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Following Jesus in a New Babylon

Family Life Today / Dave & Ann Wilson, Bob Lepine
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August 3, 2020 9:00 pm

Following Jesus in a New Babylon

Family Life Today / Dave & Ann Wilson, Bob Lepine

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August 3, 2020 9:00 pm

How are our kids actually living out their faith in a post-Christian world? David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock, authors of "Faith for Exiles," explain the difference between the four types of spiritual exiles: "nomads" or lapsed Christians, habitual church goers, prodigals who have left the faith behind, and resilient disciples-those with a vibrant and robust faith. Together they remind parents of the correlation between parents who are on fire for the Lord with a vibrant faith and kids who spiritually follow in their footsteps.

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We've heard a lot recently about people who are nuns, people who have no religious affiliation.

That's a growing segment of our society. Mark Matlock says there are teenagers and young adults who may be closeted nuns. They don't want to disclose what they really don't believe anymore. What we're seeing a lot of today is a sense of, you know what, I really respect my mom and dad's faith. I don't want to come out yet and tell them I'm not a Christian because I'm going to hurt their feelings. So I'm going to wait until I'm maybe a little older in life to let them know that I don't follow this anymore because they have respect. And that's really important because it used to be this is a hostile group.

And now it's kind of a group of, even if you convince me it's true, I still probably wouldn't buy into it. This is Family Life Today. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. I'm Bob Lapine. You can find us online at

Why are so many young adults losing their grip on what they were exposed to when they grew up going to church? We're going to talk with researchers David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock about that today. Stay with us. And welcome to Family Life Today.

Thanks for joining us. There's a raging question today about whether we should refer to the country in which we live as post-Christian or whether that's too harsh an appraisal. So, what do you think? I think we should bring some people on the show that are experts on the answer to that question.

Bawk, bawk, bawk, bawk, bawk, bawk, bawk. Chicken about answering, don't you? I think we're post. Do you?

I do. You think we're past, you think we can pull it back? I do think we can bring it back.

Well, Bob, define that. What would bring it back look like? Can we be a country again where Christian values are the norm even for people who don't go to church? Do we want to? Oh, that's a good question. I think only God can answer that question.

Well, let's see how these guys do answer that question. We've got David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock joining us on Family Life Today. Guys, welcome back. Hey, great to be with you. David is joining us remotely.

He's at his office in Southern California. Mark is here in studio with us. Together, they've worked on a book called Faith for Exiles, Five Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon. And we've talked this week about what we mean by that. We live in a culture where it's more like Babylon than Jerusalem.

It's more like living in exile, more like being away from the place of God than being in the center of it. David gives leadership to the Barna Group and all of the great research that the Barna Group has done. Mark is a pastor, was a youth volunteer for years.

He's a churchman and a researcher and works with churches on leadership-related issues. And part of your research here was to look at Generation Z and millennials, those two age groups, and kind of take their spiritual temperature. And you said there are, is it right, four tribes, basically, that you identified in that group? Yes, there are four groups that we found in that time. And, you know, it's your original question, you know, can we bring it back?

I don't know that we need to worry about getting things back. That's a lot of energy to spend. I think the question is, how do we live and be a faithful presence in the context we're in? That's what I wanted to say. Is that it?

That's it. And I think that these four segments kind of, you know, show some of that. So, we looked at the faith practices of 18 to 29-year-olds, and we basically broke them into four categories based on what we saw. Now, the people that we surveyed in this research project, we were looking at people who had said, I presently or at some time in my life identified as a Christian. So, people that are unchurched, they were not— They're out of the survey. They're out of the survey. These are kids who grew up going to church. They probably went to youth camp, probably were involved in youth group.

At some point, they prayed a prayer or felt like they were a part of the church community. Correct. And just to be clear, that's about 83 percent of that population meets that criteria. Really? Yeah, so that's often surprising to people.

But just to give you an idea, so some people go, well, you're only timed at 10 percent of the 18— No, 83 percent, that was our sample pool that we could draw from. And are you saying any religious instruction? So, would Jewish kids who grew up going to Hebrew school be included in this? They identified as a Christian. They identified as a Christian at some point in time in their life. One of the biggest surprises of my career and working at Barna for so long, 25 years, is the sheer volume of people who say they're Christian in America. So, more than 8 out of 10 say they're Christian.

