Reading Time: 10 minutes That sand castle ain't gonna last. (Eric Chan, CC.)
Reading Time: 10 minutes

We’ve been talking lately about the 2011 Christian book You Lost Me, written by David Kinnaman of the Barna Group to help turn the tide of evangelical churn. To say the least, we haven’t been, um, impressed by it a whole lot. And the funny thing is, a lot of his fellow fundagelicals aren’t impressed either. It seems like for every fan of the guy’s ideas, he’s got a couple of detractors–all of whom have their own pet ideas about What the Big Problem Here Is and How to Fix It. With all the different and contradictory theories floating around, one could easily be forgiven for thinking we’re watching an alt-med conference in motion! I’ll show you some of ’em today.

That sand castle ain't gonna last. (Eric Chan, CC.)
That sand castle ain’t gonna last. (Eric Chan, CC.)

Idea 1: Get Rid of Youth Ministry. (OMG, Why Has No One Thought of This Before?!?)

Matt Marino of The Gospel Side, a fundagelical blog, thinks that David Kinnaman’s main point is not that the modern church became “fearful, anti-science, controlling, and hostile,” thus losing the next generation, but rather that youth ministry is structured in a way that doesn’t properly disciple young people, so they grow apart from their churches. Some kind of big shake-up or restructuring of youth programs constitutes the main reaction that I’m seeing in fundagelical Christianity.

What’s wacky is that discipleship is pretty much the entire point of the book. It’s a point that David Kinnaman hammers endlessly. He sees the fearful, anti-science, controlling, and hostile stuff as the end result of a lack of true connection between the current dominant older generation and the up-and-coming generation. He perceives those bad elements as a sort of warping or flipside of proper Christian values like discernment and protectiveness (and yes, we’ll definitely be coming around to that point soon), and thinks that if older Christians can re-establish that connection again, then that the bad stuff young people don’t like about the religion will figure itself out in time and become the flipside of the coin again and everything will be wonderful.

But Matt Marino doesn’t think any of those elements are true in the first place. He disputes the entire idea of fundagelicalism having repelled young people, calling this a “misshapen narrative.” (He’s also one of those guys who stoutly asserts that “your church isn’t supposed to ‘feed’ you,” so you can kinda guess what sort of person he is. Oh, and he also thinks he was a teen atheist before becoming a fundagelical minister. The hits never stop coming around here.)

Instead of looking at how modern Christianity repelled anybody, his entire focus is on how today’s kids and young people expect to be catered-to, entertained, coddled, amused, and treated like little movie stars. It’s their fault! Somehow, through the sorcery of an hour or two of youth ministry a week, young Christians are thus turned into self-absorbed and “infantilized” adults who can’t cope with the rigors of TRUE CHRISTIAN™ life. Then they grow up being all turned off to what Mr. Marino clearly believes are all those TRUE CHRISTIAN™ messages of hatred, exclusion, science denial, and bigotry.

Oh, and their parents aren’t indoctrinating them properly. I knew that would show up somewhere. There’s always a lot of blame for parents in this religion.

So the solution, to him, is very clear. The message is perfect, and Christian leaders and parents just need to teach it better.

Indeed, he very smugly informs us that he knows exactly how to fix evangelical churn: stop doing youth programs entirely in churches and integrate young people with older folks in the main sanctuary.

He insists that the big problem is that young people are so totally sequestered away from grown-up church that they never actually see what it’s like and they’re never properly discipled because of it. Also he thinks that Christian parents need to be more active in indoctrinating their kids. Yes! By getting young folks very involved with the main part of the church body and putting demands on them as early as possible, they’ll get discipled even better and can learn much more about the daily nuts-and-bolts of Christian living.

Egad! Really, this is so easy! Why didn’t anybody think of this?!?

Problem 1: Because That Doesn’t Work Either.

Oh, maybe because churches have already been doing what he suggests.

A couple of years ago I noted that a variety of churches have almost entirely eliminated their youth ministries with an eye toward curbing churn. They saw that their young people were leaving in droves and hoped that getting them more involved with the rest of the group would keep them once they got to adulthood. Matt Marino’s not the first person by a longshot to notice that all those screaming, hyper-excited bouncy teens at youth revivals don’t tend to translate at all into steady, reliable churchgoing adults as if by magic when they become independent.

Youth ministry in the first place was itself very likely a response to youth churn in churches, because what Matt Marino’s describing is a way-lots extension of the youth ministries I (and for that matter Mr. Captain) experienced as a child and teen, where young people would get a bit of Sunday School and then rejoin the rest of the congregation for an all-ages sermon.

