In David Kinnaman’s books Unchristian and You Lost Me, he details the saga of why young adults leave the church. While Unchristian is focused primarily the way those outside of the church see Christianity (i.e., Christians are hypocritical, they care only about people getting saved, their sexual ethic is too prudish/antihomosexual, Christians are sheltered, judgmental, too political, etc.), You Lost Me is focused on the issue of church drop outs (many of which coincide with the research from Unchristian). While the issue of why younger people leave the church is not new, it is still something with which the church needs to wrestle.
In You Lost Me, Kinnaman gives the profile of the “Exile.” Kinnaman defines the Exiles 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 God-honoring lives.” For an important part of my own journey, I resonate with the Exile. Toward the end of 2017 and into 2018, I found myself in conflict with leaders at the church I was attending at the time. To keep the story short, I was a small group leader but had people from other churches in it. We had been meeting as a group like that for over a year when the small group pastor suddenly approached one of those member’s fiancé saying that she would need to find a new small group. When the fiancé asked why, the small group pastor said it was because he was about to implement a new policy that if small group members didn’t attend this church, they wouldn’t be allowed to be part of small groups associated with the church.
I found out about this new policy through this girl in my small group and was taken aback; no one had talked to me about this issue before. I sat down with the small group pastor and tried to come to an understanding and compromise, but the conversation led to if I wasn’t going to support the decision, I would be asked to step down. Ultimately, I decided to step out and in doing so, I stepped out of the church emotionally and spiritually.
There were some others who were part of another group this pastor led who were asked to leave because they didn’t attend the church (although they had been part of his small group for many years). One of them contacted me about starting a new group that consisted of them, to which I reluctantly agreed, but half-jokingly called ourselves the “Exiles.” This began a journey of disillusionment with the church; although I never stopped attending physically, I may as well have stopped that as well.
But what hurt so much during this time was feeling as if I had lost my identity. I had grown up in the church and the church was my life. To paraphrase Paul, I was the “General Baptist of General Baptists.” But the reality is the extent to which I loved the church far exceeded the love I had for Christ, something I didn’t realize until I suddenly had no foundation for my identity. So for me, when the church had metaphorically (and not so metaphorically) given me two middle fingers and said “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” I didn’t know what to do. My cynicism toward the church grew and I felt alone in a way I couldn’t explain.
And then a random conversation at Shake Shack occurred.
My housemates in Hong Kong are all Christians and, at some point, had been connected with the small group pastor I mentioned earlier (one of them was still part of his small group at the time before he moved to Oxford). As a household, we had made a commitment to meet up once a week to check in with one another and see where we were spiritually. I initially wanted nothing to do with it because of the angst I felt toward anything Christian. One night, I suggested that instead of meeting at our flat, we go to Shake Shack (with the hopes that the conversation wouldn’t make it to anything spiritual) and to an extent it worked. Somehow we got onto the topic of political assassination and whether it was ethical, when my housemate brought up Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In the past, we had talked about Bonhoeffer quite a bit and I wanted more context to the question we were asking. So I downloaded Eric Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer and began to read.
This journey through Nazi Germany and the life of one of Christianity’s greatest figures ultimately brought me out of my spiritual exile and onto the path I’m now pursuing. The question I kept asking myself during my time of exile was, “What is the church?” and I would argue that ultimately, this is the question that Bonhoeffer pursued until his death. To journey with Bonhoeffer’s questions in conjunction with my own was key to bringing new life to my spiritual journey.
What are we supposed to do with young people who leave the church? Although every story is different, here are some of my observations from my own time of walking the path of the exile (and as the resident 28-year-old):
- Connect people to the greater story. For people in their 20s and 30s, there is an inherent need to belong to something bigger than ourselves. Show us that we aren’t alone in our search and where our story fits into the grand scheme.
- Allow space to wrestle with tough questions. During our weekly housemate meetings, we always gave each other space to ask the tough questions. We expressed our doubts and struggles to one another and although it was rare to have an answer to a question, being able to process it was important.
- Don’t give up on us. It would have been so easy for my housemates to get tired of me during my time of exile (even I was sick and tired of me during that time). But they continued to show love and compassion toward me and never stopped. I wasn’t a project; I was (and still am) their brother.
 David Kinnaman, You Lost Me, Grand Rapids: Baker Books (2011), 75.