Not too long ago I got a copy of You Lost Me, the 2011 book* written by David Kinnaman regarding the continued and ongoing staggering exodus of young people from Christian groups. I mentioned off and on in the last week that reading it was making me a little cranky, and now I want to tell you why. This book is a good example of how wishful thinking and self-deception makes Christians incapable of seeing what’s happening in their religion, much less acting to change anything for the better.
You Lost Me is written by David Kinnaman, who is the president of the Barna Group, which is a for-profit survey group that does research about various aspects of Christianity and sells the results of that research to Christian leaders. They are in a very small group of religious researchers whose research is generally reliable. They are not quite as reliable as Pew Research Center, whose results are much more trustworthy–likely due to Pew’s non-profit status–but generally speaking Barna’s one of the very few games in town.**
This book is the culmination of years of various surveys and interviews that Barna researchers did with young people (defined here as people roughly between the ages of 15-29). This is the demographic that has Christian leaders the most panicked. They might be losing all demographics to some extent, but they’re losing proportionally more young people than they are any other group. Churches are “greying in place,” as the saying goes, with members skewing older with every single year that passes. So obviously they’re most worried about losing their young people.***
That exact dilemma is what this book is supposed to address. Only part of it involves Barna Group’s research. The rest of it is half-polemic, half-advice manual written to persuade Christian leaders to change the way they engage with young people.
And it is by its own standards a rank failure.
The Problems, As Defined.
David Kinnaman sees the same problem that church leaders see: that somehow, no matter exactly what churches do to prevent exactly this outcome, millions of super-enthusiastic school-age kids get old enough to decide for themselves what they’ll do regarding Christianity–and they leave the religion.
Some do what’s called disengaging, which means they’re still nominally Christian but are disconnected from Christian devotions and practices. They don’t go to church, pray alone or in groups, read or study the Bible, or attempt to proselytize others. They lead lives that might as well be atheistic in nature. Some consider themselves spiritual but not religious, a phrase that no doubt makes Christian leaders’ teeth grate, and some adopt other labels for their beliefs like follower of Jesus or disciple of Christ to avoid the baggage that comes with the label of Christian.
Others formally deconvert, which means exactly what the phrase suggests: they fully reject Christianity’s supernatural claims and authority and no longer even claim the nominal label.
People who have deconverted are pretty much gone. In my experience, once someone’s gone that far as to state rejection of Christianity, they almost never return to the religion.
But David Kinnaman (and by extension Barna Group and Christian leaders generally) see a potential to reach those young people who have simply disengaged. These are the young people who haven’t given the pickup artists of Christianity a hard no. They’re still in a maybe box, and a skilled
PUA proselytizer might be able to salvage the attempt.
He identifies six trends among young people who disengage or deconvert from Christianity:
- They feel churches are overprotective. They feel stifled.
- They see church culture as shallow. They are bored by the whole shebang.
- They have identified Christianity as anti-science. They are put off by denialism.
- They feel that church culture is repressive. They chafe at endless rules and rigidity.
- They’ve noticed that their group is exclusive. They dislike that tribalism.
- They don’t like the false sense of being doubtless. They know life’s way more complicated than that.
Further, he identifies three trends in exactly how young Christians leave the religion:
- Nomads are disengaged; they aren’t connected to any churches but still consider themselves Christians and may still do Christian things sometimes.
- Exiles are even less disengaged from church culture. They left their last church but haven’t found another yet. If they find one that seems like a good fit for themselves or get hungry enough for community, they’ll be back. This group may seem largely identical to Nomads, but they tend to feel like outcasts who would love to be part of a group but don’t feel that they’d be accepted by any of the ones they know about, whereas Nomads feel more like they’d rather strike out on their own than find a group.
- Prodigals are either very disengaged or fully deconverted. They would describe themselves as non-Christian, ex-Christian, or (as David Kinnaman puts it) “no longer Christian.”
Each of these groups fit, broadly, into the six trends he identified. His book tells church leaders how to re-win these three groups back to Christian churches and magically resolve their six concerns.
Always Be Closing.
Most Christian writers who cover this topic don’t really distinguish between disengaged and deconverted people, incidentally, and you won’t find that distinction here. It’s an important distinction, however, maybe even a critical one–as important as the difference between people who are vegetarian for health reasons and those who go that route out of ethical concerns. The two groups are about as different as can be.
There is, of course, a reason why Christians don’t tend to recognize the existence of deconverted people: a fully deconverted person is very unlikely ever to return to the religion. Salespeople would rather die than completely write off any group of potential customers. They never, ever acknowledge that someone just won’t ever buy their product.
That is exactly why David Kinnaman uses the frankly-offensive term prodigal to describe ex-Christians. We are simply wandering far from home and will gladly return if we get desperate enough, suffer enough, if we lose enough. We may well find ourselves knocking on Daddy’s door one day, just like the guy did in the Bible story Jesus told in the Gospels. The author can’t simply call us by the label we use for ourselves; that’d cut him off from recovering us as tithes-paying church members. He is a born salesman; he can’t accept that a large number of people leaving Christian churches don’t ever want to return. We’ve been infected in a sense with reality; we want nothing do with Christianity. We know that nothing can ever be the same again, once we peek for the first time behind that stained and molded church curtain.
