By David Kinnaman, President at Barna Group United States
For years now, the Barna team has gone to great lengths to listen to the stories and experiences of teenagers and young adults across the religious spectrum. We’ve been interested in every aspect of their lives, trying to put the scraps of evidence together to form a coherent picture for Christian leaders to understand and respond to. Now we’ve added more than 15,000 interviews from 25 countries to the core body of Barna’s next-gen research.
Through our careful listening, we’ve come to hold several core convictions about the connected generation:
- They are misunderstood by older generations of Christian leaders.
- They are coming of age in a radically different context, one that could be defined as chaotic.
- Their skepticism is giving way to indifference – a much more intractable problem.
- The challenges and opportunities of discipleship are more complex.
- They are hungry to see courageous leaders in all facets of society.
We must slow down and listen to a generation that is too often talked at and talked about. We must stop ignoring or dismissing teens, twentysomethings and thirtysomethings who are coming into their own. They are desperately in need of a wise, compassionate, listening ear – and we are desperately in need of their partnership as we look to the Church’s future.
Start with resilient disciples. Globally, their faith is much more than what happens in church – though, among the majority, church experiences certainly have much to do with it. More than half say they were ‘very active’ in practising Christianity in their teenage years (56%), compared with 29 percent of other self-identified Christians (nomads and habitual churchgoers). They also tend to strongly agree they had adult, non-family friends in their church when they were growing up (61% vs. 29%), so parents and grandparents weren’t their only models of adult faithfulness.
For faith to grow, church must be the place where young Christians practise following Jesus alongside other believers who help them discover how to bring faith into every area of their lives. Where to start?
- Be encouraged. Young resilient Christians can be found in your context. What can you do to learn from them, to invest in them – not just to solve problems, but to journey together and launch them into their God-ordained destiny? Don’t simply try to attract young Christians; engage them in the work. It’s not church for them. It should be church with them.
- Understand your context. Take stock of your surrounding religious climate. What are the forces at work that arrest or accelerate disciple-making where you are? Be ready to adapt your methods and priorities accordingly.
- Measure the right things. You get what you measure. How do you measure effective discipleship? What metrics are you using to evaluate the kind of disciples your ministry is cultivating – not only through their church attendance, but also their depth of belief, relationship to Jesus and engagement with community?
- Search the scriptures for inspiration about the kind of resilient people God is calling us to be. Stories of exile are the place to start: Daniel, Esther, Joseph, Jeremiah, 1 Peter – the biblical witness of faithfulness in exile is a reliable guide for resilient faith.
Raise up Godly Leaders
Some leadership qualities and principles are timeless and rise above cultural or generational differences: honesty, integrity, conviction and courage, to name a few. But other ideas about what makes a good leader are not always applicable everywhere to everyone. Problems with and barriers to leadership often differ, as well. ‘Leadership’ is a concept highly shaped by culture. For instance, some societies value leaders who exhibit individual merit, personal ambition and orientation toward the future; others esteem leaders who prioritise continuity with the past and handing traditions and ways of life down from elder to younger.
Whatever your cultural milieu, commit yourself to investing in tomorrow’s leaders. What kind of leaders are we hoping to be – and hoping young Christians will become? Here are four aspirations, whether we are part of the connected generation or simply cheering them on. We aspire to be and to form leaders who are:
Connected to God. Our identity is grounded in Jesus and we bring a God-centred presence to a self-centred age.
Connected to ourselves. We are humble, sacrificial people of peace. We reject wrong ideas about leadership and influence that say our worth is what we create and our influence equals the size of our platform. We are conscious of the relentless pull toward anxiety and make deliberate choices to live in sync with an unruffled, unharried, Godward rhythm.
Connected to others. We are emotionally connected to others in our communities and in our households. We have a healthy connection to those we lead, which is neither cold and detached nor codependently enmeshed.
Connected to the world. We are informed about the major problems facing societies, personally impacted by the needs of others and seeking opportunities to serve as agents of godly change. We are courageous and empowered to seek God-honouring solutions.
Even as the world spins toward an uncertain future, these kinds of people can make a difference – as God intends all leaders to do.