Following Jesus in a New Babylon
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David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock explain the four types of spiritual exiles. They remind parents of the correlation between parents with a vibrant faith and kids who follow in their footsteps.
Following Jesus in a New Babylon
Bob: We’ve heard a lot recently about people who are Nones—people who have no religious affiliation—that’s a growing segment of our society. Mark Matlock says there are teenagers and young adults who may be closeted Nones; they don’t want to disclose what they really don’t believe anymore.
Mark: What we’re seeing a lot of today is a sense of: “You know what? I really respect my mom and dad’s faith. I don’t want to come out yet and tell them I’m not a Christian, because I’m going to hurt their feelings. I’m going to wait until I’m maybe a little older in life to let them know that I don’t follow this anymore,” because they have respect.
That’s really important, because it used to be this was a hostile group. Now, it’s kind of a group of: “Even if you convince me it’s true, I still probably wouldn’t buy into it.”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, August 4th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You’ll find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. Why are so many young adults losing their grip on what they were exposed to when they grew up, going to church? We’re going to talk with researchers, David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock about that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. There’s a raging question today about whether we should refer to the country in which we live as post-Christian or whether that’s too harsh an appraisal. What do you think?
Dave: I think we should bring some people on the show that are experts on the answer to that question. [Laughter]
Bob: [Sounding like a chicken] [Laughter] Chicken about answering that; aren’t you?
Ann: I think we’re post-.
Bob: Do you?
Ann: I do.
Bob: Do you think we’re past—do you think we can pull it back?
Ann: I do think we can bring it back.
Dave: Bob, define that. What would “bring it back” look like?
Bob: Can we be a country again where Christian values are the norm, even for people who don’t go to church?
Dave: Do we want to?
Bob: Oh, that’s a good question.
Ann: I think only God can answer that question.
Bob: Let’s see how these guys do answer that question. We’ve got Dave Kinnaman and Mark Matlock joining us on FamilyLife Today. Guys, welcome back.
David: Thank you.
Mark: Good to be with you.
Bob: David is joining us remotely; he’s at his office in Southern California. Mark is here in studio with us. Together, they’ve worked on a book called Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon. We’ve talked this week what we mean about that: we live in a culture where it’s more like Babylon than Jerusalem. It’s more like living in exile, more like being away from the place of God than being in the center of it.
David gives leadership to the Barna Group and all of the great research that the Barna Group has done. Mark is a pastor/was a youth volunteer for years. He’s a churchman and a researcher.
Part of your research here was to look at Generation Z and Millennials and kind of take their spiritual temperature. You said there are—is it right?—four tribes, basically, that you identified in that group?
Mark: Yes; there are four groups that we found in that time. Your original question: “Can we bring it back?”—I don’t know that we need to worry about “getting things back”; that’s a lot of energy to spend. I think the question is: “How do you we live and be a faithful presence in the context we’re in?”
Mark: And I think that this—
Ann: That’s what I wanted to say. [Laughter]
Mark: And this is—[Laughter]—is that it?
Ann: That’s it.
Mark: I think that these four segments show some of that. We looked at the faith practices of 18-29-year-olds. We basically broke them into four categories, based on what we saw. The people that we surveyed in this research project: we were looking at people who had said, “I presently, or at some time in my life, identified as a Christian.”
Bob: These are kids, who grew up going to church—they probably went to youth camp/probably were involved in youth group—at some point, they prayed a prayer or felt like they were part of the church community.
Mark: Correct. Just to be clear, that’s about 83 percent of that population. That’s often surprising to people. Just to give you an idea—some people go, “Well, you’re only talking to 10 percent of the 18-29-year-olds,”—no; 83 percent were—that was our sample pool that we could draw from.
Bob: Are you saying any religious instruction? So Jewish kids, who grew up going to Hebrew school, be included in this?
Mark: If they identified as a Christian.
Bob: Identified as a Christian; okay.
Mark: They identified as a Christian at some time in their life; yes.
David: It’s one of the biggest surprises of my career, in working with Barna for so long—25 years—is the sheer volume of the people who say they’re Christian in America. More than eight out of ten say they’re Christian; more than seven out of ten say they’ve made a commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life.
Growing up as a pastor’s kid, I would have thought everyone was a heathen/everyone was a non-Christian. But when you look at the stats, we’re a very Christianized nation, even to this day. We’re not a very Christ-following nation.
Bob: David, how many of those, who would say, “I grew up as a Christian,” are saying, “I didn’t grow up as Jewish, or Muslim, or atheist, or agnostic; so I’m a Christian by default,” as opposed to a Christian by practice. Do we know?
