Apr 8, 2020

How Young Adults in Digital Babylon View the Gospel

In light of the COVID-19 crisis and current social distancing guidelines, digital Easter is on the horizon for church leaders nationwide. With the majority of U.S. churches currently closed to the public, recent Barna data show that a majority of U.S. pastors (70%) says they intend to hold a digital Easter service, with 51 percent sharing plans to livestream online and another 19 percent recording an Easter message, whether by video or podcast, to send out to congregants.

Barna president David Kinnaman and his Faith for Exiles co-author Mark Matlock have long been weighing the effects of what they call “digital Babylon” on young adults (Millennials and Gen Z), sharing insights for faith leaders to lean on as they minister to the next generation. The current moment sheds new light on these findings which now very much apply to pastors’ connections to all congregants, regardless of their age.

This article, adapted from Faith for Exiles, takes a look at the importance of church resources outside of the typical Sunday sermons and how young adults with a Christian background view the gospel. With a renewed, and necessary, reliance on digital tools in the current moment, Easter 2020 presents a strong opportunity for churches to reach a multitude of people via online engagement.

As a reminder, Kinnaman and Matlock write of four exile groups who reside in digital Babylon: prodigals, nomads, habitual churchgoers and resilient disciples (see full definitions in About the Research below). 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, many with no plan to return, only 10 percent of Christian twentysomethings can be called resilient disciples.

Faith for Exiles

5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon

Preach, but Don’t Only Preach
Churches play a foundational role in forming a culturally discerning mindset among resilient disciples. All of the evidence points to the fact that sermons are an important part of that equation. However, the data also indicates that an hour (or less) a week—or, more likely, an hour or so every few weeks, when a young Christian shows up for church—is simply not a sufficient amount of “weight” to tone a heart bloated with hundreds of hours of content from digital Babylon.

Churches need more than good sermons to disciple in digital Babylon; we also need other structures of learning: courses, programs, mentoring, field-based experiences, mission trips and more.

Let’s talk about the mantras we ministry leaders repeat to ourselves about effectiveness. This is mostly about the size of the crowd or the rave reviews we get for our teaching series. The both of us (Kinnaman and Matlock) have actually heard comments like, “It’s a sin to bore a young person at church.” This is well-meaning of course, but the idea is wrong.

Sometimes teaching rich, robust truth is, let’s admit it, hard work and can lead to boredom in an age of short attention spans. But in our efforts to keep things from becoming boring, we’ve put the cookies on the bottom shelf for the next generation. We’ve oversimplified things. We give Brand Jesus talks that inspire in the moment but melt into the digital ether as soon as young people walk out of church.

This is the problem with entertaining-but-shallow Christian experiences for youth and young adults. What’s worse, young people who are ready to grow, who want to push past the boredom, are disappointed. This is how we end up losing some of the brightest young minds and talents, particularly creatives, entrepreneurs and science-minded students.

We have to do better. Good preaching alone won’t cut it.

Teach the Whole Gospel
We define the whole gospel, based on thinking from many others, as a four-chapter Christian story: creation-fall-redemption-restoration. In too many places, we teach an abbreviated and insufficient two-part story: fall and redemption. You are a sinner and you need Jesus.

Those two elements are the truth of the human condition and the center of the gospel. But to be whole, they need to be set in the context of the opening chapter (God created human beings in his image, with desire and potential for goodness, truth, and beauty) and understood in light of the closing chapter (God’s ultimate plan for the world is to set things right and renew all things).


Most resilient disciples embrace these four elements, though their belief in the fall sags. Only 60 percent strongly agree with the idea that “all human beings are essentially broken and flawed because they have rebelled against God.”

The point is that we should be regularly involved in clearly, compellingly conveying the entire scope of God’s truth about the world in both sermons and other learning structures. Only the fullness of God’s story can help young disciples make sense of their world in exile.

In the same way, the unprecedented time which we find ourselves in currently challenges church leaders to rely on new technology to relay the gospel message. Now, more than ever, it is crucial that the sermons shared digitally on Sunday morning cover the spectrum of the four-chapter story: creation-fall-redemption-restoration.

With federal social distancing guidelines in place until the end of April, and possibly longer, U.S. clergy have no option but to lean heavily on digital tools and to reach out to their church communities during the COVID-19 crisis. While it may seem hard to rise above the din of screen time, social media and zoom meetings that are now constantly saturating the lives of Americans, it is possible and truly worthwhile to prepare and share an Easter Sunday message with your congregants and broader community this year.

To read more about preparing for the first digital Easter, check out this blog post where faith experts and other church leaders share tips, advice and insights on the value of being present in this time of social distance.

The data charts and excerpts in this article are from Faith for Exiles (2019), and were used by permission of David Kinnaman, Mark Matlock, and Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group.

Faith for Exiles

5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon

About the Research

The data shared regarding pastors’ plans for Easter 2020 services, mentioned in the introductory paragraph, came from a Barna Group survey conducted online among 375 Protestant Senior Pastors from March 24–April 6. Participants are all members of Barna Group’s Church Panel. Minimal weighting has been used to ensure the sample is representative based on denomination, region and church size. 

The main research examination for Faith for Exiles 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 qualitative 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.

Photo by Jasmine Ne from Unsplash

© Barna Group, 2020.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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