Younger generations today have the unique challenge of learning to follow Jesus in a world that has been transformed by digital technology. Based on years of research with Millennials and Gen Z, David discusses the unique challenges young people face today as well as offers some practical wisdom for helping disciple them to follow Jesus. Sean and Scott ask David questions from his latest book Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon.




More About Our Guest

Portrait of David Kinnaman

David Kinnaman is the co-author of unChristian, You Lost Me, and Good Faith. He is the president of the Barna Group and a graduate of Biola University. Since 1995, David has directed interviews with more than one million individuals and overseen hundreds of US and global research studies.



Episode Transcript

Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.

Scott Rae: And I'm your cohost, Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics, also at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.

Sean McDowell: Today we have a guest that many in our audience will recognize right away. He's the President of the Barna Research Group. David Kinnaman is the author of a number of really important and influential cultural books such as, unChristian, You Lost Me, Good Faith, and the most recent book we're going to talk about today, Faith for Exiles. But David loves Biola. He is on our board and actually David, you and I went to school at the same time and lived on the same floor, so it's cool to have that history together and I'm just thrilled about your recent book that we get to talk about today, so thanks for coming on.

David Kinnaman: Yeah, thanks Sean. I absolutely remember being on the floor with you, and this energetic basketball playing, sort of apologist in training. And with Dr. Rae, I still need to call you Dr. Rae because-

Scott Rae: No, you don't.

David Kinnaman: ... you were so kind to go to lunch and dinner and different things when I was a student at Biola. So now I'm grateful to count you both as friends, in addition to our background as Biola people back in the day,

Sean McDowell: Well, your recent book, Faith for Exiles, of course, it's just so research-based and practical because what you do at the Barna Group, and have written it with Mark Matlock, another Biola. But let me just jump in. The title again is, Faith for Exiles. Can you explain to us what you mean by an exile, why you title it this way and kind of why you wrote this book at this moment? What is your research showing?

David Kinnaman: I've spent the last 12 years focusing on the faith of this emerging generation, that is millennials, Generation Z, sort of younger than 36, 37, sort of what's happening in the faith lives of teenagers and 20 somethings, and why do they stick with faith? Why do they not stick with faith or with the church? And so that's been a big theme for me, just personally feel called to that to help energize and equip a new generation of leaders and thinkers about what the church is becoming.

I've felt for a long time, based on the research, we know a huge percentage of young people who grow up as Christian. The current number is 63% who either walk away from their faith and they become a prodigal, or they walk away from active church engagement. They were at one point pretty active or they became a Christian through some means, whether a family or church experience as a teenager, as a young person, and then they ended up leaving it on the shelf.

And so there was a third group of people, the prodigals lose her faith, the nomads walk away from church. There was a third group of people called exiles that we discovered in the research, who were living in some way, they wanted to see their faith bigger than a Sunday morning experience or a youth group experience. They believe that Jesus was alive in the world and they want to see their faith active in the world.

So my titling this book, Faith for Exiles was really about trying to tell the story of these young, exemplar Christians, people that are growing in their faith, that are resiliently faithful, that are despite the pressures of our increasingly post-Christian society, that are actually growing in faith and why that was. We wanted to turn our attention on those that are growing, kind of like Daniel did in the Old Testament.

That's really the heart behind it, and I've become increasingly convinced that one of the things that the American church is missing, is lost sight of, is this theology of exile, that we are an exilic community. That is not just from the Old Testament, but First Peter describes this, a lot of the writings of Paul, if you look at the letters to the church in Revelation where you've got sort of this sense of what does it mean to be an exilic community, to be faithful in the margins. That to me, is really the vision for this book is to empower and equip young people especially, but those of us who support them in their faith journey, to be faithful as exiles where God has called them.

Scott Rae: David, as I read through your book and there were a number of things that just jumped out at me, phrases that you used to describe culture and what's going on with this generation. You used the term digital Babylon to describe the environment that we're exiled in today. And closely connected to that is your phrase, you used the term, screens disciple. I think those two things are somewhat related. What do you mean by the terms, the digital Babylon and the idea that screens disciple people?

