John Fuller: It can be easy to get discouraged about an emerging generation of young people who don’t seem very interested in the Christian faith. But really, there’s a lot to be encouraged about. And you’ll hear more today on Focus on the Family as we have practical ideas to help you help your teen follow Jesus in this digital age. Your host is Focus president and author, Jim Daly. And I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: Hey, John, as a father of two young men, this topic of how young people and faith coalesce is so close to my heart because we’re living in it right now. Jean and I are diligently trying to raise our sons to be men after God’s own heart. Some days we feel like we’ve got a home run. Other days it’s a strikeout, right? And I think listeners feel the same way. We’re competing with a lot in the culture right now when it comes to the existence of God, a life for Him. What does it mean? And today we’re going to discuss some wonderful insights from two experts that will give you a parenting tool, many parenting tools to have discussions and to engage your young person in a way that I think will be super productive.
John: Yeah, there’s a lot of encouragement here. Our guests are David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock. And, uh, together, they’ve written a book called Faith for Exiles. It’s about how to follow Jesus in the current culture. And we have copies of that book at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast. David Kinnaman is the president of the Barna Group. He’s an author. He has surveyed some one-and-a-half million people over the years. Mark also works with the Barna Group and lives in Texas. He’s written a number of books and he’s spoken to over a million teenagers. So, these guys know what they’re talking about. And both are married and have young, adult children.
Jim: David, Mark, welcome to Focus.
Mr. David Kinnaman: Thanks. It’s nice to be here.
Jim: Good to have you.
Mr. Mark Matlock: Yeah, glad to be here.
Jim: Well, you know, I’m looking at the book and reading it and doing the prep for the program. And I’m excited because I am living this like I said in the beginning there. I mean, this is where we’re at. I know many of the listeners are there and it’s gonna be really interesting. Let – let’s start with this idea of “digital Babylon.” What does that mean? I think I get it. And here’s the other great thing, John. These principles are going to apply to all of us. I mean, I think we’re all living in a Babylon-type environment right now in our culture. So, whether you are aiming this at your children or yourself, this is how you grow Christ. But go for it. Digital Babylon.
David: Yeah. So, you know, the- the work of Barna is to try to understand culture. And so, these million and a half interviews, I feel worn out just hearing that number. Uh, but…
Jim: It’s a lot of people. (Laughter)
David: It’s a lot of people to survey and we’ve had telephone interviews and online interviews and focus groups and qualitative interviews. And so, we’re – we’re listening to culture to understand what’s happening. And, um, when we’ve done all this research, I try to then interpret that for families and leaders and parents. And for me, one of my favorite heroes of scripture is Daniel. And so, over the last 10 to 12 years, I’ve really focused in on the world that this emerging generation is living in and trying to compare that to the story of Daniel. And so, one day I was doing a radio interview and I said, “You know, it feels like this generation is that like – they’re like exiles in Babylon, like digital Babylon.” And so, that sort of stuck. It was about eight, nine years ago. And for me, that phrase digital Babylon, you know, Daniel learned the language and literature of Babylon for three years and more. He’s apprenticed. He becomes very influential in that place where faith is foreign. It’s on the sidelines, his – his faith in Yahweh. And so, digital Babylon in today’s context, is the power of screens, the power of these devices, the power of smartphones, apps that we use, and social media, and the connectedness of this generation that’s more connected than ever, but also less connected. They’re lonelier than ever.
David: So, really, it’s the story of the influence and trying to parent well in this digital age.
Jim: Yeah. Mark, as you’ve worked with Barna, and David, obviously, you’ve identified the idea that, you know, the consumption by young people of digital resources is, I mean, astronomically high. And, you know, as a parent of teens, it’s hard to get a grip on that, because they use it for entertainment, edutainment – you name it. Screens are just ubiquitous in the culture. What are the numbers like and what are we facing?
Mark: Well, when we look at, you know, kind of, what’s going on right now, we’ve seen how the Internet and social media has disrupted just about every single industry in every sector that’s out there. But the one question is, how is it really affected the church?
