the shape of leadership

Raising Up Resilient Disciples in Digital Babylon

Faith for Exiles offers hope for reaching and retaining young adults

Taylor Albertini on September 4, 2019

I rarely finish reading a new book and think, Wow, what an important work! But Faith for Exiles made just such an impression on me.

David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, and Mark Matlock, president and founder of WisdomWorks, offer a timely, crucial and striking message for church leaders seeking to disciple a culture that has moved from “faith at the center to faith at the margins.”

The authors draw the book’s title and concept from the biblical narrative of the Babylonian captivity. Kinnaman and Matlock argue that today’s “Babylon” is not a physical city, but rather the virtual, information-rich, screen-obsessed, fast-paced reality of our culture.

Like the ancient Jewish people who clung to their religious traditions in a pagan land, we are exiles and must figure out how to navigate the complex challenges of living out faith in digital Babylon.

The authors open the book by describing a Barna survey of 18- to 29-year-olds who grew up in church and currently express a desire to walk with God as young adults. Using this research, Kinnaman and Matlock identify and discuss four kinds of young adult “exiles” today:

  1. Prodigals (ex-Christians) do not currently identify as Christian despite growing up in church.
  2. Nomads (unchurched) identify as Christian but have not attended church in the last month.
  3. Habitual Churchgoers are Christian and attend church at least monthly, but do not exhibit behaviors or beliefs associated with being a disciple.
  4. Resilient Disciples are followers of Jesus who attend and engage with church at least monthly, believe the authority of the Bible, have a personal commitment to Jesus, and express the desire to impact society as a result of their faith.
As a 20-something, I found myself reading through these best practices and thinking, Yes! These are what young people need!

According to the authors, a mere 10 percent of Christian young adults meet the criteria for classification as Resilient Disciples. Read that last sentence again.

Barna investigated the how and what behind this 10 percent: How have these young people remained Resilient Disciples living as exiles in digital Babylon, and what can the Church do to help more young people form this type of resilient faith?

Synthesizing this three-year research study, the authors go on to identify and unpack five best practices for cultivating Resilient Disciples — the crux of the text:

  1. Clear religious clutter to experience intimacy with Jesus and form one’s godly identity.
  2. Develop muscles of cultural discernment in an anxious and complex age.
  3. Form meaningful, intergenerational relationships in a culture where isolation and mistrust are the norms.
  4. Help ground and motivate this generation’s ambition by training them for vocational discipleship.
  5. Engage in countercultural mission to counteract this generation’s entitlement and self-centered tendencies.

As a 20-something Jesus follower and digital Babylon exile who meets the criteria to be considered a Resilient Disciple, I found myself reading through these best practices and thinking, Yes! These are what young people need! As I look back over my own faith journey, I see mentors who have, likely unknowingly, helped instill each of these best practices in me.

If you are walking with the next generation of Christian young people in any capacity, pick up this book. Be forewarned: It’s statistics-heavy and content-heavy. It will make you think, and it will take time to process.

But it will impact how you think about ministry to the next generation. And it may well leave you saying, “What an important book!”

Book Reviewed

David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock with Aly Hawkins, Faith for Exiles: Five Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2019).

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