David Kinnaman: Yeah, they are closely related ideas. After I did the book called, You Lost Me, in 2011, I was trying to describe in a quick phrase, the current pressures that this generation is facing. I think I was doing an interview and I said, "It was sort of like digital Babylon," and that phrase kind of stuck with me, got sort of immediate traction with the interview. But also it struck with me as a way of describing, we're living in a technology-driven, screen-oriented, smartphones, tablets, computers, the technological age, sort of like the printing press changes everything about how institutions function, how the church conveys knowledge. The music industry was changed fundamentally through digital piracy. Education is changing fundamentally as people can learn what they want, when they want, at a price they want through YouTube and Khan Academy and other things.

Digital Babylon is my description of the new context of sort of knowledge of institutions, that technology is such a disruptive force, many times for good but oftentimes for sort of neutral or negative consequences like access to pornography as an example of the effects of digital Babylon. At no time in human history have we had the sheer access to pornography that we have today. Our company Barna, we worked with Josh McDowell, your dad, Sean, to work through... I'm glad I clarified that that's your dad. We worked with your dad on this pornography study, The Porn Phenomenon, and it's not that pornography is new, that's as old as humanity, but the access to pornography is new. Access to thinking about the world in a new way, I call it the gospel according to YouTube, and so that is why we call it screens disciple. That's the conclusion you might draw if the context is different.

There's nothing new under the sun as Ecclesiastics teaches, but there is changes in culture and technology and to be faithful with that, we must appropriately and biblically call it what it is. I think digital Babylon is a helpful concept and the implication is that screens disciple in ways that we can't even fully fathom today and that's really the thesis of this project is; what does it look like for us to disciple, and what can we learn from those young Christians 18 to 29, who are actually thriving in their faith today despite those pressures? What can we learn from that? What are the best practices that help us to really lean into what God is doing in our time today, in our current digital context?

Sean McDowell: I think very helpfully in your book, and I've heard you make this point in other context as well, is that you contrast digital Babylon with faith in Jerusalem. What is that context that you're drawing and how differently does it mean to disciple in digital Babylon than what you mean by, say Jerusalem?

David Kinnaman: Well, again, these are things I've been thinking and ruminating on now for close to a decade. I'm not a theologian, I'm a social researcher, but it's been helpful to have great input from people like yourselves and others who've helped me think about this. My observation of it, sort of sociologically, is that we live in a very Christianized context. Most Americans consider themselves to be Christian, the vast majority of Americans. This is a mind-boggling statistic, but nearly 7 out of 10 Americans, I believe the current number is 68% of Americans, say they've made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ, that is still important in their life. And that to me is sort of this remnant of a Jerusalem-like, and when I say Jerusalem, I mean that there are cultures and times in the biblical record where God's people are at the center of the story. David is on the throne or the Kings of Israel are on the throne, and Jerusalem is the capital and sort of everyone can acknowledge Yahweh as the creator God, the one true God, and everything sort of flows from that.

That doesn't mean that the times are perfect. As we see in scripture, there are particular challenges that come even when, and maybe especially when, God's people are in the majority. And then you have other periods of time where it's Babylon, where it's exile, where it's the City of Man, where God's people are in the margins, where they actually don't have as much cultural influence as they might like.

Actually, America is a very unique country because we are actually both Christianized and Jerusalem-like, but we're also increasingly post-Christian, and the numbers show that there's increasing numbers of atheists among young adults. We're in a fast set of changes culturally, to a more Babylon, less Christianized context. I just think that's a helpful comparison. Really, if you were to count the stories in scripture are really just like the number of books, the 66 books in the Bible, more of those books were written to God's people in and around a period when they were in exile or where they were in the margins. Certainly almost all the New Testament is in a context where we are exiles, we're sojourners.