It’s David Kinnaman’s inability to engage with the reality of deconversion that is largely why I got really cranky at this book.
But it’s also why Christians tended to like its message.
Follow the Money.
Barna Group, like David Kinnaman, is selling something to Christians. That product might not be exactly what Christians think it is, though.
They are selling hope that somehow, if they just find the right approach or
seduction sales technique, they can reverse their religion’s decline.
It doesn’t do any good to tell Christians that thousands of people every day leave Christian groups and don’t ever return. Christians who feel defeated and hopeless don’t buy books like this one, any more than they buy research aimed at teaching them new sales techniques to trot out on the Nomads, Exiles, and Prodigals in their communities.
That’s why a lot of this book consists of Christian reframing of problems in a way that makes those problems sound a little less dire. This is the exact same technique that got me so vexed last year when we examined Preston Sprinkle’s odious bigotry-for-Jesus book. It’s incredibly dishonest, but it’s one of Christian apologists’ and leaders’ favorites. They take bad news and find some way–any way!–to rephrase it as actually wonderful news, or at least not as bad as it’d sound if they were straightforward about it.
That’s how evangelical group The Gospel Coalition could take news that 60-80% of young people (including 59% of onetime regular churchgoing youth), according to their review of You Lost Me, are leaving the religion in some way–and turn it into great news that 42% of them are sticking around. (Similarly, Christians took a survey telling them that some 68% of evangelism prospects were either indifferent or even uncomfortable by attempts to proselytize, and turned it into a win because 32% of their prospects weren’t completely turned off to the religion as a result of their encounter with an evangelism-minded Christian!)
Tickle Their Ears.
That reframing is done to flatter Christians. Ironically, one of fundagelicals’ favorite Bible verses involves how eager people are to have their ears tickled, which means to be told stuff that makes them feel good. In another case of Christian projection, this book perpetuates and extends the Christian narrative about the people who have left their ranks. That narrative is very flattering to Christians who are still in the pews.
David Kinnaman is telling them that they don’t need to totally tear down their house–all the way to its blighted foundation. No no, instead they just need better marketing! Specifically, they need his book’s sales techniques and they’ll soon be rolling around in piles of returning young people.
What he’s doing is the equivalent of a dishonest house flipper trying to replace a house’s rotted exterior with aluminum siding and thinking all will be well. He might fool Christians who ache to hear that all is not lost, that there’s still a shot at regaining their onetime dominance, that there’s a way to keep their rotting house and still flip it to some other knife-catcher.
The Worst Part.
The very worst part of this book (at least to Christians!) is that it hasn’t made a bit of difference to Christianity. In the six years since it was written, the exodus of young people has continued–and if nothing has even grown more dramatic than it was in 2011.
Not long ago I saw yet another squabble erupting on a Christian blog over its writer trying to tell his tribe to make a substantive change to how they engaged with others. I can’t even remember who he was talking about now or what blog it was. But I do remember the slapfight that broke out in his comments between enraged Christians and the people who agreed with the blogger. I didn’t comment, but I do remember thinking to myself, Why are they even bothering to fight like this? Nothing’s going to change in the religion. This blog post will ruffle a few feathers and in a week nobody’ll even remember what he said.
Every so often a bunch of Christians will get totally up in arms over the latest dissent or defection or backtalk, the fight will ricochet all over social media and cause arguments (like this one), and then a week later it’s like nothing even happened.
And that’s exactly what happened with You Lost Me.
Christianity–the vast and great engine of this major world religion–is built to withstand these kinds of momentary kerfluffles.
So yeah, a lot of Christians got miffed or even offended by David Kinnaman’s meager cover-up suggestions, others thought they were fascinating, and some of them wrote blog posts arguing with or applauding his ideas. And six years later, despite being lauded by no less than the reviewer of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, nothing’s changed. It wouldn’t even surprise me in the least to learn that there are ex-Christians reading my words right now who were actually fervent Christians when this book came out, who read it and liked it, and deconverted anyway later on.
The reason why none of these superficial repair attempts have actually salvaged the rotted house is clear to those who’ve left the religion entirely, but it wouldn’t even occur to those still living there.
It is also the reason why the exodus will continue–all the way to the stars, if need be.
I’ve only barely brushed up against this book in this short review. We’ll be going into more detail about these points and more soon, but I wanted to fire this opening salvo now. My irritation has only just begun to be expressed. We’re gonna tear this rotted house down next time and dance around its crumbling timbers–see you then.
* What amuses me most is that this is a hardbound copy that was discarded from some school library or other. It’s still got its Dewey Decimal System sticker on the spine. Apparently nobody at a school wanted to hear about young people leaving Christianity?
** If you’re curious, other good sources of research are PRRI and Gallup (long-considered unimpeachable). There are a host of other sources, including Lifeway Research, but they are so overwhelmingly biased toward Christianity–evangelicalism in particular–that you have to be really careful about taking them seriously.
*** There’s this particular inflection/slurring-together of “young people” that I associate completely with fundagelical Christians. I can’t explain it, except that I suspect that I can hear the two-word phrase in total isolation and know immediately if the speaker did any significant time in a fundagelical church.
OT: Anybody else see this video and think about the RPG “Scion” and see the hero of it as an awakened son of Dionysus?