Too exclusive to stay: one reason young Christians are leaving the church

The Barna group released an update yesterday with a preview of David Kinnaman’s (co-author of UnChristian with Gabe Lyons) new book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Church. The update suggests six major themes, at least one of which is of interest to our discussion on Faith Line Protestants.

Reason #5 – They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.
Younger Americans have been shaped by a culture that esteems open-mindedness, tolerance and acceptance. Today’s youth and young adults also are the most eclectic generation in American history in terms of race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, technological tools and sources of authority. Most young adults want to find areas of common ground with each other, sometimes even if that means glossing over real differences. Three out of ten young Christians (29%) said “churches are afraid of the beliefs of other faiths” and an identical proportion felt they are “forced to choose between my faith and my friends.” One-fifth of young adults with a Christian background said “church is like a country club, only for insiders” (22%). (

As America’s religious diversity grows, so does the potential for tension between an exclusive faith tradition and the people of other traditions (including no tradition at all). Contrary to popular belief, the reality of that tension does not seem to come solely from the fact that Christianity identifies Jesus Christ as the only way to God, but from the broader Christian community’s failure to see how these truth claims – and the call to share those claims with others – will play out in relationships with others.

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For example, my evangelical upbringing rarely emphasized the importance of caring for any aspect of my atheist friends’ lives other than their salvation. Nor did I receive any guidance on how to build friendships with Muslims in a way that opened doors instead of closing them. What this does – whether intentionally or not – is it creates a mentality of “us versus them”: Christians are worthy of our fellowship, and the only concern I should have with the others is in converting them.

This may be what gives rise to the opinions that Barna has uncovered in their latest project.

So how do we change this? If young Christians are so unprepared to handle their faith in a diverse world that they must choose between making friends with non-Christians or staying committed to their faith, then something is wrong. There is a failure to look at the life of Jesus while asking: how would Jesus engage a religiously diverse world?

What the church needs in this arena is to start a conversation within its own congregations to ponder this question. We need to explore the possibility of maintaining exclusive truth claims while building positive relationships with our Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and non-religious neighbors. We need to teach young people to have a conversation about faith that doesn’t infallibly induce an awkward discomfort in one or both of the parties involved, yet doesn’t gloss over differences to create a watered-down dialogue, either. We need to start thinking about how interfaith cooperation might actually enhance our ability to communicate the message of our faith instead of hinder it.

If we look at the life of Christ and we ask about how Christians should respond in the wake of religious bigotry, in the presence of human need, or in the tenderness of a relationship, we will find that “love your neighbor” has even more to teach us. Then our young people will discover as well that friendship is something that takes place because of Jesus, not in spite of Him.

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