First Peter is talking about, even referencing Babylon throughout scripture, is this the sense in which we must remember our roots as people of exile. So I think that's a really fascinating idea that the majority of the Christian scriptures today are actually written to and about what it means to be faithful in an exile-like experience, or at least they came from that. They originated in that context.

Unfortunately, I think what has happened in America for American Christianity is that we've assumed that we are actually in the majority. I think for those of us who are evangelicals, which is only six or seven percent of the US population. There are differences of opinion about how you might measure that. But for those of us at Biola and other communities of evangelical faith, we have felt like we're in the margins. We understand this idea of exile even in a largely Christianized context because we might all conclude that those people, they're really cultural Christians and not real-life, born again believers. They haven't really understood the implications of their faith.

But that to me is so important for us today is, how do we realize that this generation isn't growing up and they don't want to have a Christianized context? They want to live, they want to see the scriptures meaningfully applied in the context of the faith community, in the Christian community, which it may or may not apply to everyone in our culture. That's a huge and controversial idea that these younger Christians say, "Maybe sexual ethics isn't something we should have the whole country agree to. We should at least agree to what a sexual ethic is within our churches first, and live out that ethic within that context first and foremost." So those are the kinds of tensions that I think we see between a Jerusalem and a Babylon mindset.

Scott Rae: David, let's look at your book, the Faith for Exiles, from a 35,000-foot level. Your subtitle is, There are Five Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon. Briefly summarize, what are those five things that are characteristic of this group that you refer to as exiles, who are growing, thriving, doing well in their faith?

David Kinnaman: Just to back up a little bit and say that part of the thesis behind the work that we did is to interview the 10%. We have sort of a definition of a resilient disciple. They're engaged in the church. They affirm and trust the authority of the Bible. They're committed to Jesus personally, they affirmed his death and resurrection, they express their faith. They want their faith to actually impact a larger culture, not just like Sunday morning faith. Those are resilient disciples and only 10% of those who are raised as Christian or who experienced any kind of serious Christian kind of event become resilient exiles. And so then what we did as researchers, we interviewed nearly 1,500 people and we backed our way into the five practices that defined those resilient disciples, like what made them different?

Research is never causal, we can't say, "Well this is exactly the reason." It's not an experiment where you give a certain person a drug and the other control group, they don't get a drug. But we can at least look at correlations. We found, to your question Scott, of these five sort of patterns, these practices, an intimacy with Jesus, number one, that these resilient disciples, they really believe, for example, that Jesus speaks, that he communicates to them, they listen for his voice, they believe the Bible communicates God's intent for the world.

Second, is a cultural discernment. They believe that the Bible actually relates to their life, and how it applies to every aspect of their life from their money, and their technology use, and their sexuality, and all sorts of things. So, there's a sense of culturally-wise. They have meaningful relationships within the church. They actually want to be around other Christians, and they want to emulate the lives of older Christians. They like being around other Christians. It's almost like it gets etched into their limbic system, to be a Christian is like, it goes deep, it goes to a bone marrow kind of level.

The third thing is counterculture... The fourth thing is counter-cultural mission. They actually believe they want to live differently from the world's norms. And then fifth, that vocational discipleship, they actually believe their life, they have a calling. It may or may not be in a church, like serving in a church, but they really believe that their work matters to God and that they're called into a particular type of work.

Those are the five practices that we saw in the research that seem to make for a resilient faith, and the implications are really huge. I mean, what would this look like for us as church leaders, as institutional leaders, and educators, like at Biola, even as parents, as young leaders ourselves? It is a big thesis of the project. How do we lean into those five practices; hearing from Jesus, practicing cultural discernment, growing in meaningful and accountable relationships, being vocationally discipled, and having a counter-cultural mission? Could Biola's community embody those five practices more? Could our families embody those five practices more? Could our churches create metrics for success around youth ministry and children's ministry, that we say, "It's not just whether you're here for Vacation Bible School, or whether you show up for youth group, or whether you're engaged in the program, but does our program, does our preaching, does our whole way of life lift those five practices up?"