David: A majority of them; I don’t have the exact percentage. But most people grow up in a, what’s really a culturally-Christian home, than a devout Christian home.
Bob: So in the 83 percent, you’ve got a lot of cultural Christians mixed in with the church-going kids.
Bob: Alright; so with that 83 percent, who have self-identified [as a Christian at some point in their life]; and then, now, they’re in a place. You’re asking: “Where are they?” You’ve said there are four different places they’re landing.
Mark: The first group are what we call “prodigals.” These are people, who say, “I identified as a Christian at some point of time in my life. I absolutely do not identify as a Christian today.” That makes up about 22 percent of that population.
What’s important to note is—for one of David’s other books, You Lost Me, which really looked at the dropout problem in the church—that number was about 11 percent just about 8 years ago. In less than a decade, that number has doubled for 18-29-year-olds, who say, “This isn’t just ‘I don’t go to church anymore’; this is, ‘I do not consider myself a Christian any longer.’”
The next group are what we call the “nomads” or lapsed Christians. These are people, who say, “I’m a Christian still”; but they’re not really connected to a community of faith. So going to church—they kind of don’t see the church as the place they get their spiritual instruction or belonging to.
Bob: I’ve heard people call themselves “de-churched” or pastors talk about the “de-churched.” Is that who these nomads are?
Mark: Some of them could be nomads, yes.
Bob: Okay; alright.
Mark: So we kind of take it as: “They’re looking for their spiritual experience outside of the community of faith.”
David: They’re the most prolific problem, if you will, in American Christianity and American faith—is people who say they’re Christian, who sort of—they’re all onboard for all the good stuff about Christianity, but they never attend church or they very rarely. They sort of love Jesus but not the church.
Mark: When we talk about people, who are walking away from the church, and you hear that phrase—it’s really these nomads and prodigals we’re talking about—is this group that’s walking away in some way, shape, and form.
I think another important thing to notice/that we’ve noticed about the prodigals is we’re entering into an era of polite atheism, where—while there’s always a fraction of those prodigals that are hostile toward Christianity as they come out of it—what we’re seeing a lot of today is a sense of: “You know what? I really respect my mom and dad’s faith. I don’t want to come out yet and tell them I’m not a Christian, because I’m going to hurt their feelings. I’m going to wait until I’m maybe a little older in life to let them know that I don’t follow this anymore,” because they have respect.
That’s really important, because it used to be this was a hostile group. Now, it’s a group of: “Even if you convince me it’s true, I still probably wouldn’t buy into it.”
Bob: Wow; so of the 18-29-year-olds, are most of them nomads and prodigals? Or do they fit into the other two categories that we haven’t talked about yet?
Mark: The two that we’re looking at right now are the “habituals” and the “resilients.” The habituals and the resilients are those that are still attending church, and they’re attending it with a pretty good frequency. The habitual churchgoers make about
38 percent of those 18-29-year-olds.
David: Habitual churchgoers are simply that—they are self-identified Christians, 18-29. They attend church, at least, on a monthly basis. They have a pretty good connection to their faith.
That was a really interesting comparison to this fourth group that we’re talking about—which are these resilient disciples—that that represented just 10 percent: one in ten 18-29-year-old young people, who grew up [and] experienced Christianity in some fashion.
The only difference, really, between the habitual churchgoers and these resilient disciples—there’s a couple things that are actually pretty important—but they believe in the authority of Scripture. Many habitual churchgoers believe that, but it wasn’t necessarily true of all of them. They believe in the death and the resurrection of Jesus; again, most habituals believe that, but not necessarily. And then they believe that they want their faith to be expressed out in the world in a meaningful and positive way—that Jesus is alive outside the walls of the church.
What’s interesting is the habitual churchgoers—which represent 38 percent, the largest group of 18-29-year-olds—and resilient samples, there’s actually not a lot of differences in terms of their engagement in the church. This is what we’ve been saying, all along together, is that: “If you’re just looking at whether your young person is attending church; attending youth group; or, as a young adult, is attending church—that may or may not be enough of an indicator about how deep their faith is.
That’s one of the clearest things we saw in this research—is that just being engaged in a church isn’t enough to combat the effects of this screen-discipleship era—it’s not a deep enough faith for it to last in our current context.
Bob: I want to go back to those three things, because I think this is important for moms and dads to hear.