More than 7 out of 10 say they've made a commitment to Jesus Christ that's still important in their life. Growing up as a pastor's kid, I would have thought everyone was a heathen, everyone was a non-Christian. But when you look at the stats, we're a very Christianized nation. Even to this day, we're not a very Christ-following nation. David, how many of those who would say, I grew up as a Christian, are saying, well, I didn't grow up Jewish or Muslim or atheist or agnostic, so I'm a Christian by default as opposed to a Christian by practice.

Do we know? A majority of them. I don't have the exact percentage. But most people grow up in what's really a culturally Christian home than a devout Christian home. So, in the 83 percent, you've got a lot of cultural Christians mixed in with churchgoing kids. Correct.

Okay. All right, so with that 83 percent who self-identified and then now they're in a place and you're asking where are they, and you said there are four different places they're landing. Yeah, so the first group are what we call prodigals. These are people who say, I identified as a Christian at some point in time in my life. I absolutely do not identify as a Christian today.

That makes up about 22 percent of that population. Now, what's important to note is for one of David's other books, You Lost Me, which really looked at the dropout problem in the church, that number was about 11 percent just about eight years ago. So, in less than a decade, that number has doubled of 18 to 29-year-olds who say, this isn't just I don't go to church anymore, this is I do not consider myself a Christian any longer. The next group are what we call the nomads, or lapsed Christians.

Okay. These are people who say, I'm a Christian still, but they're not really connected to a community of faith. So, going to church, they kind of don't see the church as the place that they get their spiritual instruction or belonging to.

I've heard people call themselves de-churched or pastors talk about the de-churched. Is that who these nomads are? Some of them could be nomads, yes.

Okay, all right. And so we kind of take it as they're looking for their spiritual experience outside of the community of faith. They're the most prolific problem, if you will, in American Christianity and American faith, is people that say they're Christian, who sort of they're all on board for all the good stuff about Christianity, but they never attend church, or they very rarely, and they sort of love Jesus, but not the church. Are they feeding themselves in any way spiritually? Like, are they listening to podcasts on a Sunday, or?

A little bit. We're going to actually be doing a big study on state of the church, and digital faith trends are certainly disrupting sort of local church attendance in mostly a good way. People are getting more access to information through radio, actually, through books, through other podcasts, and watching the sermons online. And so these non-churched or unchurched people are getting spiritual input, but for the most part, spirituality is just a very, it's like the pilot light has been turned way, way down. They might be getting some spirituality from Oprah, or they might be getting their spirituality from some magazine. They're reading an article in The Atlantic that's talking about soul care-type issues and has nothing to do with Jesus, but that's where their spiritual life is being drawn from, right? That's exactly right, yeah.

So that's a good profile of people who are nomads. They grew up Christian, but the flame is really, really on low at this point. And we talk about people that are walking away from the church, and you hear that phrase.

That phrase, yeah. It's really these nomads and prodigals that we're talking about. It's this group that's walking away in some way, shape, and form. And I think another important thing to notice that we've noticed about the prodigals is that we're entering into an era of polite atheism, where while there's always a fraction of those prodigals that are hostile toward Christianity as they come out of it, what we're seeing a lot of today is a sense of, you know what? I really respect my mom and dad's faith. I don't want to come out yet and tell them I'm not a Christian because I'm going to hurt their feelings, so I'm going to wait until I'm maybe a little older in life to let them know that I don't follow this anymore, because they have respect. And that's really important because it used to be this is a hostile group, and now it's kind of a group of even if you convince me it's true, I still probably wouldn't buy into it.

Wow. So, of the 18 to 29-year-olds, are most of them nomads and prodigals, or do they fit into the other two categories that we haven't talked about yet? So, the two that we're looking at right now are the habituals and the resilience. And the habituals and the resilience are those that are still attending church, and they're attending it with a pretty good frequency. And so, the habitual churchgoers make about 38% of those 18 to 29-year-olds.

David, talk a little bit about the characteristics of a habitual. As researchers, we try to put people into buckets. And so, of course, in our research, we don't tell people you're going to be a habitual churchgoer.

We're going to call you a nomad or a prodigal. We're asking a bunch of questions, and then after the surveys are done, we put them in different buckets. So, sort of broadly speaking, to draw some circles around this, the group of people that are prodigals and nomads, they're de-churched or they're de-Christianized, is 52%. And then those that are sort of remaining active as habitual churchgoers is 38%. And then 10% are resilient disciples.

And so, we put people into these buckets, and habitual churchgoers were simply that. They are self-identified Christians, 18 to 29. They attend church, at least on a monthly basis. They have a pretty good connection to their faith.