We saw that kind of evidence over and over, where there was a set of intentional decisions that leaders make to help increase the impact of those five practices. And so that was so fun to begin to realize and some practical steps that we can take to really increase the quality of the discipleship outcomes that we're having in our families and in our churches.

Sean McDowell: Now, I want to ask you a specific question about practice number one. But I found it interesting, you said at the end of the book that in your book, You Lost Me, was about, why do kids and young people leave? This book is about why do they stay? And that's a really important distinction. I read these five practices and thought, "Gosh, as a speaker, as a teacher, as a parent, which of these am I doing well and which do I need to improve on?" And the first one hit me where you wrote, "to form a resilient identity." Now there's a ton that's talked about today in terms of identity, whether it's tied to race or sexuality and so many levels. I'm curious, what are the messages and means that Gen Z'ers and younger generations are being communicated about identity, and how do we help a new generation ultimately find their identity in Christ amidst some of these cultural messages that are coming through nonstop, especially with ubiquity, the smartphone?

David Kinnaman: Yeah. I think that's a lot of... Connects back to our discussion a few minutes ago about the digital Babylon. Again, the human identity is as old as the creation story, that we're created in the image of God. This is where I think these rich theological truths can and should and must be taught at a deeper level. By the way, we expect way too little of this emerging generation in our pedagogical, in what we teach, and how we instruct them. Because we just see this over and over, both in the You Lost Me work, and even back to unChristian. All the work that I've been doing the last decade is, the church expects too little of what the next generation can learn and how they learn, because we don't want to bore them. But sometimes you have to just make it as complicated as it should be. This sort of a theology of creation, of God being created in the image of God, we need really good and rich teaching on those concepts to restore the proper place of identity, theologically.

When you look at the current pressures that this generation is facing, and I feel it as just a person who uses screens and social media, it's harder, and maybe you guys feel this in teaching and educating today as well, it's harder for me to lead or to make sure I ground my own identity in what really matters, what God really says about me, than it ever has been. Technology creates this interesting sense of, how do we present ourselves? How do we think about our image? Who are the popular brands or personalities that we're taking in and being influenced by? What are the wrong ideas about identity that we're being asked to think through or to embody from our culture?

That's the whole screens disciple thesis that so often the generation is taking on not only a particular identity but a theology of identity that isn't biblical. And so we have a lot of work to do, I think, to properly ground a generation in sort of the right theological ideas about identity today.

Sean McDowell: David, let me go... As I look through those five practices that you described, the resilient exile, that characterizes. Four of those strike me as somewhat, if you think about it a little bit, those aren't a big surprise, that they experienced Jesus, they discern culture, they have meaningful relationships, they have a sense of mission. The one that I suspect would catch some, if not most people off guard would be the vocational discipleship part. I so appreciate your emphasis on this. I'm so encouraged that the people who are really thriving in their faith, see their discipleship extending to the areas of life where they spend arguably most of their waking hours, which is what they're going to do in the workplace.

I guess my first question on this is, why do you think that the vocational discipleship part has been, over the last, I don't know, 10, 15 years, probably somewhat neglected by a lot of our churches? And then, why do you think it's such an important component for producing these kinds of resilient followers of Christ?

David Kinnaman: Well, I think I'll answer your second question first, which is, right from the very beginning in some of the You Lost Me work, we were hearing from some of the stories of young entrepreneurs, science-minded individuals, young creatives, they had a particular set of talents and inclinations in the world that weren't... They weren't sanctified in the way that the church might usually think about pastoral or mission-driven ministry or other kinds of Christian leadership. We heard story, after story, after story of young people who were saying that the church didn't answer their complicated questions in relation to their own natural proclivities as a writer, as a designer, as a filmmaker, as a scientist, as an entrepreneur.

