My husband, a math teacher, was trying to explain a complicated theory to me. It involved (from what I could gather) pictorial representations of mathematical equations. As hard as I tried, I just couldn’t grasp what he was talking about. “I’m sorry, hunny,” I said, “but you’ve lost me.”

“You lost me” is the phrase we use when we don’t understand something someone is trying to tell us. It isn’t that we’re not listening or not trying, it’s that our brain can’t make sense of the information being presented. Such is the thesis of David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church… and Rethinking Faith (Baker Publishing Group, 2011)In this book, Kinnaman argues that young people are leaving the church not because they won't listen or aren’t trying to fathom what the church has to say; actually, quite the opposite is true: a large majority of young people consider themselves spiritual, seeking, or as possessing some sort of faith. However, at some point the message the church is sending doesn’t add up with what they are experiencing in the rest of their lives. As a result, we’re losing them, not just figuratively.

You might recognize Kinnaman as President of The Barna Group and the co-author of unChristian, a book which looked at how nonbelievers view Christianity, and why they're turned off from it. Working on unChristian propelled Kinnaman to write You Lost Me, which focuses on the church from the inside out, seeking to explain why young people who have grown up in church are now departing from it, and what older generations of Christians can do to fix the problem.

In You Lost Me, Kinnaman uses certain terms for the different generations in the church. “Mosaics” are today’s teenagers and twenty-somethings, while “Busters,” “Boomers,” and “Elders” are the older generations in the church and the primary audience of his book. Kinnaman stresses that Mosaics live not just in a different culture, but a culture that is discontinually different from the generations before it. He argues that no generation of Christians has lived through a set of cultural changes as profound and lightning-fast as the Mosaic generation. With computers in every pocket, the world is more accessible than ever before. Mosaics have their worldviews shaped not just from family and direct experiences, but from the experiences and opinions of others shared via the web and through other forms of media.

Kinnaman therefore instructs the older generations on six reasons young people leave the church. It’s important to note that Kinnaman isn’t being accusatory here, nor is he trying to suggest every individual church struggles with every issue listed here. These are simply the top six ways Mosaics who leave the Church characterize her.

1.  Overprotective. Meaning: the church has a tendency to fear and demonize everything outside of the church, especially pop culture. Young people see the world less bleakly—they often perceive media icons describing the reality of the human experience better than the church can. There is also a false separation of the sacred and secular, and the problematic desire of the church to insulate young people from culture instead of working with them to shape it.

2.  Shallow. Although Kinnaman acknowledges that many Mosaics find church shallow because they only have a superficial understanding of faith, he has also found that “faith communities convey a lot of information about God rather than disciplining young believers to live deeply in the reality of God… [p]ut the two together and you get a generation of young believers whose faith is an inch deep and a mile wide—too shallow to survive and too broad to make a difference.”

3.  Anti-science. Science is often labeled anti-Christian, Christianity labeled anti-science. Young people see animosity on both sides. For those gifted in, curious about, or pursuing careers in science fields, there is frequent pushback from their faith community. They struggle to reconcile the competing narratives of faith vs. science, and have no one in the church they feel they can to turn to.

4.  Repressive. The church is viewed by Mosaics as controlling, joyless and stern when it comes to sex, sexuality and sexual expectations. Many young Christians claim to have conservative beliefs but their behaviors are just as libertine as non-Christians.

5.  Exclusive. Tolerance is what Kinnaman calls the “north star” of the Mosaics. They are open to and aware of racial diversity, gender equality, social and economic disparities. Unfortunately, the church often does a poor job defending the biblical principles that underlie their stances on social issues, often offering these principles in unloving and exclusive ways towards those who think differently.

6.  Doubtless. Mosaics carry with them many doubts, a product of all the competing ideas the world offers them, but feel they have no safe place to express those doubts, or that no one is willing to tackle their doubts in a respectful, thoughtful way.

