Faith Isn’t a Formula
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What makes some young adults resilient in the faith, while others walk away completely? Mark Matlock and David Kinnaman talk about the five characteristics and practices of resilient Christians.
Faith Isn’t a Formula
Bob: All of us, as parents, will do whatever we need to do to help our children grow up walking in the truth/walking in faith. Author and researcher, David Kinnaman, says there is no recipe for success.
David: What we learned over, and over, and over is that faith isn’t a formula. It is being led, as parents, by the Holy Spirit. We did learn some practices, but you can’t boil a faith down to a simple set of: “Do this twice a week, and these conversations, and everything’s going to turn out right.”
In fact, every story is unique; every heart/every soul is unique. I think we have to honor that first and foremost. Each young person—God’s speaking into their heart—and sometimes their hearts become hardened for reasons that we can’t control, and we shouldn’t try to control those.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, August 5th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You’ll find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. While there’s no recipe for raising kids, who walk faithfully with Christ, there are some best practices that we can consider, and learn from, and maybe adapt in our own families. We’ll explore that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I’ve shared this before, but I feel like it needs to be said over and over again. Third John 4 says, “I have no greater joy than to know that my children are walking in the truth.” Now, John is talking about his spiritual children when he writes that; but if that’s the case for spiritual children, how much more for our biological children—no greater joy for a parent than to know that your kids are walking in the truth.
Ann: Why do you think that brings us so much joy?
Bob: Because we know that that’s where life is and where hope is.
I’ve asked parents: “If you could imagine that your child is 30 years old, and they write a letter home and they say: ‘The job’s doing great; I’m making good money. All of this is going on…We’re not going to church anymore, but we were able to take the vacation and have this…’ and ‘The kids have all of this stuff…’ and ‘We’re happy, and life’s good,’—you get that letter from one child. The other child writes home and says, ‘It’s been a rough month; we were barely able to make the bills. But you know what? God has us, and we’re hanging in.’ Which child are you going to feel happier about?”
It’s because we know that second kid is where God has him. The first kid is dealing with his own success and self-reliance, and that’s not going to take him anywhere.
Dave: Living for temporal versus eternal.
Bob: If there’s no greater joy than to know your children are walking in the truth, then there’s probably no greater fear or pain for a parent than to imagine that your child would not be, at some point, walking in the faith.
We have a couple of guys joining us this week to help us understand the culture in which we live—the pressures on our kids/our young adult kids—as they enter into what you guys refer to as the “digital Babylon.” David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock are joining us again; guys, welcome back.
David: It’s a pleasure; thanks!
Mark: Yes, thanks for having us!
Bob: David and Mark have written a book called Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon.
David, who is joining us remotely from Southern California, from the offices of the Barna Group, gives leadership to the Barna group, which has been doing research in the Christian world/the Christian space for decades. Mark is a pastor, a church leader, worked with youth for years in his local church; he’s a researcher as well.
We’ve talked about the realities of the culture in which our kids are living: about the screens and the influence of being discipled by your screen instead of discipled by your father, or your youth pastor, or the Christian community. We’ve talked about the fact that some kids end up as prodigals; some kids end up as vaguely spiritual nomads—not going to church—but still hanging onto some spiritual vestige; a lot of kids wind up as what you call “habituals,” who are going to church and going through the motions, but we really wonder how tethered to the faith they are.
Then there’s this ten percent—this one in ten—who are resilient. Their faith is alive, and they’re on fire, and they’re excited, and they want to tell other people about Jesus, and they really believe it. Every parent is saying: “What’s the recipe for that?—okay? What are the ingredients I pour in? What’s the temperature I bake it at?—because I want to make sure all of my kids are that.”
David: Well, one of the things to keep in mind is we wish it were that easy to find the right temperature, the right ingredients, the right combination; but what we learned over, and over, and over is that faith isn’t a formula. It is being led, as parents, by the Holy Spirit. We did learn some practices—and we’ll tell you about those—but the first principle that we’ve really seen in this is that you can’t boil a faith down to a simple set of: “Do this twice a week, and these conversations, and everything’s going to turn out right.”
In fact, that’s part of the premise of our research over the last decade or more. I wrote a book called UnChristian, another book called You Lost Me, that were really about the problems and obstacles. I’ve spent a bunch of years—hundreds of thousands of interviews—with young people, who have walked away from faith, or who are growing in faith. Faith is not a formula. Every story is unique; every heart/every soul is unique. I think we have to honor that first and foremost. Each young person—God’s speaking into their heart—and sometimes their hearts become hardened for reasons that we can’t control, and we shouldn’t try to control those.
