Many Christians in America feel alienated from their culture. David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock explain why when they describe changes happening in North America and elsewhere as a transition from “from faith at the center to faith at the margins.” Moving from the cultural center to the cultural margin is a profoundly disconcerting experience.
No wonder, then, that so many of us look to Biblical stories about the Babylonian exile to formulate our response to an increasingly post-Christian America. This includes Kinnaman and Matlock, whose new book is titled, Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon. Kinnaman is president of Barna Group, a leading research company; Matlock is principal of WisdomWorks, a leadership consulting firm.
According to them, digital Babylon describes America’s “accelerated, complex culture that is marked by phenomenal access, profound alienation, and a crisis of authority.” This definition draws on Kinnaman’s earlier book, You Lost Me, as well as subsequent Barna research. The earlier book asked why young adults raised in church were leaving the faith. Faith in Exile asks why they’re staying.
Kinnaman and Matlock focus on the experience of young Americans, ages 18 to 29, who grew up Christian. They offer a fourfold typology of these young adults:
- Prodigals “do not currently identify as Christian” (22 percent of total);
- Nomads “identify as Christian but have not attended church during the past month” (30 percent);
- Habitual Churchgoers “describe themselves as Christian and…have attended church at least once in the past month, yet do not meet foundational core beliefs or behaviors associated with being an intentional, engaged disciple” (38 percent); and
- Resilient Disciples are “Christ followers who (1) attend church at least monthly and engage with their church more than just attending worship services; (2) trust firmly in the authority of the Bible; (3) are committed to Jesus personally and affirm he was crucified and raised form the dead to conquer sin and death; and (4) express desire to transform the broader society as an outcome of their faith.”
The authors believe that the goal of a church’s discipleship ministry today is “to develop Jesus followers who are resiliently faithful in the face of cultural coercion and who live a vibrant life in the Spirit.” In other words, the goal is to develop resilient disciples.
Faith in Exiles drills down on the quantitative and qualitative data that underlies Barna’s research and identifies five practices that characterize resilient disciples. They are:
- To form a resilient identity, experience intimacy with Jesus.
- Ina complex and anxious age, develop the muscles of cultural discernment.
- When isolation and mistrust are the norms, forge meaningful, intergenerational relationship.
- To ground and motivate an ambitious generation, train for vocational discipleship.
- Curb entitlement and self-centered tendencies by engaging in countercultural mission.
Though the five practices emerged from Barna’s research, Kinnaman and Matlock show they are consistent with Scripture and illustrate them with anecdotes from everyday life.
As a parent and as a Christian minister, these five practices resonate with my own experiences and goals. One of the tendencies I have noticed among my fellow Christians is a tendency to retreat behind the barriers of safe, institutional Christianity. Somewhat ironically, the most vibrant, effective Christians I know resist this tendency. They are “in” the world, but not “of” it, to borrow language from Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer in John 17:16, 18. If our children or church members never venture beyond the four walls of the Church, they will never develop the spiritual, intellectual, and missional muscles that Christ exercised and expects His followers to develop.
So, who should read this book? Pastors and other church leaders, of course, who are charged by Jesus Christ to “make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). I also think Christian parents could benefit from reading the book, however. I know I have.
David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock, Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2019).
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