Mark: How is it really disrupted what’s going on there? And one of the things that we looked at as we were looking at the volume of screen hours compared to other experiences that young people were having, is that screens disciple. And I think when David and I type those two words next to each other, we were kind of like the weight of them was so heavy, because I realize as someone who’s led small groups at my church for, you know, a couple decades that this is what I’ve been facing is normally if a student was, you know, considering doubting God or His existence, they would come to me and say, “You know, I’ve got some questions about God”, but now they’re going to Google first. And they’re having a secret conversation with somebody else who’s discipling them. And then they’re coming to me and saying, “Hey, I don’t believe this.” And they’re coming out with a statement more than a question.
Mark: And they’ve already been formed. And, uh – and so, they’re coming and they’re arguing with me. And I remember this one exchange I had with this young man who I’d seen been born in my church. So, I knew he grew up, and I thought he’s – he’s arguing a little bit smarter than he really is capable of. So, somewhere he’s getting these ideas. And I Googled a couple ideas that he had shared with me. And sure enough, this website popped up “How to Debate A Theist.” And he had absorbed this information. And so, even though he was in my small group for months, he had been absorbing this to the point that he could argue it back at me. And so, by the time I enter into the picture, I have a lot of work to do to undo the discipleship that’s already been done away from the Lord.
David: Well, one of the things that is so fun about this book and this study – I’ve spent 12 years plus really studying the disconnection journeys. I did that project called “You Lost Me” that was really about the stories of a loss of faith.
David: And so, this project was really about the resilience of faith and the good news. And I actually think we’re here today to talk so much about what we love about millennials and GenZ. We’re – I’m 46. Mark’s 51. As you say, we’ve got – I’ve got about 21-year-old, a 19, 16. And – and it is true that there’s a lot of strong correlations with the more screen time challenges. But this is a message that’s more about just like how do you monitor the screen time or the apps they use? Because we are all going to live in a screen-driven age, whatever age. You know, when your kids are going to get their telephone or smartphone, when they’re going to get, you know, online, it’s a – it’s a big, bad world out there. And we have to figure out the way of strengthening faith so that they can live resilient lives, as Daniel did…
David: …In this current sort of experience. And so, yeah, it’s a really interesting – we’re, you know, so much an advocate for the sake of what this generation’s asking of the church and the deeper answers that they’re asking for from us.
Jim: Well, and that’s a nice setup, because the next question I wanted to ask you, just to provide kind of the personal bona fides that you bring, is the fact that you’ve done this with your kids. David, in your case, your daughter chose UC Berkeley. And I’m telling you, these are the kind of conversations going on in the home. I mean, Jean and I have had the same discussion. We want our boys to go to a great Christian, university. Biola, somewhere, where they could also get Biblical teaching. But that doesn’t guarantee anything. I mean, it’s nice and it maybe is predictive. But what happened in your case?
David: Well, it was a crazy set of discussions that my daughter and my family had her senior year – junior/senior year – and she applied at 27 schools or whatever it was.
Jim: And she’s a science whiz?
David: Yeah. Yeah, she’s really interested. She’s studying molecular cellular biology. I’m just amazed I remember those three words in order.
David: Uh, and, um – and so, she – she was really interested in a mainstream school. You know, I went to a Christian school, Christian university. My wife did. And, um – and so, we – we had we had this great discussion about what she wanted and where she was going. And, you know, like I had to realize in those discussions that it wasn’t my vision for her future. She had to live into, you know, God’s calling. We prayed. And I was so touched by the Lord in that period of time because my heart was completely, you know, “Berkeley is the last place you’re gonna go. You can – it can have that as a safety school on your list of 27 schools to apply to, but that’s not gonna be a place you go.: And over the course, about seven different things, the Lord really spoke to me, “This is a place for her to go.” And her faith – her faith has actually grown stronger in that environment. Now, my middle daughter is at Biola. And, you know, her faith is growing strong in that environment. But you’re right. It’s like just because they’re in the outward trappings of a Christian environment – just like Mark was saying a little bit ago – just because you’re in the building, in the youth group, in the Christian university, part of this message of digital Babylon is that screens are influencing us in deeper ways. They becoming our – our counselor, our best friend, our sex educator, our, you know, confidant. And so, we’ve got to recognize, that even if they’re in the building, even if they’re in the program, they may not actually be with us in terms of heart and mind and soul.