And then that was a really interesting comparison to this fourth group that we're talking about, which are these resilient disciples, and that represented just 10%, 1 in 10, 18 to 29-year-old young people who grew up or had experienced Christianity in some fashion. And the only difference, really, between habitual churchgoers and these resilient disciples, there's a couple things that are actually pretty important, but they believe in the authority of Scripture. Many habitual churchgoers believe that, but it wasn't necessarily true of all of them. They believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Again, most habituals believe that, but not necessarily. And then they believe that they want their faith to be expressed out in the world in a meaningful and positive way, that Jesus is alive outside the walls of the church. And so, what's interesting is that habitual churchgoers, which represent 38%, the largest group of 18 to 29-year-olds, and resilient disciples, there's actually not a lot of differences in terms of their engagement in the church. This is what we've been saying all along together, is that if you're just looking at whether your young person is attending church, attending youth group, or as a young adult is attending church, that may or may not be enough of an indicator about how deep their faith is. That's one of the clearest things we saw in this research, is that just being engaged in a church isn't enough to combat the effects of this screen discipleship era.

It's not a deep enough faith for it to last in our current context. And so, again, we learned so many interesting things about the 10% of these young adults who are most resilient in their faith, and frankly, I just was very inspired by their stories. I've worked on a couple books on Christian and You Lost Me that were very hard to write about people that were walking away from their faith or angry at the faith. It's a sacred privilege for us to be able to hear those stories in their own way, but it's so much fun to be able to hear and listen to these resilient disciples who are so on fire for their faith and who are really lighting up the church in some cool ways.

And I want to go back to those three things, because I think this is important for moms and dads to hear. Authority of Scripture, the difference between a resilient Christian and a habitual Christian, is the resilient Christian, that's bedrock for them. For a habitual Christian, the Bible is important, but they're hearing stuff in the culture that's causing them to question whether they can still believe the Bible, right?

That's exactly right, yeah. And then the resurrection of Christ, that's the second thing. Do you really believe that Jesus died and came back to life from death? The habitual Christian is going, well, I've heard that all my life, and I suppose that's true, but when it comes right down to it, I'm not sure I believe that.

Is that accurate? Yeah, exactly, and it's almost as though we see this really interesting thing among young people, which is that they can believe one thing logically and then sort of reject it in another fashion. So they may believe that the resurrection is sort of, it's sort of true, kind of like a legend or a myth, and it probably has bearing on our faith, but they don't necessarily believe it was physically true, right? It's almost like it was an old wives' tale that Jesus must have risen from the dead.

And besides, it doesn't really matter that much. That's the voice of these young habitual churchgoers or prodigals or nomads, whereas these resilient disciples are convinced of the death and resurrection of Jesus in a much more tangible way in their life. And it really is interesting you use the word churchgoer and disciple. That was, I'm guessing, a word that really defined these two differences. They're habitual churchgoers, but a disciple is like what Bob was getting at. There's a big difference, even though it sounds subtle.

It's huge, isn't it? Yeah, and I want to be really clear, too, that just while we use certain criteria to distinguish them, when we went deeper into the research and we asked them all these profiling questions about how they grew up, what their experience of Jesus was, what their prayer life was like, we saw a dramatic difference between these habituals and these resilience. So, there's more going on there. They're going to church with about the same frequency, but they're having really different experiences with God, with Christ, with the Holy Spirit, with others in the church.

We talked about the screen intake in Digital Babylon. Just to give you an idea of the difference, resilient disciples take in about 600 hours of spiritual content on their screens and compare that to habituals that are almost half that, just a little under 300 hours. So, there is a real difference in practice. This isn't just a couple doctrinal issues. Those things help us filter out that group, but their experiences are really different, and their practices are really different. Authority of Scripture, the resurrection of Christ, I don't want to miss that third thing.

In fact, I want to come back to this. You said that for these people, living out their faith in a cultural context is very important to them. It's central to their life, and they believe that they live in the world to make a difference in the world. And I'm thinking of the young people I know who are recognizing there is a huge relational and social cost to that decision to live out your faith, and they're going, I don't know that I'm ready to pay that price to be an active Christian, because the headwinds against that in terms of my employment, in terms of who my friend group is, in terms of whether I'm accepted or I'm ghosted on social media, all of this are the ramifications. If you say, I'm going to live and make Jesus central to what I'm doing, there are some people who are going to leave you, and there are other people who are going to mock you as a result of that. And that's such an inspiring vision that I think so few young adults have about what it means to live a countercultural life in Christ, a vibrant life in Christ that actually goes against the flow in our culture. And that sounds like someone in Scripture, to me that sounds like Daniel, who was recognized, who had these private practices of belief, of prayer, of devotion to Scripture we can actually see in Daniel 9, where he says he's reading the prophet Jeremiah, he's actually reading, doing devotions with Scripture.

