In his 2011 book You Lost Me, Barna president David Kinnaman identified three trends shaping our culture: access (which, thanks to WiFi everywhere, is exponentially more amplified today), alienation (from institutions and traditions that give structure and meaning to our lives) and authority (which, like institutions and traditions, is increasingly viewed with suspicion).
In the years since that book released, Kinnaman and the Barna team have adopted a phrase to describe our accelerated, complex culture that’s marked by unlimited access, profound alienation and a crisis of authority: digital Babylon.
Four exile groups reside in digital Babylon: prodigals, nomads, habitual churchgoers and resilient disciples, and recent data show that the church dropout rates among these groups has risen from 59 percent to 64 percent since 2011. As more and more young adults leave the church with no plan to return, it’s no surprise that only 10 percent of Christian twentysomethings can be called resilient disciples.
The pages of Scripture and the annals of human history suggest that there are times when faith is at the center of society and times when faith is pushed to the margins. This transition—from faith at the center to the margins—is happening in North America and other societies in the cultural West right now. Barna data show widespread, top-to-bottom changes from a Christianized to a post-Christian society.
Here’s a short video about the digital Babylon phenomenon.
“Quietly using screens and phones for entertainment has become the dominant activity of childhood,” writes child psychologist Richard Freed . The power of screens in the lives of teens and young adults is incalculable. Even using conservative estimates, the typical young person spends nearly 20 times more hours per year using screen-driven media than taking in spiritual content. For the typical young churchgoer, the ratio is still more than 10 times as much cultural content as spiritual intake.
One reason is that even the most committed Christian families are busier than ever and, thus, attend church less frequently. Youth group used to serve as a main social outlet for teens, but it is being replaced by sports and social media. The number of hours connected, learning and being discipled in a close-knit church community is now a drop of water in the ocean of content pouring out of their screens.
Kinnaman’s new book, coauthored with veteran youth minister Mark Matlock, is a data-driven response to digital Babylon. Faith for Exiles looks closely at a group they call “resilient disciples”—young Christians who, against the cultural odds, are deepening their commitments to Christ and his Church. Resilient disciples, Kinnaman and Matlock contend, exemplify the kind of discipleship that flourishes in digital Babylon.
“The power of digital tools and the content they deliver are incredible,” Kinnaman says, “and we are the first generation of humans who cannot rely on the earned wisdom of previous generations to help us live with these rapid technological changes. We are on the front end of a digital revolution that is tinkering with what it means to be human.
“Pastors, you can’t make resilient disciples only in worship-service planning,” he continues. “Parents, you cannot form your kids in the way of Christ just by taking them to Sunday-morning worship. Young Christians, becoming a resilient disciple means engaging in spiritually formative practices beyond attending church. If we want to follow Jesus with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, all of us in modern exile must consider the total input and output of our faith. The input can’t simply be a few hundred hours of passive church attendance in a year.
“I am mostly realistic about what we are up against, and part of me even feels skeptical about the progress we can make,” Kinnaman concludes. “The inexorable pull of digital Babylon presents us with challenges rarely experienced by the Church. Yet I am also bound to hope! I am hopeful that, by cultivating the five practices Mark and I unpack in Faith for Exiles, we can form and be formed into disciples who thrive in digital Babylon.”
About the Research
 Richard Freed, “The Tech Industry’s Psychological War on Kids,” Medium, March 11, 2018. (accessed October 2019).
The main research examination for the Faith for Exiles book was conducted with eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds who grew up as Christian. The charts and data shown in this article use data from quantitative interviews. The first includes data from a total of 1,296 US adults 18-29 who were current/former Christians. This data was collected online during January 2011 and the margin error for these respondents is +/- 2.7% at the 95% confidence level. The first and second chart both include data from a total of 1,514 US adults 18-29 who were current/former Christians that was collected online during February 16-28, 2018. The margin error for these respondents is +/- 2.3% at the 95% confidence level.
Barna research is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2019