Mark: If you are a church leader or a youth worker, I want to encourage you—that this
38 percent that are the habituals that we talk about—we really want to focus these practices on them. They’re really the opportunity that we have. We spend a lot of energy worrying about those that are already walking away. We have a real opportunity that are coming into our programs/that are welcoming us in right now; those are the groups that we need to really be looking at with these five practices.
David: Let me explain the background behind the research first, and then I’ll have Mark describe these five practices. As I’ve said, we’ve been studying all the disconnections among young people—the reason that young people walk away from faith—for a long time; but we really wanted to understand what helps connect these ten percent, who are most resilient.
Again, we put people in different buckets; we analyze the data. We interviewed nearly 1500 individuals across those 4 groups that we’ve been talking about this week. What we did was—we really wanted to isolate: “What are the practices that make a difference with those resilient disciples?” These aren’t formulas; but they are guidelines and guardrails for us, parents, to pursue.
Bob: Alright; what are they, Mark?
Mark: Okay, we’re going to give these to you in a very high-level way. It’s important that you understand the context for that—that these are big ideas—but it’s the detail underneath them is really where you start seeing the work.
Ann: Okay, parents, get ready!
Mark: The first thing is: “Experiencing Jesus”—this idea that I’m clearing away the clutter/the religious clutter that exists in the world today and in the church to really meet with Christ.
“Meaningful Relationships”—I’m around people that I enjoy being with and I aspire to become.
“Cultural Discernment”—this idea that I can apply the Word of God to the world around me and navigate it/make sense of it.
“Vocational Discipleship”—this idea that my work is a part of the way I express my faith and live it out.
Bob: There’s not a disconnect between what I do 9-5 and who I am as a Christian.
Mark: Correct; it’s not compartmentalized; it’s an extension of who God’s called me to be.
Then, “Countercultural Mission”—this idea that I know that I, as a Christian, am going to be living counter to the ways of this world; and that sometimes calls me to take epic moments of trust, where I trust in God rather than the conventions of this world for the good around me.
Bob: That list of five is powerful. Your book, Faith for Exiles—that’s the heart of the book—is to talk about these five things. Go back to the first one—the “Experiencing Jesus.” Are we talking about a phenomenal logical experience?—are we talking about there needs to be a Spirit in the room that we’re aware of?—or what does the “Experience of Jesus” mean?
Mark: One of the interesting things that we did—it was one of the first things I did when I get the raw data back is—as I was looking through, I wanted to find out: “What is the age that these different groups are saying that they consciously became a Christian/that moment that they knew they were a Christian?” What was really interesting—is that resilients mark that age a little bit later in their childhood than the prodigals and the nomads, by about six years.
Dave: What’s going on?—because, when I read that in your book, that jumped off the page.
Dave: It did! It’s not what you hear: “The younger the better!”
Mark: “The younger the better.” Obviously—I gave my life to Christ just before the age of five, and it stuck—so there’s no reason to doubt younger conversions. But I think we need to allow God to work in the lives of our children, and not try to force something to happen; because what we can see here is that we can actually socialize our kids to Christianity rather than actually helping them experience Jesus.
David: That’s where I think, if you notice these five factors working together—just as you said, Bob, that if a person has an experience of Jesus but they don’t have the mind of cultural discernment, or they don’t work out their faith through vocational discipleship, or it’s not alive in their relationships, or it’s not sacrificial in terms of countercultural mission—these five things really work well together; they have to work together—our life with Christ and our relationship upwards, our relationship with others, our relationship of our heart and our mind and the work of our hands, and then our work in the world.
All five of these areas—what we find is that people that are deficient in more than all five of them are deficient in their faith. It’s not a test that we give them; but that if our faith in Christ doesn’t work itself out in how we relate to others, how we think about the world, how we think about our work, how we think about our mission, then it’s not the kind of Christianity that anyone wants to follow. I think that’s what many young people are rejecting—is these sort of half-hearted, one-dimensional forms of faith—“Yes, I follow Jesus; I gave my life to Him, but nothing else really changed. Nothing else was really asked of me by the church.”
Ann: Well, our kids prayed prayers when they were little; and we were talking about baptizing them, because they said, “We’d like to get baptized.” But Dave was like, “You know, let’s just disciple them and wait,” until, as they get baptized, like, “This is meaningful; we want to do this. This is our own faith; this isn’t our parents; this is us.”
At first, I was like, “What? This isn’t good!”