So first, I'm answering the question of, why is it so important? And we could see that the generation is really been lost. Many young people who are talented in ways that the church doesn't always recognize, they just don't see that the Bible applies, that it might matter, that Christianity might make them a better artist or creative, or entrepreneur, or a science-minded person. That's just a tragedy in my estimation. And then conversely, when we talk to these young exemplars, these young resilient disciples, a very different picture emerged, that they were able to articulate a theology of faithful work that was clearly different than even those that are what we call, habitual churchgoers, individuals who are... They're Christian, they're pretty active in all the ways that might matter and count to a typical church leader, but they're not activated.

And so, these young people who are vocationally discipled, look very different in so many different ways, especially in their practice of faith. They're integrating faith and work. They're reading about, they're hearing from others who are professionals in their communities who are also Christians. And so they realize that God has called them to particular kind of work.

I think the answers to the question of why we've neglected this, goes really, really deep. And with just a few thoughts about it is that in our current evangelical ecosystem of bigger is better ministry, and it's not wrong to try to influence as many people as you might faithfully be called to influence. And there's plenty of examples of that in scriptures, in early Acts when thousands were added to their number and like the impact of evangelistic events. But we haven't really... Discipleship isn't a mass production affair. We have to listen and hear from the unique callings of each individual.

You can think about a young science-minded student, or a young philosophically-oriented student, or a young creatively-oriented student. If your youth ministry, if your work, if your church is too big to understand the unique callings and sensibilities, and questions of that young person, you're too big to do effective ministry and discipleship. That's why I think we've become so addicted to the bigger is better ministry models, that we have lost the ability to influence educational choices, like what college do you attend, and how do you think about the kinds of books you're reading, and the kinds of things you might do, and the kinds of individuals in the congregation who are interested in the same things you're interested in, computer coding or entrepreneurialism, or building a business, whatever it is.

We have a lot of work to do and this is one of my most important... I'm so impassioned by this topic, is how do we vocationally disciple this next generation? And it turns out it's actually a great evangelistic opportunity too, because the Christian way of thinking about work and about calling actually translates to non-Christians too. We have a great opportunity not only to disciple our own kids, but also to think about what it might look like to influence other students who are also interested in what God might have called them to do. That's an introductory opportunity to the Christian way of thinking about work and faithfulness.

Sean McDowell: David, as you know, at Biola, we are the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. I found it interesting and not surprising that in your research, you indicated that the lived reality of resilience is that the Bible is authoritative and central to their faith. And yet, on page 110, you say, "This generation is the first to form their identities and their perception of church, amid high profile sex abuse scandals and sky-high levels of church skepticism." How would the generation that has seen abuse at the hands of pastors, and preachers, and church leaders give them a healthy sense of biblical authority? What are maybe some practical things we can do to help pass this on to exiles?

David Kinnaman: Well, I think that skepticism and cynicism and a more current word is snarkiness, is one of the... We're building antibodies of skepticism and cynicism and snarkiness in this generation. That's part of the screens disciple idea, that when you watch YouTube or comedians today, or just what we laugh at as a culture, we're... The research shows that it's harder than ever to be earnest, to be sincere, to be perceived as sincere because you're probably just selling something, you're probably a Michael Scott, from The Office. You're probably just a schmuck, you're sort of a pedantic blowhard, whatever it is. Right?

You shouldn't underestimate, and this is something that is just plain as day from research, you should not estimate, if you're a pastor, if you're a theologian, if you're a student, if you're a young person today, we should not overestimate the level of toxicity in our culture of mistrust of those who are trying to communicate from the heart about something. It could be something as innocuous as a helpful salesperson in a store, to a preacher. But we all live in a culture that is increasingly giving way to cynicism and snarkiness.

