ through deep and intimate relationship. We also need to wrestle with the perceptions our youth are struggling with about the church, and guide those perceptions back, or fix areas in the church that are broken.
You Lost Me is a must-read for all youth workers and parents of teenagers and young adults. It’s essential we become aware of the church’s reputation with this emerging generation of students, and do everything we can to point our students in the direction of a life-long faith.