Last official time we met up, we were taking a first look at the 2011 David Kinnaman book You Lost Me. In it, the author tries to outline why young people (ages 15ish-30ish) are leaving Christian churches and groups in growing numbers–and also to offer ideas for curbing that exodus. As many folks in the comments noted, the author doesn’t really engage much with the simple fact of deconversion–it’s as if he doesn’t understand the whole idea of it. Today I’ll show you just how big that blind spot is.
Why They Leave. Totally. Really.
David Kinnaman classifies people who’ve left Christian groups (by which I mean both churches and formal Christian groups like Cru) into three broad categories: Nomads, Exiles, and Prodigals. Nomads are kinda wandering around waiting to find a good group. Exiles feel like they’ve been rejected by formal Christian groups. Prodigals have taken off entirely and aren’t interested in Christianity anymore (ah, but like the prodigal son of the Bible myth, Kinnaman insists, they may be back!). He’s level-headed enough to know that these three categories aren’t perfect and that there’ll be some overlap (and some who really don’t fit any of those categories) involved here, but these are the broad trends he’s identified.
And those three groups leave because they perceive church culture as:
- Doubtless (meaning that groups demand that members pretend not to have doubts)
Notice that I said “perceive church culture as,” not “experience church culture as being.” And notice also that one of the major problems someone might have with remaining part of a Christian group isn’t its own category here. There’s a reason for both of these.
Where are the Ex-Christians?
When I posted that list of six reasons the other day, a lot of readers immediately noticed that there’s one really big reason why we at least left our various church groups that didn’t make it into his big list of 6 reasons.
We no longer believed any of Christianity’s supernatural claims.
And we wondered–with good reason–where that figured into the six reasons listed.
David Kinnaman goes to great pains to stress that most people who leave Christianity are really just disengaging from church culture/practices. (Remember, disengagement means to just stop doing Christian stuff, while deconversion means someone flat-out doesn’t believe anymore.) He does accurately share that of those who are disconnected from Christian culture, the majority are simply disengaged. As he puts it, a young Christian has a 1 out of 9 chance of fully deconverting, whereas something like 2 out of 5 young Christians will have a period of disengagement. These are 2011 numbers so it’s probably gotten worse since then, but that’s how it stood six years ago.
If you ask me, even by 2011 reckoning that’s still a lot of ex-Christians floating around. He delineates Prodigals further by dividing them up into heart Prodigals, meaning people who rejected Christianity due to emotional reasons, and head Prodigals, who rejected it for intellectual and rational reasons. (I’m sad that nutsack Prodigals didn’t make the list.)
So he considers that people become Prodigals because of those six reasons. If you lost belief, then you did so probably because of one of those six things. Instead of listing it by itself, he spreads it around those other six reasons and considers those the real reasons why we rolled to disbelieve.
The How, Not the What.
David Kinnaman always couches Prodigals’ disbelief in terms of how they came to disbelieve. The exact stuff we don’t believe doesn’t interest him nearly as much as how we related to our last Christian group–and how we might relate to another in the future.
For example, one of his first ex-Christians is “Mike,” who he says “typifies a prodigal, an ex-Christian.” Mike no longer believes at all, but the author goes to pains to describe how Mike, in his youth, loved science–thus clashing with anti-science older Christians in his church–and had a “razor-sharp wit” that “was sometimes perceived as disrespect.” It’s very clear that the author believes that had Mike’s love of science been supported and had his smart-ass attitude been taken with more grace, he would probably still be Christian today. He leaves the door open for the idea that Mike might reconvert one day, but laments that well golly, “prodigals seem closed to such outcomes.” (Ah, Christian projection at work again–we’re the close-minded ones, in Bizarro-World.)
That’s the general pattern for the rest of the book. Whether the people he discusses are gone for good or if they’re just going through a period of doubt and uncertainty, David Kinnaman always couches their time of disbelief as the result of something those people or their leaders, teachers, or mentors did wrong or got wrong or understood wrong. And the solution to that misunderstanding or misperception is to figure out how to achieve a “fully biblical view of Christ’s message” (p. 181), which is the same error made by Preston Sprinkle. Like the anti-gay author we reviewed last year, David Kinnaman totally assumes that if he can figure out how to be even more “biblical,” then the erroneous behaviors feeding evangelical churn will just about correct themselves.
