Through more than a decade of interviewing teens and young adults, Barna researchers have continued to encounter a small but significant number of young Christians who run counter to the overall church dropout trend. Using the same research parameters as in his 2011 book You Lost Me (18–29-year-olds with a Christian background), Barna president David Kinnaman and team dedicated a new study to learn more about this countertrend.
In Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon, Kinnaman and his coauthor, Mark Matlock, get to know the one in 10 young Christians whom they call “resilient disciples.” But they also take a long look at three other paths chosen by young adults with a Christian background. Taken together, there are four kinds of twentysomething “exiles” making their way in our current day and age, which Kinnaman calls “digital Babylon.”
Prodigals, or ex-Christians, do not identify themselves as Christian despite having attended a Protestant or Catholic church as a child or teen, or having considered themselves to be Christian at some time.
Nomads, or lapsed Christians, identify themselves as Christian but have not attended church during the past month. The vast majority of nomads haven’t been involved with a faith community for six months or more.
Habitual churchgoers describe themselves as Christian and have attended church at least once in the past month, yet do not have foundational core beliefs or behaviors associated with being an intentional, engaged disciple.
Resilient disciples are Christians who (1) attend church at least monthly and engage with their church more than just attending worship services; (2) trust firmly in the authority of the Bible; (3) are committed to Jesus personally and affirm he was crucified and raised from the dead to conquer sin and death; and (4) express desire to transform the broader society as an outcome of their faith.
These four groups, all with similar church backgrounds, report noticeably different experiences and perceptions of life, faith and relationships. Faith for Exiles explores these differences in depth in order to understand how young Christians, along with their parents and churches, can grow resilient, lifelong faith.
One answer that emerges from the data is the importance of a personal encounter with and experience of Jesus. As the chart shows, there are significant differences between the four exile groups when it comes to Jesus-centered spirituality.
Kinnaman says, “Resilient disciples express a feeling of intimacy with God, closeness that frequently seems lacking in the experience of habituals, nomads, and prodigals. Statements like ‘Jesus understands what my life is like these days’ and ‘Reading the Bible makes me feel closer to God’ capture this feeling. Resilience is felt at a deep, emotional level.
“They also experience conversational intimacy with Jesus,” Kinnaman continues. “More than four out of five strongly agree that ‘Jesus speaks to me in a way that is relevant to my life.’ Fewer than half of habituals feel this kind of connection, and the percentages are, as expected, much lower among nomads and prodigals. Prayer is a ‘vibrant part’ of resilient disciples’ lives, and it includes ‘listening to God.’”
“These data indicate that one of the keys to developing resilient faith and experiencing Jesus is growing young people’s belief that a real God really speaks to us,” Kinnaman adds, “that he has something unique to say to our hearts and destinies. This is a theme that runs throughout our studies among Millennials of the last decade, and it’s certainly a theme that resounds in scripture. Hearing from God is also one of the defining characteristics of exiles in the Bible.
Kinnaman concludes, “We must help this emerging generation hear and respond to the voice of Jesus in their lives! Let’s commit ourselves to helping young people develop a theology and a practice of hearing from, listening to and talking with God.”
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.
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About the Research
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 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.
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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