Barna: 'Resilient' young Christians deepening faith amid growing number of church dropouts

Photo: Unsplash/Devin Avery
Photo: Unsplash/Devin Avery

New research from Barna indicates that while a higher percentage of young people are dropping out of church, the faith of those who stay is resilient in remarkable ways.

Barna President David Kinnaman's new book, Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in a Digital Babylon, shows that — just as his 2011 book, You Lost Me, explained — young people dropping out of church remains a problem.

In fact, the most current data reveals that the dropout rate has grown from 59% to 64% among people ages 18 to 29, after having been actively involved in church during their childhood and youth.

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Together with co-author Mark Matlock, Kinnaman engages the 10% of young believers they call "resilient disciples."

These approximately 4 million people continue to follow Jesus faithfully and keep showing up despite the tensions of contemporary culture, he explains in the book.

Such Christians "are concerned for and thoughtful about how their faith in Christ intersects meaningfully and missionally with the world around them," and cite a variety of reasons for their resilience.

Over 90% of those Kinnaman and Matlock call resilient disciples say they want others to see Jesus reflected in their lives through their words and actions; that worship is a way of life and not just an event; and they want to honor God with their gifts and talents.

The overwhelming majority of these Christians, two-thirds or more, also say that following Christ excites them and Jesus speaks to them in a way that is relevant to their lives. These same believers also said: they see the church as a place where they feel they belong; their churches do a good job equipping them on how to live out their faith in the workplace; and they regularly receive wisdom there for living faithfully in a secular world.

“These sisters and brothers are young adults who model the outcomes hoped for by the broader community of faith,” Kinnaman said.

“By getting to know the resilient disciples, we can find out what formation experiences and relationships are most effective for growing resilient faith in exile.”

The authors obtained the data for their new book through qualitative interviews with 18- to 29-year-olds who were raised Christians. For the 2011 book, 1,296 U.S. adults in that same age bracket, both current and former Christians, were surveyed.

These resilient Christians are not often noticed or remain hidden amid the plethora of stories about the rise of "nones," those who no longer identify or affiliate with any particular religious tradition. Recent data from firms like Pew Research and Gallup indicate that the nones are a growing portion of the population, many of whom formerly identified with some branch of Christianity.

Both in the latest CP podcast and in his book, The Myth of the Dying Church, author Glenn Stanton stressed that Christians ought to stop lending credence to the narrative that the church is declining and instead learn about the health of the church in the United States and around the world.

What has really changed, he stressed, is the way people identify, with the contrast being more stark than in previous decades. Yet all the while, sincere Christian convictions are holding steady, he said of the relevant data on the subject.

"The nones do not represent a growing population of unbelief. The change itself is in the way they categorize themselves," he told CP.

"Now because of the way some of the questions are being asked, they are now simply being more honest about what they never had in the first place. This is not a shift in belief or practice; it's just a shift in identity."

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