And based on that, he has this inner life that allows him to have an outward impact. And every young person who's in this Resilient Discipleship group that we interviewed, they don't want their faith just to matter on Sunday mornings, they want their faith to matter on all of life. They want their faith to matter in every vocation, not just in Christian ministry, but in all of the careers they're interested in. And that's the kind of Christianity that we actually want our kids and grandkids to aspire to.

It's in fact the Christianity that is real and in the real world. And that's what's pretty cool about interviewing these Resilient Disciples. As I said, this is such a hopeful project because we learned the kinds of things that these young people really get inspired by and how much of a difference their faith makes in their lives. Well, I'm curious, as you've talked to these Resilient Disciples, is there a correlation between them and a parent that is a Resilient Disciple? You know, are they watching their parents who are on fire for Jesus? Do you see more kids that are following Christ because they've been watching their parents? Or is there any correlation? There's a huge correlation between what a parent does and the faith of their kids. And so, we should be encouraged by that as parents. And in this current context, because screens disciple, there's also never been a time when that correlation breaks down as much as it does today. So, just because you're a good Christian parent, it might have taken you a long way in the past.

It doesn't carry the same water that it did before. And that's, you know, I think if we looked at Daniel's life and the other exiles in Babylon, we'd know the story of those who survived, whose faith lasted. But I would bet that there were other young people along with Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, or three others that are sort of heroes of the faith. But there were probably others who became Babylonian. They lost their faith.

They lost their way. And that's part of the other thing. It's small comfort to us as parents. But I think we should realize that the culture is so hard.

It is so faith-depleting that even if you do all the right things, it may or may not work. And so, what do we do? We pray. We work hard.

We continue to believe the best about this generation. We try not to control our kids, because ultimately God is the one who's in charge. But recognizing that parenting is a lot, but it's not sufficient alone today to raise kids in this current cultural moment.

And you use a phrase, you know, being on fire for Jesus. And I think that the key is we have to be authentically following Jesus. And I think I know what you mean by that, but that could, to the wrong parent, mean the wrong thing, right?

What do you mean? Like they become some kind of super spiritual person, but it's a facade or it's shallow, right? One of the things that I found in actually doing these small groups with teenagers was how little they had a place to doubt or question on their spiritual journey. And so, some parents are so intense in their faith that they don't give kids the space to be able to ask the questions or to take some of the risks. And we think that, well, if my kid doubts this or if they question this that somehow they're weak or somehow I've done something wrong, rather than the fact that that's actually part of what produces resilience, because it's in that doubt that they're able to actually lean into their faith even more and become stronger. And the scary thing is, isn't it true if they can't express those doubts in their home, maybe, for whatever reason with their parents, and they can't express them really at church, where do they go? They go into a digital chat room and they express them and they get bad answers that they concur with.

They go to Google and type in their question and see what kind of responses they get. I'm wondering how many parents who started as resilient parents kind of lapsed into habitual Christian parents, and so what their kids see as they're growing up is less resilience and more habit, and they pick that up. I think this is where we've got to ask ourselves the question as parents, do our kids see a vital, daily, vibrant faith in us that's not just, well, yes, we go to church because that's who we are, but no, we go to church because we find life there, because we read our Bibles during the week. We actually spend time praying together.

This is important to us, not just something that's on our punch list. Well, I want to take it even a step further, because when my kids were born, I started interviewing moms and dads who I'd seen hand their faith off to their adult children. I started asking them lots of questions, found out that a lot of them didn't do devotions, right? They could never get that going, but what I did notice in their story was that their family was actually making disciples. They were light in dark places, and so what the kids were seeing was a demonstration of the power of God in front of them.

And they also were very vulnerable. You know, one of the things that's interesting, I get asked by parents a lot, should I tell my kids about my past? Should I tell my kids about? And I always say to not do that would deny the power and the glory of God's work to your kids, because they're seeing you maybe with 10 years of Christ or more working in you, and they're dealing with their sin in the same way that you passed it on to them, which before you is maybe earlier, and they need to see the faithfulness of God in your life, not the end result. They need to see that process of grace working itself out, and that's one of the things that we saw happen in a lot of these homes. We're always concerned as parents that if we say too much, we're going to somehow signal to our kids, it's okay for you to live a profligate life as a teenager, because it'll turn out in the end. But what I hear you saying is we can go into that with brokenness and weeping over the scars that were left in our life and say, but God redeemed me from that.