Jim: And it’s really important. It’s hard to let go and let God take over your child’s journey. Mark, you had a similar situation not long after David dropped his daughter at Berkley.
Mark: Yeah. Almost the same weekend.
Mark: He was in – he was dropping her off in the Bay Area and I was in New York City, in Manhattan, dropping my daughter off at Parsons School of Design, where she was going to study fashion. And, um, you know, we were – we were concerned like what will this world be like for her? You know, I’d grown up – I went to Biola as well before David did and I was wondering what kind of support system will be around her? How will that influence her? So, growing up in California, I wasn’t in the Bible Belt, but my daughter grew up in the Bible Belt. And so, I was a little worried, because she’d always kind of push back a little bit on things and was always asking deep questions about faith in God and His existence in light…
Jim: And that’s because you’re in Texas.
Mark: ‘Cause we’re in Texas, right?
Mark: We’re in Dallas. We’re in the Bible Belt.
Jim: Yeah. I just needed to mention that.
Mark: Yep. In Texas. And I’m going, “What’s it gonna be like when she goes to New York? Is this her hand on the door moment?” Because we’d been studying generations realizing there’s a generation that has their hand on the door of church. Is this my daughter’s hand on the door moment? And, um, what happened was really interesting, because in some ways, like David’s daughter, she for the first time saw the potent impact of having Christ in her life. She started seeing how light shines in dark places.
Jim: Because of the discrepancy, right?
Mark: Because of the distinction. Yeah. She was having a hard time seeing in the Bible Belt, frankly.
Mark: And, uh, she was kind of like going, “Wow, you know, what’s going on there?” And I remember being at (unintelligible) Academy talking to some seniors and there’s literally a wall around that school and I said, “What is it like, you know, growing up and going to school inside a wall?” And one of the seniors told me, “It’s like being a candle in a well-lit room.”
Mark: And that image really stayed with me. This idea that when we’re around people of faith all the time, sometimes we don’t see how impacting Christ is in our life and the world around us. So, for my daughter, this really started a incredible journey, an awareness of just how deep her faith went and how effective it was in life. So…
Jim: That’s good.
Jim: And we’re gonna get into the research in just a moment.
John: Yeah and the book we’re talking about is called Faith for Exiles. We’ve got that at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast. Or call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY. And while you’re at the website, be sure to learn more about Bring Your Bible to School day happening this Thursday, October 1st. We’ve got all the info right there for you about encouraging your teen in their faith through that event.
Jim: Gentlemen, in your research, you identified four different Christian exile types. Let’s get into it. What were those for and what do they mean?
David: Yeah. So, as researchers, we love to put people into buckets.
David: We don’t call those people the names in the research, but we use survey data to help us understand a person’s spiritual journey. So, it’s – it’s a fun job to try to really understand where someone is at based on not just are they in the building, in the church building, but, you know, can we understand their – their heart set, their mindset and their beliefs. So, I’ve been studying, you know, religion in America for 25 years and doing this with, uh – with – with the Barna Group and so, with – with young adults, we – we were try to understand the spiritual journeys of people who grew up Christian. And so, we interviewed 18- to 29-year-olds and we asked them to reflect back on their teenage years and where they were today. And so, we came up with four buckets, four categories. The first group are the “resilient disciples” and that represents one in 10 young people. And these were people that believe in the authority of Scripture. They believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus. And they want their faith to matter in the world. And so, that was our definition of a resilient disciple. And that’s, you know, what we’re here really talking about…
Mark: They’re actively engage in the church as well. That was another.
David: That’s right.
Jim: And that’s – that’s only 10%?
David: Of people who grew up Christian and raised teenagers. That – which is – should be a really sobering, you know…
David: …Finding for us, because it really tells us this is not easy, as Jesus says. You know, it’s sort of “easier for camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” But we could also talk – we’d sort of paraphrase that – it’s easier for a young person to grow up as Christian and then, sort of, walk away from faith then to really have resilient faith today.
David: And so, that was the first group and most of our work in this project was understanding what makes for resilience. So, that’s the first group.
Jim: The attributes of that group.
