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You Lost Me: Addressing the Church's Dropout Problem

The church in America has a “dropout problem.”  We all see it. Young people, particularly after high school, are ditching church. Droves of the Mosaic (or Millennial) generation are checking out and abandoning the faith.9781610450072.zoom.1

And to get right to the point, the main reason for this is that the church has a discipleship problem. In David Kinnaman’s new book, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving the Church…and Rethinking the Faith, he concludes from a mountain of research, “The church is not adequately preparing the next generation to follow Christ faithfully in a rapidly changing culture.”  In his book, Kinnaman notes three kinds of dropouts:

  1. Nomads: Those who walk away but still identify themselves as Christians. For this group Christian community is optional, the importance of faith has faded and many are angry toward Christianity.
  2. Prodigals: Those who no longer consider themselves Christians. They have varying levels of resentment and have moved on from Christianity.
  3. Exiles: Those who are still invested in Christianity but feel stuck between the culture and the church. They are frustrated with the shallowness of religion and are skeptical of institutions.

According Kinnamen and the 2011 Barna survey on American Christianity nomads, prodigals and exiles feel disconnected from the church for the following reasons:

  1. Overprotective: Today’s youth have unprecedented access to ideas and worldviews. However, many people’s experience of Christianity is stifling, fear-based and risk-averse. Part of the reason for this, according to youth leaving the church, is how churches demonize everything outside of the Christian subculture.
  2. Shallow: Many feel the church is “boring” or, at times, irrelevant. They are over the “easy platitudes, proof texting and formulaic slogans.” They are tired of the theological illiteracy and the inability of church leaders to respond to deep questions.
  3. Anti-science: There is an apparent incompatibility for faith and science. Science works, they use it every day. But while science seems to invite questions, the church does not. “Christians are too confident they know all the answers.” And “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in.”
  4. Repressive: “Religious rules—particularly sexual mores—feel stifling to the individualist mindset of young adults,” Kinnaman writes. “Consequently they perceive the church as repressive.”
  5. Exclusive: Young adults are shaped by tolerance, open-mindedness, and acceptance. The exclusive, boundary-drive, militant spirit of many churches is a big turn off.
  6. Doubtless: Many do not feel like church is a safe place to bring their doubts or admit that sometimes certain parts of Christianity do not make sense. Consequently, many feel marginalized and out of place.

How do we respond?

First, we should note that sometimes Christians “shipwreck their faith.” Perhaps our views, or better yet Scriptures' views, on sexuality are “stifling” and “repressive” to some. And, the gospel is a stumbling block for all kinds of people. Doubtless, that is part of problem. But there's more.

The church is guilty for part of the problems listed above. We need to realize that there is great music, art, science, films, and beauty in the world that might not be sold at the local Christian bookstore.  Churches need to eat a healthy dose of serious theological meat that addresses the difficult questions in life that young people are asking about. We need to engage and think through the compatibility of science and faith and to wrestle with subjects like--evolution and creationism and bioethics and creation care and global warming and the soft sciences--and not assume we have all the right answers. Furthermore, we need to allow for differing views and love an respect those we disagree with instead of demonizing and anathematizing them.

We also need to highlight the beauty of doing sex God’s way. The Bible’s sexual ethic is not repressive but liberating and positive and fun! And “religious rules” (I hate that phrase) are for our best interest—living life God’s way leads to being truly human and fulfilled. Finally, we need to create space for doubt. The Psalms are littered with doubts and questions. There is a way to reverently and honestly bring our doubts to church and this needs to be allowed.

What I am saying is we need to love people. We need to be not merely Christians but also be disciples. We need to embody truth and grace. We need to be unified by the gospel of Jesus Christ, not a political hobbyhorse or list of rules. When this happens, young people, nomads, prodigal and exiles, will see what we are for and hopefully be drawn the light of the world.

What do you think? How does this shake out in our everyday life?

brandon smiling photo-1small sizea   Pastor Brandon

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