You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church… and Rethinking Faith
Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011
Where are all the 18-29 year olds? Why aren’t they in the pews? If you struggle to answer questions such as these on a regular basis then You Lost Me, by Barna Group president David Kinnaman is a great primer for understanding the current cultural climate. Kinneman's presentation of the research gives constructive analysis that will be helpful whether you are presenting a case for college ministries to those who make decisions about funding college ministries or you are simply addressing the concerns of parents and older congregation members.
DEVELOPMENT OF ARGUMENT
The book’s central aim is to explain the “dropout problem” in Christianity by examining the reasons young adults ages 1829 leave the church. In addition to presenting and interpreting research about the causes for dropout, Kinnaman proposes ideas and solutions for bringing young people back into the fold. Even while highlighting the varied and complex reasons young adults in this age group leave the church, Kinnaman is optimistic that the trends his research uncovers can help ministry leaders reach young people who may otherwise be left behind. A central conclusion for Kinnaman is that “The dropout problem is, at its core, a faith-development problem; to use religious language, it's a disciple making problem. The church is not adequately preparing the next generation to follow Christ faithfully in a rapidly changing culture.” (p. 21). In this review, I’ve used the term “dropouts” in the same way Kinnaman does, as shorthand for all of those young adults ages 18-29 who have left the church, for whatever reason. You Lost Me is a summary of research conducted by the Barna Group about patterns in the ways young adults relate to faith and the church. Research was conducted through a multi-year process of online surveys and one-on-one interviews. Throughout the book, the results of the research are compiled in chart form and then interpreted through the narrative of the text.
The book is divided in to three parts. Part one defines the problem and divides dropouts into specific categories. Part two goes in to further detail by explaining some of the reasons young people leave the church. Part three offers practical advice and suggestions for addressing the problem.
Part One - Dropouts
Chapter one, Faith Interrupted, gives a clear definition of the dropout problem and makes a case for leaders to view it as an urgent problem for the church. Chapter two, Access, Alienation, Authority, describes the generation of 18-29 year old dropouts in terms of their understanding of these three things: access (generally the wide access to technology) alienation (a sense of disconnect from others within a community) and authority (widespread skepticism about who to accept as authoritative.) For Kinnaman, these three things are defining characteristics of the “mosaic,” or 18-29 year old generation. Chapters three and four give three categories of dropouts:
- Nomads are those who have wandered away from faith, sometimes "less of an intentional choice and more of a ‘slow fade.'” (p.63)
- Prodigals are “Young people who lose their… faith entirely. This includes those who deconvert and those who switch to another faith.” (p. 66)
- Exiles are defined as “those who grew up in the church and are now physically or emotionally disconnected in some way, but who also remain energized to pursue Godhonoring lives.” (p. 75)
Part Two - Disconnections
Kinneman introduces part two by saying “We were looking for a single ‘smoking gun.’ Instead, we found many.” (p. 91). The remaining chapters in part two are devoted, then, to each of these “smoking guns.” Each chapter describes a reason young people become nomads, prodigals, or exiles. They are:
- The church is overprotective, a place where creativity is not welcome.
- The church is shallow, providing platitudes, proof texting, and formulaic slogans
- The church is anti-science, a place where science and religious beliefs can not work together
- The church is repressive, a place where “religious rules —particularly sexual mores -- feel stifling to the individualist mindset of young adults.” (p. 93)
- The church is exclusive, not a place for open-mindedness and tolerance • The church is doubtless, an unsafe place to express doubts
Part Three - Reconnections
The final part of the book is dedicated to finding solutions to bring young people back in to the church. Chapter eleven What’s Old is New summarizes Kinneman's own ideas for how the church can address the dropout problem. Kinneman’s three ideas are to:
- Rethink relationships: Move to a more intergenerational model rather than to think about generations in isolation.
- Rediscover vocation: Think about the Christian life in a more wholistic way
- Reprioritize wisdom: Be willing to think in new ways to think.
Chapter twelve Fifty Ideas to Find a Generation provide brief anecdotes and ideas from a variety of different church leaders, authors and researchers. Kinneman frames each of these ideas as expounding on the idea of “reprioritizing wisdom.”
Because of the author’s background and connection to the Barna Group, the book tries to make its presuppositions clear and identify its biases. You Lost Me recognizes that sweeping generalizations are dangerous and that it’s impossible to define one single reason young adults drop out of the church. You Lost Me uses quotes from actual interviews and raw data wherever possible.
The author comes from a mainline Evangelical perspective, and this shows through in the interpretation of the data. The speakers and authors quoted in the final chapter also represent a mainline evangelical perspective.
AIM OF BOOK
The book is intended to be a resource for those who are working with young people and to provide research-based guidance that will provide a framework for young adult leaders and ministry leaders.
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
You Lost Me is carefully structured and thoughtfully written. It succeeds in accurately describing some of the types of “dropouts” from Christian faith as well as some of the reasons young people leave the church. The book falls flat in the third section where it proposes solutions and “next steps.” This final section is vague and short, and feels disconnected from the previous sections. Another weakness in the work is the lack of specificity about the denominational or theological backgrounds of those surveyed. It would be useful to know the denominational, cultural and theological breakdown of those surveyed. The book references the ability to access more information at the website www.youlostmebook.com or youlostmebook.org, in different places of the book. Neither website was functioning as of late 2016.
Overall, You Lost Me is a worthwhile read for those who are seeking to understand some of the factors causing the complex church dropout problem of 18-29 year old young people. Readers should be prepared to provide their own thoughtful interpretation of the data, however, and not expect a “how to guide" with practical solutions.