David: That’s right.
Jim: Yeah. I get that. What are the other three?
David: The second group was “habitual churchgoers” and that rep…
Jim: That sounds bad. But what are you driving at?
David: Well, these are people that are active in faith. They attend church. They call themselves Christians. They love Jesus. But there are other factors about their faith are much diminished. They don’t have the same orthodoxy of beliefs. They’re really – they’re sort of just like “Christian in churchgoing only.”
Jim: Is that often the phrase of being a societal Christian, a social Christian?
David: I think so. And I think this pandemic is really affecting a lot of these habitual Christians who are – who are going to church out of habitual reasons, but they’re not – they’re not really deep in the Word. They’re not sort of people of prayer. They’re not engaged in Christian community outside of it. So, that represents about 38% of young people.
Jim: Yeah. That’s sobering.
Mark: But what’s great about that is we have 38% that are in the church within reach. But if we can have those conversations, if we can disciple them in this area of resilience in digital Babylon – realizing and engaged that – they’re within reach, you know? So, that’s the encouraging part of all of that.
Jim: And again, these are 18- to 29-year-olds.
Mark: 18- to 29-year-olds.
Jim: Just to make sure the audience hears that.
Jim: Alright. What’s the third one?
David: The third group is what we called “nomads.” And this is the individuals who say, “Yeah. I’m still a Christian.” They just never show up in a church. That would have been like, Mark, talking about this person who’s got their hand on the door. They have walked through that door. They still think fondly about Jesus. They sort of say they’re, you know, aligned to Jesus, but they’re – they’re really cultural Christians.
David: And then the final group are what we call “prodigals.” So, the final group of what we call prodigals and fascinating is 22%, one in five 18- to 29-year-olds – twice as large as the young resilients – say they’re no longer Christian. Now, here’s a fascinating…
Mark: “At one time identified as a Christian and I no longer do.”
Jim: Yeah. I’ve got the questions lined up, so go for it.
David: Yeah. Well, it’s fascinating, because 10 years ago when we did the “You Lost Me” project, that number was only 11%.
David: And so, over a decade when Smartphone’s rise, when it’s the gospel according to YouTube, you’ve got all these pressures. You’ve got this huge disaffection, a huge loss of faith, among this generation. So the – the people who have lost their faith is growing, to 22% today, a one in five. Whereas sort of contrast that, the 10% who are the most resilient in their faith.
Jim: What – in that group – you know, again, I’m speaking to parents, and I really want them to be equipped to maybe even change their strategy about how to engage their young people spiritually. But what were the, kind of, top one or two reasons for that disaffection, that group in the prodigals. What did they say?
David: Well, it’s a range of different reasons. “The church is anti-science.” “The church is repressive.” “The church is judgmental.” “It’s hypocritical.” We see a huge correlation to – and I want to talk about this really just sensitively and humbly – like self-righteous. Christianity where we make Jesus all about following rules and we make – you know, it’s like Jesus is just as concerned with our self-righteousness as He is in an unrighteousness in the world.
Jim: Right. There’s two prodigals.
Jim: The older brother is also a prodigal.
David: That’s exactly right.
David: And so, um, we see a lot of rejection of that kind of, you know, older brother Christianity in the stories of these people. And I just want to sort of say to parents and listeners who are going through that, you know, we’ve interviewed people. It’s a heartbreaking piece, but there’s also hope, um, and there is this real sense of I’ve got this sort of sacred job of listening to people who’ve lost their faith. And I consider that a real privilege because I respect and honor every person’s story. Of course, I don’t agree with the spiritual conclusions that they’ve come to. But – but I think to parents who just – we grasp on so tightly to the faith of our children because we think it reflects on us. But, you know, it’s a really important realization in this data that, you know, there are a lot of people lose their faith and God still cares about them. You can still pray for them. You can still ask the Lord for wisdom about how to speak to them about spiritual things. But it’s also like, it’s okay to let the Holy Spirit, do, you know, It’s work in – in the lives of our children.
David: Even when they’ve lost their faith.