In this author’s hands, Stephen Colbert was staggered out of belief because of a horrific family tragedy (unstated is the blame for his church and family for not giving him adequate Christianese answers for the sudden loss of his father and brothers). Katy Perry soared away on bright butterfly wings from a super-restrictive church environment. David Bazan (the deconverted singer of Pedro the Lion) wrestled with serious intellectual questions about Christianity that nobody answered with the right pablum.
Always, always there’s this hint in his anecdotes that if the church group around that person had reacted correctly and adequately, the Prodigal in question wouldn’t ever have wandered out of the fold. He mentions (p. 100) a Barna survey from a few years ago that indicated that a number of young people who’d left their churches had done so specifically because their church group hadn’t adequately helped them through personal problems they were having in matters of school, family, vocation, and all that stuff that young people wrestle with. He explicitly blames those churches for not giving more “practical coaching” on these matters, driving young people to seek help elsewhere.
(Does this mean that Christian leaders don’t talk about this stuff anymore? I remember it being fairly constant, and what with their culture wars you’d think it’d be omnipresent now. Or is this a case of “do more of what you were already doing, except harder” that we often see out of Christians, particularly evangelicals?)
But ex-Christians know that sometimes there just isn’t an adequate answer for a person who is tired of Christianese word-games and thought-stoppers–at least not one that makes Christianity look good.
Those standard-issue, boilerplate answers work okay as long as a Christian is motivated to believe, but when a crushing loss is suffered or a staggering and fascinating new world opens up in front of someone, the old answers don’t work anymore. And thanks to the open-access information-based secular world that this book maligns so much, the Christians who are dissatisfied with those pat answers don’t have to reinvent the wheel (like I did, way back then–I literally didn’t run into anybody who’d deconverted for years after my own deconversion!) as they search for answers that fit with reality far better than anything they hear out of their religious peers and leaders.
That is why his list of six reasons why people leave Christianity all relate to Christian groups and how they relate to the individual who left, and also why all those reasons are probably purely perception-based.
The Message is Perfect.
As we’ve discussed many times around here, in Christianity the message is always perfect. There is never anything wrong with the message, according to its salespeople. So if someone has a problem with the religion, then the problem is rooted elsewhere. Either the person with the problem misunderstood something, got erroneous information somehow, or is just being rebellious and doesn’t want to accept the truth (probably because they want to enjoy some unapproved sex).
That is why David Kinnaman’s first altar call in You Lost Me takes the tone it does. I posted some of it in comments on the last LSP, but I’ll put the whole thing here because it’s just… I can’t even. Here it is. Read it and get a very good look at why he thinks people deconvert and disengage:
If you are a prodigal, I urge you to reconsider your choice to disavow Christianity. Whatever your journey, whatever your age, whatever your gripes against Christians and the church, you at your worst are, like me, no better. Yet you and I at our best can be counted among the humble saints who have trusted that God’s grace is greater than the shortcomings of his people. Together we could lovingly challenge the church from within to repent and become truly Christian again.
Obviously we could say a lot here about this entreaty: his idea that deconversion or disengagement is solely a choice, his rather erroneous thinking around just how humble the “saints” are and were, the idea that he’s pushing his god’s “grace” to people who don’t actually think anymore that his god exists, even his idea that anybody but the masters of his broken system could put into motion any changes to it. That’s a whole lotta wrong going on in just one paragraph!
But look for now at what he’s asserting between the lines: people’s choice to disavow Christianity happens because of the shortcomings of Christians who aren’t behaving in a way that is truly Christian.
Indeed, later in the book (p. 195) we’ll meet Helen, a woman who became an atheist to “save my mental health,” as she put it. Though she declares herself an atheist, she still attends Christian functions because, as she also puts it, “being here [at a Christian conference], with people I like, doing something despite my unbelief is better than not doing anything.” Her apostasy is also a lot more deliberate-sounding than any deconversion I’ve ever heard of; she seems to indicate that she was very purposeful about it because she realized that she was having trouble distinguishing between reality and fantasy, hearing voices and the like, and she pinpointed Christianity’s bizarro world as the cause of her instability. And it’s clear from this lengthy anecdote that Mr. Kinnaman hugely admires her for sticking with Christian culture despite having discarded her faith. (His anecdotes are as carefully-chosen as Preston Sprinkle’s, too.)
