They had me at the Tolkien quote on the front page.
Faith for Exiles
I’m a long time fan of David Kinnaman’s work and a newbie to Mark Matlock’s, having read, and incorporated into my doctoral thesis, pretty much all of Kinnaman’s titles. (You Lost Me, unChristian, Good Faith, Churchless).
So I might have been the first person to fill out the application to be on the launch team for Faith for Exiles: Five Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon.
It did not disappoint.
The Exodus Is Real
While many of us in church leadership wring our hands over the exodus of young people from the church, documented so well in the books mentioned above, the authors offer here a portrait of the kind of young believer who stays—thus affording us a chance to change the equation, if we pay attention.
This is good news for both church leaders and parents. Parents of littles—don’t believe you have to wait for this information. Discipleship begins young, very young, and having a front-row seat to learn all you can now about how kids stay faithful matters. It matters very, very much.
Kinnaman and Matlock begin with the premise I’ve believed and talked about for a long time—we no longer live in the Promised Land. We are exiles in Babylon who must look to the prophets for our wisdom more than the Exodus. Our culture is not Christian, but God wants us to be Christians in our culture. Like Daniel and his famous furnace friends, we must develop the faith required to hold onto the essentials of what we know about God while caring deeply for the place in which we find ourselves. Our stance should take it’s wisdom from one of my most oft-quotes Jeremiah lines (and I quote Jeremiah a lot):
“This is what the Lord says to all the captives he has exiled to Babylon from Jerusalem: ‘Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.’” (Jeremiah 29:4-7)
Our young people deeply feel this truth—that the welfare of those around them—all those around them—will determine their welfare. Yet they struggle with the information overload, the plethora of options and “truths” ricocheted toward them like they’re living in a particle accelerator with no off switch. The older generation needs their understanding of and compassion for Babylon. They need our experience in how not to allow its noise to drown us and mold us into its design.
Digital Babylon, as the title explains, is not a concrete place but an interwoven haze of electronic environment that overhangs and fogs us all. The younger generation are both more aware of its potential and more susceptible to its siren call.
“Through screens’ ubiquitous presence, Babylon’s pride, power, prestige, and pleasure colonize our hearts and minds. Pop culture is a reality filter. Websites, apps, movies, TV, video games, music, social media, YouTube channels, and so on increasingly provide the grid against which we test what is true and what is real. The media and the messages blur the boundary between truth and falsehood. What is real is up for grabs.”
The authors first make the case for the dangers ( as well as the potential) of digital Babylon, and they make it well. Those of us who did not come of age surrounded by electronics, available 24/7, conscious of our pubic image at all times, do not understand this, no matter how much we research it. We need to hear our young people on it, without making assumptions or declarations.
The focus of the book, however, is not on the problem but on the solution. How do we raise what they refer to as “resilient Christians”—young people who remain in church, retain their active faith, and recharge their world while in Babylon?
Five things stood out as they interviewed the ones who stay. Resilient Christians, those whose faith remains strong and active, have five characteristic practices:
Practice 1: To form a resilient identity, experience intimacy with Jesus.
Practice 2: In a complex and anxious age, develop the muscles of cultural discernment.
Practice 3: When isolation and mistrust are the norms, forge meaningful, intergenerational relationships.
Practice 4: To ground and motivate an ambitious generation, train for vocational discipleship.
Practice 5: Curb entitlement and self-centered tendencies by engaging in countercultural mission.
The book outlines all of the five with illustrations, ideas, and examples of how these practices are given life in both young people and their churches. The churches, of course, are the target for this information. If church leaders do not look at the data and pay attention to what effective discipleship looks like, it won’t matter that we know the right answers. The church has to make the move to change the way we disciple our young people. Parents, it’s never too early to look at our church practices and help be the change. (That’s one reason I have two talks–“Unplugged” and “Families on Mission,” on my speaking page!)
Just One Practice
For example, practice one—experience intimacy with Jesus.
“It is easy to call oneself a Christian but much less common to find deep joy in Jesus. That conclusion is where our first practice begins. The first practice of resilient discipleship in digital Babylon is clearing religious clutter to experience intimacy with Jesus.”
We learn how to identify that clutter (things like idolizing our own image, for example) and how to focus, as a church, on helping young people find their center in Christ, not personal brand or knowledge about God. It’s this deep, personal experience with God that gives them the resilience to know, despite culture’s barrage to the contrary, that their identity is secure in Christ and He knows exactly what it’s like to live in their shoes.
One of the errors the authors point out is that the church, rather than pursuing this deep relationship, has pursued the branding of Jesus themselves.
“The church has responded to the identity pressures of our culture by offering young people a Jesus ‘brand experience’ rather than facilitating a transformational experience to find their identity in the person and work of Jesus.”
Once the brand wears off, as they all do, there is no resilient faith left.
The Other Four
The other four practices are equally interesting and informative. I already used some of the material in the chapter on vocation to foster a lively discussion during my sermon on calling a couple weeks ago. The young people there definitely resonated with the realities Kinnaman and Matlock present, and they had much to say about their frustrations regarding jobs, careers, and calling in today’s world. The church can step in with so much wisdom in this area, if we try.
The chapter on intergenerational discipleship drives home the absolute need for older people to be involved. Another finding I’ve read is that the “magic number” of adults actively involved in a young person’s life is five. That means five older Christians to take an interest, have a conversation (where you listen!), take a young person out to coffee or for a walk, teach someone how to cook or sew or handle a bank account, text a caring message, can make all the difference in a person’s continued faith.
In conversations and writing with my own twenty-somethings and others, many of the truths in this books have come alive.
These aren’t difficult practices. But they are deliberate and intentional, and they require a sacrifice of that elusive commodity–time. They do insist we changing our framework from entertaining and evangelizing to discipling and serving. I’ll close with this, one of the greatest truths of discipleship, yet one we forgo time and again when it comes to young people. Please, don’t let it go in your child’s life.
“In digital Babylon, faithful, resilient disciples are handcrafted one life at a time.”