The problem is, it doesn’t matter what churches do. Their young people still leave and they leave constantly.

We’ll ignore that at least one commenter on that very blog post–Mike Isch, timestamp Sept. 21 7:57am–said that he attended a church exactly like the ideal being described, and yet young people are leaving it anyway. Even Mike Isch’s own kids no longer attend church. We’ll ignore it, because Matt Marino sure does. When Pam (timestamp Sept 23, 5:24am) points out that she went to both kinds of churches, one with a huge youth program and one lacking such programs, and yet one of her kids drifted away from church nonetheless, he doesn’t really engage with her either on that point.

Lyndsey (Dec 11, 11:07am) and her children attend the regular service together, where she has discovered what many other parents have: that her kids “hate it, they don’t get it, and they don’t listen, but they are there.” I guess that’s about all a modern Christian parent can ask, but we all know exactly what will happen the moment her kids are old enough to refuse to attend.

And then Cindy weighed in a while later (July 16 2015, 7:27pm) to say that she was one of those folks who’d stepped away from church culture for many of the reasons that David Kinnaman cited in his book. She did not agree with Matt Marino’s assessment of youth ministry because she understands (where he might not) that people who are different ages and in different stages of life respond to different kinds of ministering. If you’re wondering, the blogger’s response was basically to tell her that she’d been part of a group of Christians who’d been doing Christianity all wrong.

Only one person brought up integrated services but didn’t explicitly state that their church’s youth were staying or leaving, and that was Little Sparrow way at the bottom (Aug 21, 2016, 12:38pm). I don’t think the way that person’s comment was worded indicates great success at that church in retaining young people. The two of them argued about whether or not there exist a significant number of churches that put young people exclusively in youth ministry services rather than ever letting them mingle with the adults in grown-up church.

Supernatural Dean isn't sureAnd at that point Matt Marino accidentally lets us know that he really has no idea how many churches do this because he’s apparently never, ever actually checked. Nor does he have the faintest idea how his idea tracks with retention and other metrics,  clearly, or he’d have mentioned it in the post. (How intellectually rigorous do you suppose he was as an “adolescent atheist” before he became a fundagelical?)

Every other person who mentioned belonging to a church that integrated services indicated that their church was losing tons of young people regardless. And the blogger either didn’t notice those comments or chose not to address them in a meaningful way.

I’m not even surprised.

Idea #2: More and Harder.

Over at another blog, John Seel at Evangelicals for Social Action kinda sees where David Kinnaman is coming from, but he wants to add a few ideas into the mix. He’s pretty sure he knows why young people leave his religion, and he knows how to fix it! And his is the second main approach that I see out of Christians.

(Isn’t Christianity a lucky religion to have so many thoughtful, studied leaders who have so many ideas?)

See, David Kinnaman breaks young people who get disenchanted with Christianity into three groups: Nomads, Exiles, and Prodigals. John Seel would add to this list “Daniels.” (Well, he suggests “Esthers” for the layyyyyydeeeez, since obviously a fundagelical can’t possibly call a woman by a Bible hero-dude’s name, but I’ll skip that because it is ridiculous.)

And what do Daniels do?

Why, they drill down on their religion’s devotions despite having some discomfort and tension around its teachings, like Daniel in the Old Testament myth did! He didn’t drift out of church or feel cast out by it. He stood right where he was to “remain orthodox in belief but aggressively empathetic to [his] non-believing friends” and “live on the knife-edge of tension.”

The opposite of tension.
The opposite of tension.

By “tension,” John Seel means the emotional tension of pretending to believe bullshit that isn’t true and the discomfort one feels when a Christian group’s culture war starts feeling really immoral and cruel, if you’re wondering. And his solution is apparently that the young people feeling this tension should just Daniel up and deal with it and forever after be okay with feeling like their entire religion is a sham.

He vaguely says that “this is an age for spiritual heroes,” which apparently means that TRUE CHRISTIANS™ (like himself) must crack down harder on their various culture wars to solve the crisis of evangelical churn. He doesn’t offer anything more specific than an exhortation for “holiness and devotion.” And then he paints a stirring picture of what Christianity would look like if its young people strode into the future with fire in their eyes and faith in their hearts, taking command of every dominion of modern life just like fundagelicals dream of happening.

Problem #2: For This Plan to Work, Magic Has to Be an Actual Thing That Actually Happens.