What we find in these resilient disciples, and they're not perfect by any means, but these 10% of people that we've been talking about, these young exiles, is that they go often enough to the scriptures and to Christian community, and they seem to... All the things that we might really hope that the gospel does in people's lives, that it orients them not around their own priorities, or their own sense of rightness or wrongness or victimhood, but it orients them around a different set of ideas about the way the world works. They still might be cynical, they still might be given to snark at times, but at their best moments, they're likely not just to turn to some sort of internal moral compass, but they say, "God, you want to confront my sin, you want to confront who I am, you want to restore me to your original intent."

It's actually just like a... I get so excited about this study because on one level, we're actually finding sociological evidence that the gospel works in at least 10% of this 18 to 29-year-old segment that we interviewed. You could actually see that they relationally are different. They're vocationally different, that I would want to hire. Even if I was a non-Christian person who didn't care anything about faith, I would want to hire these kinds of people. I would want to be neighbors with these kinds of people. I would want to have these people babysit for me because they seem to have a different... They live counter-culturally. Again, they're not perfect, but there is some evidence here that Christianity is both true to them, and it's also good for who they are, and who they're becoming as human beings.

That to me, is just, we should shout this from the rooftops in terms of evidence that God is actually working in the lives of these young people, and bringing about a certain sort of community that is making a difference in small and in big ways. But that's a really cool story.

Sean McDowell: That's encouraging, and that's neat to hear that your data is showing that, because there's a tendency, as you highlight in the book, to be really negative and critical of this generation. In fact, I notice how you mention, "Young adults are less likely to hold negative views of adults, than adults do of them." That's really interesting, how we think about this generation and what we highlight in the stories we tell, really shapes how we minister to them.

In your book, Faith for Exiles, I hope all of our listeners will pick it up. I noticed everything you say is research-based. There's a couple lines I read, I'm like, "Wait a minute, this is two lines in the book, but he has a whole study backing up this point." It's easy to read, there's stories, it's practical, but it's based on the research you very, very carefully do. I hope everyone listening to this, who cares about the next generation, which should be all of our listeners, will pick up your book, Faith for Exiles.

David, thanks for your ministry, just your contribution to the body of Christ, and for coming on the show today.

David Kinnaman: Sean and Scott, it's a pleasure. I love you guys as brothers and appreciate our friendships. And obviously, this is a great conversation, just about the work we're doing, but so much of what I've been learning affects who I am as a dad, how we think about my role as a trustee at Biola. We get to live together in this period of time, it's so exciting. I mean, what God is up to, it's an interesting and confusing and sometimes feels scary time. I think we should acknowledge that that's the case, but it's an amazing privilege that God has chosen us to be alive today, to think about our current context, to be, as you guys are, instructors and influencers, there at Biola. He's giving me a chance to lead this company, Barna, and I'm just so grateful for that because we live in such an unprecedented, there's nothing new under the sun, but there's never been technology like this either.

It's like we get a chance to think about what it means to be faithful in a completely new time period. The exciting part of that is, and this is what's so cool about a mission like Biola is, "Guess what guys, it's not even our job to figure it all out. It's simply to cheer on and to provide the support structure for this new generation of exiles, who are in fact, going to have to live when all of their kids and their kids' kids will be born in a period of time that's unprecedented." We just get to be the Mordecais to this generation's Esters, to come along and say, "For such a time as this, you're being called to learn what it looks like to be faithful, in a time of rapid change and disruption."

These aren't brand new questions. That's why philosophy, the training that you guys have done for this generation is so important. Understanding these things, teasing them out because they just seem to echo the kinds of questions that previous generations have also asked. They're just asking them in new ways. So it's how important that is.

Again, just love you guys, appreciate the ministry you guys do, and just wanted to leave on that note. What an encouragement I feel about the opportunities we have in this current moment as Christians. It's a crazy time, but what a cool time to be alive and be faithful to what God's calling us to do.

Sean McDowell: David, we love you too.

Scott Rae: Thanks, David.

Sean McDowell: Love your family and are just grateful for everything you're doing and standing for.

David Kinnaman: Thanks Sean. I appreciate that.

Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, David Kinnaman, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically, that's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.