Our kids aren't going to go... Show them the power of God. Exactly, yeah. Yeah, I shared Sunday in my sermon, which was about money, and when my oldest son was probably 12 or 13, he walked into my office and I'm writing a check for my giving to God. You remember what a check was?

You know those things? And he looked over my shoulder and he said, his name's CJ, he's like, Dad, why would you give that? I know what he's thinking, I'm not getting toys, I'm not getting vacation, because that's where all the money... He had no idea.

We've always decided it would be the biggest check we write every month, a mortgage, a bug, everything else. So that's what he's looking at, and here's what hit me. Exodus 13, verse 14, I think it's 14, he says, here's what you tell your son when he asks you why. So here it is, and it says, remind him, we were once slaves, but God's mighty hand. And so I turned to CJ right then and I said, you don't know, but Dad used to be a bad man. And he's just looking at me, because he's only known that I'm perfect.

No, he's only known his life, but I just said this very quickly, and again, he's young, but I think it stuck. It was like, I used to be in bondage to the same things your grandpa was in bondage to. Alcohol, women, money, but God's mighty hand has saved us. Everything you've experienced in this life, CJ, God did that. And so it's a joy to say thank you to him. And I'm thinking of all the things he learned at church, all the things we did in youth group, none of them stuck.

That might have stuck. Yeah, well, giving is something really important that we do in private, but our kids don't see it. And that's one of those demonstrations of the power of God. We want to talk about what we can do as parents to help tilt the odds in our favor so that our kids wind up as resilient, not as habituals, and certainly not as prodigals or nomads, right? And your book is so helpful here, in fact, I'm going to be passing this out to parents of teens I know. It's available for any of our listeners who'd like to get a copy. Go to to order your copy of the book online. Our website, again, is, and the book is called Faith for Exiles by David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock.

You can also order by calling 1-800-FL-TODAY, 1-800-358-6329, that's 1-800-F as in family, L as in life, and then the word TODAY. You know, at Family Life, our mission is to effectively develop godly marriages and families. We're focused really on four things here, your walk with God, your commitment to your marriage covenant, living out your responsibilities in marriage as husbands and as wives, and then passing on a legacy of faith to the next generation.

Those are our marching orders. It's what we're all about here at Family Life. And when it comes to your marriage, we know a lot of couples have been experiencing stress and strain in their marriage because we've all been living through a time of disorientation and stress and strain in our world these days. So Family Life has resources to help you there. We've got the Good to Great Marriage resource that's available for free online. There are video courses, audio messages, a downloadable e-book, things you can go through, listen to together that will help rebuild a fractured foundation or help strengthen your existing foundation. It's all free, and when you sign up for the Take Your Marriage from Good to Great resource, you are automatically eligible to win a trip to Family Life where you can sit in on a recording session for Family Life Today and then have dinner with Dave and Ann Wilson. Somebody's going to win that. There's no purchase necessary.

The contest ends August 14th. There are restrictions that apply, and you can find the official rules online at slash goodcontest. So check all of that out and then enter regularly and get access to this Take Your Marriage from Good to Great resource. In addition, we'd love for everybody who's a Family Life Today listener to have a copy of my new book Love Like You Mean It. The book is all about the Bible's definition of love and how that differs from the cultural definition of love and how a marriage is actually strengthened and enriched when we pursue the right kind of love in marriage. That book is our gift to you this month when you donate to support this ministry. Your donation makes Family Life Today possible for hundreds of thousands of people who are connecting with us every day on radio, via podcast, on our website, through the resources we create. You make that possible every time you support this ministry. And again, we'd love to send you the book Love Like You Mean It as a thank you gift when you donate today.

Go to to make an online donation or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to support the ongoing work of Family Life Today. We appreciate you. And we hope you can be back with us again tomorrow when we'll talk more about how we build resilience in the lives of our children, our teenagers, and young adults so that they've got a faith that endures. Mark Matlock and David Kinnaman will join us tomorrow. Hope you can join us as well. I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I'm Bob Lapeen. We'll see you back next time for another edition of Family Life Today. Family Life Today is a production of Family Life of Little Rock, Arkansas, a crew ministry. Help for today. Hope for tomorrow.
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