Authority of Scripture: the difference between a resilient Christian and a habitual Christian is—the resilient Christian: that’s bedrock for them. For a habitual Christian, the Bible is important; but they’re hearing stuff in the culture that’s causing them to question whether they can still believe the Bible; right?
Mark: That’s exactly right, yes.
Then, the resurrection of Christ—that’s the second thing—“Do you really believe that Jesus died and came back to life from death?” The habitual Christian is going, “I’ve heard that all my life. I suppose that’s true; but when it comes right down to it, I’m not sure I believe that.” Is that accurate?
Mark: Yes, exactly. It’s almost as though we see this really interesting thing among young people, which is they can believe one thing logically, and then sort of reject it in another fashion. They may believe that the resurrection is sort of true, kind of like a legend or a myth; and it probably has bearing on our faith. But they don’t necessarily believe it was physically true, right? It’s almost like it was an old wives’ tale that Jesus must have risen from the dead. “Besides, it doesn’t really matter that much,”—that’s the voice of these young habitual churchgoers, or prodigals, or nomads—whereas, these resilient disciples are convinced of the death and resurrection of Jesus in a much more tangible way in their life.
Dave: It really is interesting—you used the words, “churchgoer” and “disciple.” That’s, I’m guessing, a word that really defined these two differences. There are habitual churchgoers, but a disciple is what Bob was getting at—there’s a big difference. Even though it sounds subtle, it’s huge; isn’t it?
Mark: Yes; and I want to be really clear, too—while we use certain criteria to distinguish them—when we went deeper into the research, and we asked them all these profiling questions: about how they grew up, what their experience of Jesus was, what their prayer life was like—we saw a dramatic difference between these habituals and these resilients. There’s more going on there. They’re going to church with about the same frequency; but they’re having really different experiences with God, with Christ, with the Holy Spirit, with others in the church.
We talked about the screen intake of digital Babylon. Just to give you an idea of the difference—resilient disciples take in about 600 hours of spiritual content on their screens. Compare that to habituals—they’re almost half that—just a little under 300 hours. There is a real difference in practice—this isn’t just a couple of doctrinal issues; those things helped us filter out that group—but their experiences are really different, and their practices are really different.
Bob: Authority of Scripture, resurrection of Christ—I don’t want to miss that third thing—in fact, I want to come back to this. You said that, for these people, living out their faith in a cultural context is very important to them.
Mark: It’s central to their life, and they believe they live in the world to make a difference in the world.
Bob: I’m thinking of the young people I know, who are recognizing there is a huge relational and social cost to that decision to live out your faith. They’re going, “I don’t know that I’m ready to pay that price to be an active Christian; because the headwinds against that, in terms of my employment, in terms of who my friend group is, in terms of whether I’m accepted or I’m ghosted on social media.” All of this is/are the ramifications. If you say, “I’m going to live and make Jesus central to what I’m doing,” there are some people, who are going to leave you, and there other people, who are going to mock you as a result of that.
Mark: Yes; and that’s such an inspiring vision that I think so few young adults have about what it means to live a countercultural life in Christ/a vibrant life in Christ that actually goes against the flow in our culture. That sounds like someone in Scripture/to me, it sounds like Daniel, who was recognized, who had these private practices of belief, of prayer, of devotion to Scripture. We can actually see, in Daniel, Chapter 9, where it says he’s reading the Prophet Jeremiah. He’s actually reading, doing devotions with Scripture. Based on that, he has this inner life that allows him to have an outward impact.
Every young person, who’s in this resilient disciple group that we interviewed, they don’t want their faith to matter just on Sunday mornings. They want their faith to matter on all of life. They want their faith to matter on every vocation, not just in Christian ministry, but in all of the careers they’re interested in. That’s the kind of Christianity that we want our kids and grandkids to aspire to. It’s, in fact, the kind of Christianity that is real and in the real world.
That’s what’s pretty cool about interviewing these resilient disciples. As I said, this is such a hopeful project; because we learn the kinds of things these young people get inspired by and how much of a difference their faith makes in their lives.
Ann: I’m curious—as you’ve talked to these resilient disciples, is there a correlation between them and a parent that is a resilient disciple? You know, are they watching their parents, who are on fire for Jesus? Do you see more kids that are following Christ because they’ve been watching their parents? Or is there any correlation?
David: There’s a huge correlation between what a parent does and the faith of their kids. In this current context, because screens disciple, there’s also never been a time when that correlation breaks down as much as it does today. So just because you’re a good Christian parent—it might have taken you a long way in the past—it doesn’t carry the same water that it did before.