Jim: And David and Mark, you know what’s so difficult with that as parents, and I think particularly Christian parents – this issue of control is huge. And we go for behavioral control and we think we achieve it if we’re unaware and we believe they’re behaving well. You know, they’re not promiscuous sexually. They’re not doing drugs. They’re not drinking alcohol, et cetera. And we kind of check the box. “Oh, don’t we have good kids?”
Mark: Well, that can actually be like one of the – one of the interesting things in “You Lost Me” when you’re looking at these prodigals, is that there were some prodigals that were injured by the church. They were hurt, wounded, maybe some type of sexual or spiritual abuse, or something of that nature. But then there’s another group that are just like – it’s kind of like an air of polite Atheism. Where it’s like, “I’ve just come to the conclusion that I don’t believe any of this.” And a lot of them even wait until they’re, um, you know – they graduate, because they don’t want to upset their moms and dads, because they respect them so much.
Jim: So, they’re being polite.
Mark: They’re being polite. And I think that’s a unique thing, because as David mentions, is anti-science and some of these things. They’re looking at facts. They’re looking at information and they’re saying, “This just doesn’t add up to me.” And it may be that there are ways that we express or understand our faith where we haven’t properly integrated those things. And so, we need to be looking for those other men and women that have integrated those things that can help them on their way. I’ve had incredible conversations with teenagers that were ready to leave the door – they were going into a STEM related field – science, technology, engineering, math. And they were like, you know, “Christianity doesn’t add up.” I sat down with them, opened up their mind to the idea that maybe science was more in cahoots with the Bible than they realized, right?
Jim: Right. Right.
Mark: And in – in that conversation, turned them back into a conversation about how the Lord, you know, would be involved in their life if they followed in this path. So, I think that’s some of what we have to look for as parents is, we may not – our kids may be thinking about their faith on a level that we’re not. And we need to be figuring out where are those men and women we can bring into their life to help with that.
Jim: Okay, look, we’ve set the groundwork. We’re just at the end of the program here. I want to mention the five practices that those 10% – that resilient disciples possess. And we’re only going to have time to cover one of the five today. But what are the five, and what is the first one in more detail?
Mark: So, the five themes that we found that were true of resilient disciples, and when you look at these five themes compared to the other profiles, there’s a huge difference. There’s a huge gap between them. It’s not just a minor difference, like…
Jim: Right. Significant.
Mark: …It’s significant. And it really is remarkable, especially between the habituals and the and the resilients, because they’re going to church with about the same frequency, but they’re having really different experiences.
Mark: So, the first one is experiencing Jesus. The second is meaningful relationships. The third is cultural discernment. The fourth is vocational discipleship. And the fifth is living in countercultural mission.
Mark: So, those are the five kinds of practices that we saw in those resilients.
Jim: Yeah. And let’s get into the first one. Let’s – experiencing Jesus. What does that mean to those 10%?
David: Well, and just to put a little coda to the description there is that what we learn is that, you know, trying to develop resilience isn’t as simple as do these three or four things.
David: But it’s – it’s almost like guidelines and guardrails. These five themes, the more of it you do, the more resilient your faith is.
Jim: Yeah, this is brilliant.
David: At the very beginning of the program, you sort of said, you know, this isn’t just about disabling young people – it is that – but it’s also about how we can be more resilient in our own digital lives and our discipleship with Jesus. So, experiencing Jesus. As a researcher, one of the most remarkable facts that most people overlook is that seven out of 10 Americans say they’ve made a commitment to Jesus that is still important in their life. And it’s just – I remember just absolutely stumbling on that data in my early years at Barna. And so, I’ve been on a 25-year quest to understand, like, what does it really mean to follow Jesus when virtually everyone, seven out of 10 Americans, say they do?
David: And so, what we find in this study is this idea of clearing the religious clutter. Um, here are things that we do that have sort of lost their meaning or have lost their meaning in the lives of the discipleship process that we’re intending to have for people. So, how do we help people root their identity? Not in, you know, their gender or they’re – the team that they root for, or their favorite outdoor brand, but in – in who Jesus is and what He says about us. And so, we find that’s actually a really rare thing. And most people say, “Yeah, I’ve got the Jesus T-shirt, but I don’t actually really love Him. I don’t hear Him speak to me in a real and personal way.” So, you know, one great example of how we as parents and others can influence this next generation is just asking the Lord to speak to us and demonstrating this notion of our lives, being open to the Lord’s leading. And I, you know, tell the story of Emily and I. was like, “You’re not going to UC Berkeley. You’re not going to UC Berkeley.” And it was like, “Okay. Well, let’s just ask God what He thinks.” And so…
John: Was that her saying that?
