David Kinnamon is a leader in the Barna research group and author of the book UnChristian. I have used his work in many venues and spoken about his research many times. He addresses questions that interest me as both a father and leader of an evangelical university. He suggested to the Q audience (something that most of us knew) that those of us in the Christian church are losing the younger generation.
Whether viewed through his research or a variety of others, the picture is fairly clear that persons under 30 do not identify as much as in the past with the church of their parents. Through various surveys of younger persons across the United States, Kinnamon has compiled portraits of young people who are leaving the “church” in large numbers. His essential message: “We are losing people who cannot connect their understanding of Christianity (the one provided by their parents and their church) with the world of science and technology that they experience everyday.” Put another way, our ancient faith has little to say to the world of the 21st century.
As both a parent and the president of George Fox University, I am concerned about the “church” we leave to the next generation. It would seem to me that our primary task is to help our youth understand how a commitment to Jesus makes sense in the 21st century.
Kinnamon described three “types,” or experiences, of young persons leaving the church. He called them prodigals, nomads and exiles. The prodigal, according to Kinnamon, are persons who are genuinely lost to the faith. They may have started in the church and been a part of a family that saw Christian faith as important. At some point, they strayed away from their earlier commitments and have found no reason to return.
The nomads are those who have retained a commitment but they wander in and out of faith communities. They are unsure of the importance of Christianity and have come to the point where they do not reject faith entirely but they see it as having little influence on their lives.
The exiles are persons who value Christian things but do not understand how Christianity connects to everyday life. Kinnamon described this group like “Daniels” in a modern age. They find themselves in a foreign land and struggling to understand how the traditions and commitments of their fathers and mothers can be important to where they are now. (Of course, Daniel is a great example of one who did work this out.)
One of the more important things Kinnamon did was address why younger people were reacting this way to their faith communities. He suggested that, in his research, there are a couple of important factors emerging in leading young people to move away from Christian faith. First, “home dynamics” are leading many into a crisis of faith. I did not check his figures, but he suggested that in 1960 5 percent of children grew up in single-parent homes. Today, more than 40 percent grow up in single-parent homes. When younger persons responded to the question of why they had moved away from faith, a large number cited their parents’ divorce.
Thus, he argued, if the life of faith does not work out in meaningful ways in family life, it often leads children to question the value of Christianity to the real world. Second, role models are important to young people. One of the most important “facts” he noted was that less than 1 in 10 young persons (who attend church) have an adult mentor in the church. Other than their parents, the primary role models for youth are pop culture stars and their peers. Kinnamon suggested that one of the better predictors of whether youth stay involved in church over a longer period is the presence of adult mentors in their lives.
Does Kinnamon’s research help at all in addressing the concerns of a Christian university and the church? I think so. Much of what I learned from his talk today was not new. In fact, his suggestions were actually “traditional.” He noted that the church has often created generational divisions in the community to “draw” and retain young people in the church. Instead of attending church with the adults, the youth go to an educational environment surrounded by their peers.
Kinnamon urged the group to think of “old” ways of engaging young people – look for opportunities to create mentoring relationships between older adults and the youth. Young people actually value time spent with persons of faith who can discuss and talk about the important questions of life. We have really known this for many years at the university. A student who develops a close relationship with a staff or faculty member is much more likely to stay in school, develop a positive image of the future, and to express their faith more clearly. Kinnamon also noted (as he has before) that the church much addresses real questions – complex questions. We should have honest dialogue about topics that often are “hot” for members of the church community.
I was encouraged because I think we are doing much “right” at George Fox. I left today thinking that we must continue to press the dialogue with our faith partners in the church. We at the university want to be partners in the effort to develop a church that the next generation will value and find meaningful as it engages Christ and culture.
I also thought that “being known” is an important part of the growing-up process today. The culture of the old world used apprenticeships as ways to introduce young people into the world of work. What we are discovering is that having a special relationship with an adult who mentors and guides young people is as important today as it was ages ago. It is absolutely essential in the life of faith.