Dave: No, she was all over me. [Laughter] “Let’s go! Let’s get them baptized! They showed some interest!” Again, I was like, “Let’s let it be their decision.” Then it didn’t happen for years and years; and then they go to Israel or somewhere, and come back and say, “We got baptized!”—which was great.
David: I think what you’ve just modeled there and described is very healthy, but the right kind of tension for parents to have—you know, if you’re in a single-parent home, the sense that you’re trying to push your kids into the category of being Christian—that’s the thing we’re learning so much with this generation.
A lot of research that we’re now seeing is that they don’t want to be emotionally manipulated. In fact, one of the things that’s really heartbreaking for me, as a researcher, is to hear the stories of young people, who say, “Yes, I made this weird commitment at a camp,”—or in an environment—“and I feel like, as I look back now, five years ago or ten years ago, is that they set these conditions in which my heart was going to be manipulated towards a certain decision.”
We have to be really careful; this is a lifetime decision. I really applaud you guys for working that out in your relationship with your kids; even though it’s hard for us, as parents, because we want to tip the kids into the Christian camp—
Ann: —out of fear, sometimes.
David: That’s right!
Mark: Absolutely out of fear.
Bob: How many of us have heard somebody share their testimony, as an adult, and they would say, “Well, I prayed a prayer when I was six, but…”
Bob: Then they go on to talk about a time, later in life, when their faith really became alive for them. What was going on spiritually?—and if they had died, from one point to the other—what’s the truth? I won’t get into that, because I don’t know the mind of God. Only God knows the heart of a child, but I do know that what we want is we want there to be an alive faith in a child.
I remember a guest on FamilyLife Today, who said, “The same five-year-old, who says, ‘I want to ask Jesus in my heart,’—says—‘And when I grow up, I want to be a dinosaur,’”—right? As a five-year-old, that’s how you’re thinking.
Now, it could be, as it was for you, Mark, a genuine profession. One of our kids prayed at the age of four and walked with Jesus the rest of her life; right? We’ve seen that happen. But there are a lot of kids, who pray the prayer at four; and when they’re in junior high, they’re not sure that that means anything to them anymore.
Mark: Let me give you an example of how differently these resilients and habituals are experiencing Jesus, just by the numbers.
Mark: Remember, each one of these numbers represents a life that God loves, so it’s really important that we understand that. But when we talk about those resilients—we ask them: “I believe living in relationship with Jesus is the only way to find fulfillment in life.” Ninety percent of resilients said, “That’s true for me.” Only 49 percent of habituals said that was true for them, and 21 percent of nomads. You see the difference in terms of their experience of Jesus.
“My relationship with Jesus brings me deep joy and satisfaction.” Ninety percent of resilients; forty-eight percent of habituals—so half—this isn’t like resilients are seven percent more. In almost every situation, it’s double-digit percentage points differences between resilients’ experience and the habituals’ experience.
Bob: You talked about meaningful relationships being key. We’re probably not going to be able to dive into all five of these—and this is where people can get your book, Faith for Exiles, and look deeply at this—but I remember when my kids were growing up, I used to say to them, “I want you to identify somebody, who is five to ten years older than you, who you would look at and say, ‘I would like my life to look like their life when I’m their age,’ and then figure out how they got to where they are.” I was conscious of the fact that they needed some modeling, and they needed some people who cared about them, beyond Mom and me—people who they could point to and say, “Yes, this is what I’m growing for.”
When we’re talking about meaningful relationships, role modeling is a part of that; isn’t it?
Mark: It’s a huge part of it. I think one of the most practical things that moms and dads can do out of this—because you can’t make your kids connect to Jesus; you know, you can provide an environment for that—but the one thing you can do is invite others/men and women into your home and surround your kids with these great examples and relationships.
One of the things that we found—by, once again, wide margins—is that resilients had much stronger relationships. They had people that were adults in their lives that they felt were investing in them; they had people that they felt they could be honest with about their spiritual journey; they had people that they admired in their church that they wanted to be like, just like what you suggested—by almost 40 to 50 percentage points difference between the habituals in those situations. Huge difference, relationally.
When I hear pastors say, “Hey, our church is all about relationships,” I’m like, “Show me how you’re really connecting those younger people to those older people.” That’s something that moms and dads do. You know, we don’t invite people over to our homes anymore; we don’t have those things. That’s where I really got to know the men and women in our church, and they invested in me and helped me think about my life spiritually. Even when some of them went off the rails, I saw the grace of God in their lives. I think that’s a really important thing that we can’t discount. Invite somebody over to your house this week—a mature believer into your house this week—that’ll be your first step in helping your children.