I think we should realize that the culture is so hard/it is so faith-depleting, that even if you do all the right things, it may or may not work. So what do we do? We pray; we work hard; we continue to believe the best about this generation. We try not to control our kids; because ultimately, God is the One who is in charge—but recognizing that parenting is a lot; but it’s not sufficient, alone today, to raise kids in this current cultural moment.
Mark: One of the things I found in doing these small groups with teenagers was how little they had a place to doubt or question on their spiritual journey. Some parents are so intense in their faith that they don’t give kids the space to be able to ask the questions or to take some of the risks. We think: “If my kid doubts this,” or “If they question this,”—that, somehow, they’re weak; or “Somehow, I’ve done something wrong,” rather than the fact that that’s actually part of what produces resilience. It’s in that doubt that they’re able to actually lean into their faith even more and become strong.
Dave: The scary thing is—isn’t it true?—that if they can’t express those doubts in their home, and they can’t express them at church, where do they go?—they go into a digital chat room, and they express them, and they get bad answers that they concur with.
Bob: Yes; they go to Google®, and type in their question, and see what kind of responses they get.
I’m wondering how many parents, who started as resilient parents, kind of lapsed into habitual Christian parents; so what their kids see, as they’re growing up, is less resilience and more habit—and thy pick that up. I think this is where we’ve got to ask ourselves a question, as parents: “Do our kids see a vital, daily, vibrant faith in us that’s not just, ‘Yes, we go to church; because that’s who we are,’—but—‘No, we go to church because we find life there; we read our Bibles during the week; we actually spend time praying together. This is important to us, not just something that’s on our punch list that we do every week.’”
David: I want to take it even a step further. When my kids were born, I started interviewing moms and dads, who I’d seen hand their faith off to their adult children. I started asking lots of questions. What I did notice in their story was that their family was actually making disciples; they were light in dark places. What the kids were seeing was a demonstration of the power of God in front of them.
They also were very vulnerable. One of the things that’s interesting—I get asked by parents a lot—“Should I tell my kids about my past?” “Should I tell my kids about…?” I always say, “To not do that would deny the power and the glory of God’s work to your kids. They’re seeing you, maybe with ten years of Christ, or more, working in you. They’re dealing with their sin in the same way that you passed it on to them, which before you, is maybe earlier. They need to see the faithfulness of God in your life, not the end result. They need to see that process of grace working itself out.” That’s one of the things we saw happen in a lot of these homes.
Bob: We’re always concerned, as parents, that if we say too much we’re going to somehow signal to our kids, “It’s okay for you to live a profligate life as a teenager, because it will turn out in the end.” What I hear you saying is—we can go into that, with brokenness and weeping over the scars that were left in our life, and say, “But God redeemed me from that.”
Mark: Show them the power of God.
Bob: Exactly; yes.
Dave: I shared Sunday in my sermon, which was about money. When my oldest son was probably 12 or 13, he walked into my office; and I’m writing a check for my giving to God. Remember what a check was?—you know those things? [Laughter] He looked over my shoulder, and he said—his name is CJ—he’s like, “Dad, why would you give that?” I know what he’s thinking: “I’m not getting toys,” “I’m not getting a vacation, because that’s where all our money’s…” He had no idea.
Here’s what hit me—Exodus 13: “Here’s what you tell your son when he asks you, “Why?” Remind him we were once slaves, but God’s mighty hand….” I turned to CJ right then. I said, “You don’t know, but Dad used to be a bad man. I used to be in bondage to the same things your grandpa was in bondage to: alcohol, women, money. But God’s mighty hand has saved us. Everything you have experienced in this life, CJ, God did that; so it’s a joy to say, ‘Thank you,’ to Him.”
Mark: Giving is something really important that we do in private, but our kids don’t see it. That’s one of those demonstrations of the power of God.
Bob: We want to talk about what we can do, as parents, to help tilt the odds in our favor so that our kids wind up as resilient, not as habituals, and certainly not as prodigals or nomads; right? Your book is so helpful. In fact, I’m going to be passing this out to parents of teens I know.
It’s available for any of our listeners who would like to get a copy. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com to order your copy of the book online. Our website, again, is FamilyLifeToday.com. The book is called Faith for Exiles by David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock. You can also order by calling 1-800-FL-TODAY—1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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We hope you can be back with us again tomorrow when we’ll talk more about how we build resilience in the lives of children, our teenagers, and young adults; so they’ve got a faith that endures. Mark Matlock and David Kinnaman will join us tomorrow. I hope you can join us as well.
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