David: Yeah. Exactly.
Jim: (Laughter) I love it.
David: So – so, you know, over a period of several weeks, I was like, “Okay, Lord, I’m going to really ask You for Your wisdom.” And there were like seven things that were really miraculous as the Lord showed me and I just wept when I sort of was like, “This is actually where God wants my daughter to go.” And so, we have to demonstrate that, um, an actual trust that a real God is speaking to us as parents. And it’s not about controlling our kids, about, you know, influencing them towards Jesus. But that might actually be about more influencing us as their parents…
David: …Than it is about them. So, this idea of allowing God to speak into our lives, that’s a good example of experiencing Jesus.
Jim: Well, I want to jump in, because what it demonstrates is humility, which the Scriptures so precise on that pride kills us in so many endeavors, whether it’s our business or vocational efforts or our parenting. And what a beautiful example as a parent of being humble and listening to Emily, your child, say, “Dad, let’s – let’s pray about it. Let’s talk to the Lord about it and see if He agrees that it’d be okay for me to go to Berkeley.” I mean, that – I could – there’s two ways you go at that point. You either humble yourself or you dig in with prideful parenting and say, “No. I know what’s best for you. I know that’s not going to be a good environment. You’re not going to go.” And the Lord’s saying, “Whoa. Whoa. Backup. Do you trust Me?”
David: And I think about the faithful decision we made then, because it was not easy, and dropping off Emily at school. And, you know, she’s amazing kid. But it’s, uh, uh – more than a kid. She’s a young lady now and I just admire her so much.
David: But I think about the week before we dropped her off. And a little bit of a personal story for us is that my wife’s been struggling with brain cancer for three years and – and she had just come through some surgeries that summer, was really having a hard time keeping track of just details…
David: …And – and the most lucid moment that my wife had was praying for her daughter to go to Berkeley…
David: …The weekend before we dropped her off during that stretch of time. And so, it’s pretty amazing the way God’s faithfulness shows up when we do choose to allow Him to speak into our lives and then we’re obedient to that.
Jim: Well, I so appreciate that vulnerability, David, and both you and Mark have done a wonderful job with this book, Faith for Exiles. Again, it’s aimed for young people, but all of us, people of all ages can benefit from the content in here. And we’ve covered one of those five attributes of the resilient Christian. We’re going to come back next time if you guys are willing and cover the other four. But I love the beginning. Number one is that intimacy with Jesus and what does that mean? What a great start to the discussion. And, uh, folks, if you want a copy of this book, there’s a couple of ways to do that. One, order it from Focus on the Family. If you can make a gift on a monthly basis, we’ll send you a copy as our way of saying thank you. If that’s too much, and I get that, if you can make a one-time gift of any amount, we’ll send it to you. And again, you know, we are a Christian ministry. If you need the book and you can’t afford it, we will get it to you. Just let us know. We’re gonna trust that others in the community of believers will cover the cost of that. So, I think you hear my heart there. I believe in this content so much. I want to get it into your hands. It’s that important. And if you can join us in ministry even better.
John: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Donate as you can and get the book when you call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY. Or stop by focusonthefamily.com/broadcast.
Jim: David and Mark, again, thanks for being with us. And I look forward to our conversation next time. .
David: Absolutely. Our pleasure.
Mark: Looking forward to it.
John: And I know our listeners are looking forward to the conversation as well. And, certainly, as we close, there’s been a lot happening in the last couple of days to affect the elections on November 3rd. We’ll be talking about some of that on Wednesday with our special guests, John Stonestreet and Tim Goeglein. They’ll offer reminders about the importance of letting your voice be heard, of you making sure you’re an informed voter. That’s Wednesday. And, uh, for now on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for joining us today for Focus on the Family. I’m John Fuller inviting you back tomorrow as we once more help you and your family thrive in Christ.