If you ever want to feel old, just talk to a teenager about social media. I’m still under 30 (just), but in social media terms I’m three generations out of date – since I was a teenager Facebook has been replaced by Instagram, then Snapchat, then TikTok. And it’s not just the app of choice that is changing almost year by year – the cultural air we breathe is changing rapidly too. Today’s young people are growing up in what has been described as ‘Digital Babylon’ – a culture that is increasingly hostile to Christianity and penetrates every nook and cranny of their lives through the awesome power of the smartphone. If we want our young people to grow into resilient lifelong disciples, we have to take account of that context.
David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock’s book “Faith for Exiles” sets out to do exactly that. Drawing on hard evidence from surveys of young people in the US who grew up in the church, they identify 5 key practices that distinguish those who stuck with Jesus from those who walked away.
1. Experience intimacy with Jesus
Through the church’s gathered worship, through times of Bible reading and prayer young people need to meet with Jesus and have him transform their experience of day to day life. In our hyper-consumerist world, they need to love Jesus for who he is, not for what he can give them.
2. Develop the muscles of cultural discernment
Young churchgoers spend ten times longer each week consuming media through a screen (50 hours) as they do on church services, groups, bible reading and prayer combined (5 hours). Unless we equip young people to engage critically with the stories the world tells, the Christian story will be drowned out.
3. Forge meaningful intergenerational relationships
We live in a culture characterised by a deep suspicion of authority, including churches and church leaders. The young people who stick with Christianity and the church are those who experienced church as family, and who built vulnerable and honest mentoring relationships with older believers.
4. Train for vocational discipleship
The world of work is central to how young people think about their future. We need to ‘infuse the vocational imaginations of this new generation with the purposes of God’ (p151), or Christianity will seem irrelevant to many of their deepest concerns.
5. Engage in counter-cultural mission
Those young people who stick with Christianity have a missional mindset – they feel a personal responsibility for telling others about Jesus and see serving others as central to their purpose in life. So we need to equip our young people for mission by challenging the cultural idol of safety, preparing them for difficult conversations, and inviting them to join in the holistic mission of the church.
Behind these 5 key practices identified by the authors, I would like to suggest that it is possible to discern 1 key truth. We must hold out a holistic, integrated vision of the Christian life. The narrow gospel of ‘Jesus loves you’ or ‘Jesus died so you can go to heaven’ just isn’t enough. As the ‘operating system’ of our culture (and of youth culture in particular) moves further away from the biblical vision of human flourishing, Christianity as ‘add-on’ or ‘patch’ simply becomes incompatible with that operating system. Faith in exile requires Christianity to be the ‘operating system’ – the foundation for our relationships, our work, our engagement with culture.
For parents, I hope that truth is liberating. What our children need most is not for us to become theological experts, but to model and talk through how following Jesus shapes normal life. As Deuteronomy 6:7 says “Impress [these commands] on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” That means talking about Jesus the true hero after we watch a film together, bringing God’s purposes into the conversation when our children are talking about what they want to be when they grow up, explain how following Jesus shapes the choices (and in particular the sacrifices) we make as a family. And by God’s grace, our children will inhabit a faith that fills every corner of their lives, that still makes sense in exile.
For youth workers and church leaders, I think that truth is more challenging. It’s all too easy to convince ourselves that we’ve done our job if the young people in our churches have “heard the gospel”, but if we don’t hold out a holistic, integrated vision of Christianity we’re not giving our young people what they need. It’s not enough to make sure our illustrations are culturally relevant (important though that is) – we need to be able to say to our young people ‘I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:27). To take just one example, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs might be unfamiliar territory, but they are full of wisdom on work, relationships and cultural discernment.
We need to be realistic about the challenges we face in growing resilient disciples in ‘Digital Babylon’. But as 1 Peter 1:1 reminds us, Christianity has always been a faith for exiles. God has grown faithful disciples in foreign soil for 2000 years, and he will do so again.