So ultimately, this book’s thrust is that church culture is turning young people off from Christianity for a variety of reasons, and those young people are leaving rather than fight to change that culture like proper saints are supposed to do. The goal, therefore, is to persuade church and group leaders to change how they behave around young people so that they never, ever want to leave. They will be like Helen, who stick around because the culture is so wonderful and the people are so great, and work to improve Christianity for everyone.
Because literally, the only reason anybody could ever want to leave Christian culture is because someone in their group or community did something wrong. So if the people in those groups and communities can figure out what they did wrong and quit doing it, nobody will ever want to leave again!
yeah, about that
Always Be Closing.
David Kinnaman is a salesperson trying to sell a product that is sharply declining in demand. There are a lot of those nowadays in Christianity. I put him a rung above a lot of his peers because at least he’s not just writing a book putting all the blame on the people who’ve left Christianity. There are a lot of those too nowadays, and I’m sure they make the Christians agreeing with this idea harrumph wholeheartedly to themselves as they read. (Indeed, Ross Douthat and a number of other Christian writers have made entire careers out of blaming ex-Christians for having left Christianity.)
No, this author wants to do more than just feel self-righteous. His heart’s in the right place. He has a good grasp of a lot of stuff about today’s young folks. He sprinkles enough cultural references and whatnot into the book that I can tell he’s done a lot of time reading what young folks write and listening to what they say.
He correctly perceives that his culture has a lot of problems, and that those problems do indeed make a lot of young people leave groups (or avoid them in the first place). And I’d agree that if Christians would stop being so massively hypocritical, it’d jar fewer of their adherents into noticing that the religion’s claims aren’t true–and would probably slow down the level of disengagement at least.
The things David Kinnaman gets right makes all the stuff he gets wrong all the more frustrating.
Those anti-process blinders are firmly set on his head. He hears, he reads, he sees, but it all gets sifted through his Jesus filter and he comes out with a view of why people walk away from his religion that doesn’t ring true at all.
I think he would have done a lot better if he understood what disbelief is and how people come to it. He can’t separate out disengagement from deconversion; to him they’re basically the same thing, just that deconverted people are a little more firm about not wanting to be around Christianity anymore than disengaged people are. And because he thinks that there simply are no objections to his religion that cannot be easily overcome and simultaneously that his message is, ultimately, perfect, he is shackled to a bizarro worldview. He keeps edging right up to reality before skittering away again–it happened over and over again in the book. It was like he almost gets it–almost.
A Warped World.
That’s why you’ll notice he uses words like “perceive” a lot when describing how young people view Christianity and in particular Christian culture. While he’s generally respectful, he does get hung up on insisting that a lot of the problems Prodigals see in his religion are perception and messaging issues, not real issues with how Christians as a whole engage with their broken faith system.
So in his chapter about the perception that Christian culture is overprotective, he tries to teach that church leaders should instead try to create a culture of discernment, which he views as the reframing of overprotectiveness. But the way he advises churches go about being discerning sounds exactly the same as overprotective to me. If anything, it sounds even worse because in his world of discernment, all the same stuff happens except now it happens under the more-watchful eye of the entire church community. All of his reasons work along the same lines; he repeatedly tries to flip the script by advising how churches can keep their toxic messaging while marketing that messaging in a more Millennial-friendly way.
That attempt to flip the script reveals his entire strategy for reversing the exodus of young people from Christian groups. David Kinnaman’s whole book is a condemnation of modern Christian church culture and a plea to return to the gauzy days of yesteryear when kids were herded along carefully through a cattle run to adulthood, at which point they got buried under the demands of marriage, childbearing and rearing, ministry volunteering, and mentoring young folks in turn one day. And if Christian groups can manage that trick, everything will stabilize–and maybe even reverse.
His ultimate goal is to teach readers how to mentor young people in a process called discipleship that he thinks existed in The Good Olde Dayes, so that they get the correct messaging and marketing. You may have heard that word before; it’s become somewhat trendy in recent years with that crowd. Basically it means for an older Christian to team up with one or a few younger ones to teach them how to be properly Christian. We’ll go into more detail about this idea next time, because this exact concept is integral to fundagelicals’ conception of stemming their churn.
See you then!