These issues affect young Christians to different degrees. Some Mosaics become what Kinnaman coins nomads. Nomads, while “spiritual,” have unassociated themselves with the Christian church. Kinnaman describes celebrities Katy Perry and Stephen Colbert as nomads; they have faith in something, but it’s not tied to a church or even a specific religion. 

Others become prodigals, or those who have left the church altogether. Sarah is an example of a prodigal, having walked away from her faith after the Christian camp she worked at fired her for dating a guy who didn’t go to church. Many prodigals like Sarah have deep wounds and frustration with Christianity and sadly are some of the most outspoken voices against the Christian faith.

Finally, many become exiles. Exiles continue to have a strong belief in God and hold fast to Christian faith, yet are skeptical of how the church fits into the rest of their lives. They feel lost between the church and culture. Justin is a young Christian filmmaker, living in Hollywood and following his dream of making movies. His parents and church family, however, struggle to understand how he can be a Christian and work in Hollywood; to them, the two don’t seem to mix. He faces criticism and judgment from the Christian community while trying to follow the calling he believes God gave him.

Can the church work through the large roadblocks keeping nomads, prodigals, and exiles away without straying from the truth of the gospel message? Kinnaman thinks so. In fact, he believes the Mosaic generation and the generations before them can learn from one another and build a stronger church in the process.

Kinnaman believes that...

  • ...it is imperative for the church to make disciples, particularly through intergenerational relationships.
  • ...reconsidering how we know and understand vocation is another important step. “It’s a modern tragedy,” Kinnaman says, “[d]espite years of church-based experiences and countless hours of Bible-centered teaching, millions of next-generation Christians have no idea that their faith connects to their life’s work.”
  • ...we need to reprioritize wisdom. “Wisdom empowers us to live faithfully in a changing culture,” Kinnaman notes. Older generations imparting wisdom upon Mosaics will help this group better discern and sift through the mass of unlimited information they consume every day.

The final chapter of You Lost Me is helpful. It is a selection of 50 suggestions from various faith and cultural leaders, some directed to older generations, other bits aimed at Mosaics. Among the ideas presented: how to have more honest dialogue, the significance of confessing failures, what it looks like to hand-craft disciples, and the importance of recovering imagination and creativity in the church. I was grateful to Kinnaman for attempting to provide practical steps to fix a problem that can seem daunting.

It would be remiss to discuss Kinnaman’s book without noting one of the largest criticisms Barna, and thus Kinnaman, have received: debate on the urgency of their research results. Rodney Stark and Byron Johnson of Baylor University, for example, have blasted some of Barna’s findings as “false alarms,” noting that some of their studies headlining the news were misleading—including one which claimed young people under 30 are deserting the church ‘in droves' (Johnson, Byron & Rodney Stark, Religion and the Bad News Bearers: The widely reported decline in women’s church attendance is implausible. Wall Street Journal Online, Aug. 8 2011).

Since Kinnaman’s book is written under the postulation that there is in fact a crisis in the church, what should we make of these criticisms to Barna’s research? After reading the book, I don’t feel Kinnaman is screaming fire into a crowded building. The point Stark and Johnson want to make is that even if young Christians are leaving the church, this is nothing new. Historically, Christian youth have left the church for a period of time, yet after marriage and children they have often returned. This is a valid point, and I would be more concerned if Kinnaman spent a lot of time lingering on the stats. However, Kinnaman repeatedly stresses that his focus is on the individuals behind the numbers:

"All things considered, a young Christian has about 1:9 odds of losing his or her faith entirely. While this is a rare outcome, it is a very high number when you think about the estimated five million 18-to-29-year-old exChristians encompassed by that statistic... Is that what we want for young people—to have years of religious education, experiences, and relationships, only to turn away once they can decide for themselves? Of course not.”

You Lost Me is an excellent commentary on the twenty-something generation within the church, and an essential tool for anyone hoping to effectively reach a generation of earnest but skeptical young people.

Kelly Givens is an Editor at the Salem Web Network. She lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband and enjoys reading, writing and spending time in the great outdoors.

Publication date: June 29, 2012