Unfortunately, I have to say “apparently” up there because John Seel does not tell us exactly how someone in such a “tense” situation should resolve their crisis of faith to become a Daniel. Literally, he describes this fourth category and then rushes into telling his readers exactly why Daniel is totally just like today’s young Christians, lovingly details what a religion full of young Daniels would be like, and then ends by lamely declaring that his god “will make it happen through us as we dwell with him in life appropriately disciplined in the spiritual Kingdom of God.”

That is Christianese for it’ll totally happen with Jesus magic.

He writes only one sentence about how “the task begins with you and me,” but doesn’t say what the task actually is or how it ought to be carried out, only that if it is correctly and properly completed then his deity will magically make all of their young people into Daniels so they can start taking over the world.

But his religion’s been around for 2000 years. I’d dare say that the exodus of young people is less than a generation old at this point, meaning that young people had no choice in the past but to put up with their tension around their elders’ and leaders’ culture wars and goofy-ass apologetics and science denial.

And with all of its advantages and perks, Christianity’s adherents were never anywhere close to the ideal he describes here.

They never were. The more fervent the Christians, the worse they behave and the worse the abuse they mete out to those they feel are beneath them. That’s been the case pretty much from the very beginning of the religion, and it only got worse as Christianity’s leaders got real power in their hands. Things only improved because power began to get removed from their hands–and that is when the exodus really began.

So whatever it is that John Seel thinks that Christians should do, chances are someone’s already doing it or already has done it. If he just means that they need to pray more, well, that’s definitely not going to help any more now than it did back when Christians had more of a stranglehold on Western culture. Counting on magic is not a good way to go through a crisis.

(Also of humorous note: he, like many fundagelicals, apparently thinks that atheism is seen as “hip, edgy, and cool” by everyone and their dog. Maybe he’d like to wear an atheist T-shirt for a week to see just how cool everyone in his community would think that is. Or go for a month telling everyone he knows that he’s deconverted and is an atheist now, and blog accordingly. I bet he’ll see how hip, edgy, and cool everyone thinks he is then!)

The Real Problem and the Real Solution.

Speaking plainly, the real problem here is that Christian leaders like John Seel and bloggers like Matt Marino can offer no reason whatsoever that young people should stay in the religion. And they don’t know what works or doesn’t work because they follow a religion in which cause and effect have been on non-speaking terms ever since their acrimonious divorce years ago. That’s why there’s a certain feeling of stabbing-in-the-dark about everything Christians are suggesting to fix their churn rate.

Indeed, the book came out in 2011. Matt Marino wrote his response in 2013. John Seel wrote his own in 2015.  And I’m writing this in 2017.  The trajectory of the religion, despite every single strategy that every single Christian leader has been trying for years if not decades, has been heading steadily downhill. I’ve seen absolutely no indications yet that anything Christians are doing is reversing that trend. They’re not even stabilizing their dwindling numbers.

But one thing that Christians are very good at is blaming everybody under the sun except those who deserve blame for their problems. You’ll find lots of that, as leaders address their religion’s remaining adherents. That’s all they’ve really got regarding the young people who’ve left, and those who are considering leaving. They are shouting at the fading footsteps of their youth:

If you leave, then we will think you’re weak and couldn’t hack TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. We will think your faith was shallow and that you didn’t understand Jesus like we do. We’ll blame you and your parents for your weakness and inability to walk in faith. Ya know, you could have been like Daniel, standing strong and tall and firm in the face of our hatred and hypocrisy, but OH NO, you had to leave and quit. Ring the bell on your way out, you losers.

It's maaaaaaagic!
It’s maaaaaaagic!

There was a time when that sort of emotional blackmail worked at least a little, I suspect, but that time is long past. The fake esteem and false respect of a hateful group of hypocrites, liars, and bigots just doesn’t go as far, currency-wise, as it might have gone once with those who have finally gotten well and truly disgusted with Christianity. Who’d have thought that gravy train would ever end?

Nor are Christians going to want to engage with the solution that actually might work to retain more of their youth. We’ll have to talk more about that later, because it’s likely going to be a big topic all by itself and I need to brush up on my sociology first and we’ve got a Rapture scare coming up next time as a fun diversion (there might even be diagrams, if we’re lucky), but for now I’ll just point and laugh at a group of people who seriously think that the only reason magic hasn’t worked to fix all their problems is that they haven’t been wishing hard enough yet.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments