'You Lost Me': Young Christians Rethink Faith

Nationwide, many 20-somethings are leaving their churches behind. David Kinnaman and his staff at the research company, The Barna Group, interviewed more than 5,000 Christians, and he says the dropout issue is real and urgent. Host Michel Martin speaks with Kinnaman about his book You Lost Me.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We want to talk more about faith and spirituality now, and now we want to focus on why so many young Christians seem to be leaving the church and you might not see it if you look at the sold out Christian rock or gospel concerts or packed pews at Christmas, but then how do you explain this popular new video? In the last 10 days, Jefferson Bethke's spoken word poem has gotten more than 15 million views on YouTube. We'll play just a short clip of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "WHY I HATE RELIGION, BUT LOVE JESUS")

JEFFERSON BETHKE: See, the problem with religion is it never gets to the core. It's just behavior modification, like a long list of chores. Like, let's dress up the outside, make it look nice and neat, but it's funny. That's what they used to do to mummies while the corpse rots underneath. Now, I ain't judging. I'm just saying we're putting on a fake look because there's a problem if people only know that you're a Christian by your Facebook.

MARTIN: Our next guest says the so-called dropout problem in American Christianity is real. He's written a new book about it. It's called "You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith." David Kinnamen is the author of the book. He's also the president of the Barna Group. That's a private, nonpartisan research group that conducted a lot of the research that informed the book.

And David Kinnamen is with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

DAVID KINNAMEN: Thank you, Michel. My pleasure.

MARTIN: So the money issue - the money bite here is that more than half of all Christian teens and 20-somethings leave active involvement in the church?

KINNAMEN: Correct. Yes. So 59 percent of people who were 18 to 29 who were churched as a teenager said they had dropped out after attending some time regularly. What's so fascinating is 57 percent said that they're less active in church, but only 29 percent said they're less spiritual.

So it's interesting because they're less churched. They're rejecting institutional forms of church, but they're not necessarily rejecting spirituality.

MARTIN: Now, you say in the book that the ages 18 to 29 are the black hole of church attendance. This age segment is missing in action from most congregations and that's not because these young folks weren't raised in the church or had some experience with church. It's just that something's happened at a certain point where they decide to leave.

Isn't that kind of dropping out, changing your lifestyle, something that every generation goes through? I guess I'm asking you, why do you think it is there's something particularly dramatic about what's happening with this group?

KINNAMEN: Well, you know, doing this research, it's interesting that you started with the story of that video because we try to capture the voice of this generation through all the interviews that we had done. We did more than 5,000 interviews with teens and 20-somethings and pastors and parents. This is something old, but it's also something new.

And, as you put it, it's every generation goes through its own spiritual formation process, but what's different now is that this generation is living in a much more complicated time, and because of that, I think this dropout problem is all the more urgent and we have to pay attention to it and its new nuances.

MARTIN: What are the young people telling you about? Whether they're taking a break, a temporary break or dropping out altogether, what are they telling you about why?

KINNAMEN: What we really boil it down to - you know, each person that we interviewed had very specific experiences and challenges and the church was, in some way, inadequate in their mind to that. And yet, when we looked at it from a broad perspective, the way I would conclude this is that we're living in a more complicated age, more complicated questions about marriage and the diversity of this generation, the technology used in social media.

And, in a nutshell, what we learned is that churches aren't really giving them an answer to these complicated questions that they're facing, these lifestyle issues and challenges that they're facing. And it's not really a deep or thoughtful or challenging response that most churches are providing to them.

MARTIN: And are you finding this phenomenon across what people consider liberal and conservative churches or do you find it concentrated in one side or the other?

KINNAMEN: Well, one of the surprises for me was I figured that we would see some differences between young Catholics, for instance, and young Protestants and young mainline versus young evangelicals. But I think the overriding theme was that this generation, in so many ways, is post-institutional, regardless of their traditions. So many similarities in their reasons and their reactions to the church and to Christianity.

Some of the things that were different was I think many churches that deal well with complexity didn't give a sufficient amount of conviction or commitment required of the young people that they work with. And then, conversely, those that had a strong degree of commitment and sort of emotional connection with the church didn't deal well with the complexity. So it was sort of a double-edged sword for many of these churches.

MARTIN: Well, give me an example. Can you just kind of describe one of those conversations that captured this for us?

KINNAMEN: Sure. Well, I think one of them is a conversation that we had. I mean, I have talked to a young person, Colleen(ph), who was asking her youth pastor whether she should sell her eggs for college. And this is, you know, right at the center of the complexity of today's ties because they have instant access to any kind of information available about any kind of thing, you know, theology, religion, faith, human sexuality, reproduction choices, college, education. They have these huge aspirations to make a difference in the world, to be educated.

MARTIN: Well, what did he say? I mean, what was his answer?

KINNAMEN: Yeah. He said, you know, I don't think there's one Christian response to that. But he walked her through a process of trying to say, you know, is it necessary for you to go to college? And, if so, let's find a way that the church can support you in getting that education.

MARTIN: Well, what's wrong with that, though? I mean, that seems like a loving and both intelligent and affirming response.

KINNAMEN: It's a great response. The big challenge is that most pastors, most families in churches - they're not prepared for those kinds of questions. I think this young youth pastor did a great job, but I think a lot of questions, as we learn from our research - they're not being asked. In fact, one of the major reasons young people said that they were leaving churches was that they felt like they couldn't ask their most pressing life questions in church.

So we heard the question from Colleen, but many of these young people feel like they're so disconnected. They're so entirely disparate worlds, they can't really ask these pressing life questions in church.

MARTIN: Do you have some specific suggestions for faith leaders who are seeing this in their own congregations and want to address it?

KINNAMEN: We do. I mean, first of all, every congregation is different and I think there needs to be very customized and thoughtful and deep responses to that. We don't want a one size fits all response, but one of the things I thought was a great concept that we uncovered through the research was this reverse mentoring idea. This generation has the ability to help an older generation, an established generation. Many of these traditionalist churches deal effectively with issues of science and social media and gender roles and yet, at the same time, these young people need the input and wisdom of today's older generation.

And what's so beautiful about this next generation is they actually really want the wisdom of today's grandparents and elders and they're facing huge questions, as every generation does, but they're very open to the input of older adults and the wisdom that they could offer.

So this idea of reverse mentoring - we need young people to help enliven and invigorate our congregations and we also need older adults to give good life coaching in the midst of these very different and complicated times that young people are facing.

MARTIN: David Kinnamen is the author of the book, "You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith." And he was kind enough to join us from NPR West in Culver City, California.

David Kinnamen, thanks so much for speaking with us.

KINNAMEN: It's my pleasure. Thanks again for having me.

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