David: We actually see some really interesting social data now where young people are more likely to show trust and affinity with their peers or with people online. In fact, they trust a YouTube channel more than they would trust their youth pastor. So having other people around us and around our kids—who can help them understand what it means to follow Christ; who love them; and love Jesus as much as we do; who don’t have the same sort of weird motivations, perhaps, about getting them to be a Christian—actually helps to cut through that clutter.
Dave: You know, as I think about my three sons, now married, and grandkids—their faith—I think I’d put them in the resilient. It’s as much because of Dave and Ann as it is Rob, Frank, Ryan, John, Craig, and Dave. Those men poured into them in high school; and even now, as they’re in their 30s, they’re still pouring into them. They found that.
You guys said it—it’s so critical that somebody else—and some of these guys were my age. It isn’t just that they’re cool, and hip, and their age; no, they’re living it in front of them; they’re pouring into them and mentoring them. You can’t devalue that; that is critical.
Mark: It’s interesting, when we look at younger stories—like on Nickelodeon®, or Disney®, or whatever—almost always the parent or one parent is absent. The writer of Hannah Montana, in an interview, was talking about the fact that the reason they do this is because it creates more tension for character to develop in the story, not having those parents present or in the storyline.
You start going, “Whoa, this is weird! Why is this?” It’s a part of the storytelling narrative; when our kids are going through those formational years, we are symbolically dead as parents; right?
Ann: That’s depressing. [Laughter]
Mark: Yes; we may be speaking truth into their life—you know, I was kind of called the teen whisperer at church—people would be like, “Oh, you’re going to have an easy time with your kids”; I’m like, “But I’m the parent of my kids.”
Mark: There’s kind of a different role that’s played there. I realized, as we went through that phase, I needed the men and women of the church to be there—to be those people, speaking into their life—when the truth that I was speaking, they weren’t hearing it. I was symbolically dead to them; I think there’s something about that.
David: How lucky are we that our kids have us as parents, because we have all the answers. [Laughter] We have the PowerPoint slides and the research to prove how they should be raised.
Bob: This goes back, David, to where we started, which is: “There is no formula.”
Mark: There is no formula!
Bob: The salvation of a child is a work of God in that child’s life, and there’s—
Dave: Get on your knees and pray.
Bob: —there is nothing you can do to make your child a Christian.
Mark: And there is no timeline for it. I think that’s the important thing—is we need to be patient and allow God to work in their lives.
Ann: We don’t want our kids to go through pain. We really don’t, because we have gone through it; and yet, sometimes, pain is the thing that has drawn us to Jesus.
Bob: Yes; we’re telling a lot of parents of prodigals and nomads: “Their story’s not over yet.
Dave: —“not over.”
Mark: That’s why we call them prodigals.
Bob: “You keep praying, and you keep seeking the Lord about what your interaction with them looks like; and you pray for God to bring somebody into their life, who’s going to be revolutionary to help point them to the truth.”
I just hope moms and dads will catch a vision for what you’ve outlined in this book; because again, while it’s not a recipe, it is a road map for the things we can do to help stack the deck—and that’s to point our kids: to an authentic relationship with Jesus; to meaningful relationships with others; to understand, “You’re going to face cultural headwinds, and here’s what it looks like to live counter-culturally in the midst of a culture that’s going in a different direction”; “Here’s what it looks like for your work to be meaningful as you live it out”; and “Here’s what it looks like to be on mission and to have God’s purposes at the center of your life.”
Dave: Get the book; it’s going to change you.
Bob: We’re excited about the work you guys have done and want to share this book with our listeners. Thank you guys for being on FamilyLife Today. David, thanks for joining us remotely here.
David: Yes, my pleasure; thanks for having me.
Mark: Yes, thank you so much for having us.
Bob: David and Mark’s book is called Faith for Exiles; and you can order your copy, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to get a copy of the book. Again, the title is Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon, by David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock. Order from us at FamilyLifeToday.com, or call to order: 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
You know, looking at the decline of spiritual interest in our culture can be discouraging. David Robbins, who’s the president of FamilyLife®, is here with us today. Do you see reason for hope?
David R.: Absolutely. My primary reason for hope is that I know our faithful God, who will continue to reveal Himself to the rising generation.
David R.: But then, I also have a profound hope that—though young people are not living as a cultural majority as Christians, that I got to enjoy, growing up—those who are resilient disciples of Jesus can be a prophetic minority in this day. I have lived in some secular places, like New York City and western Europe, and those who follow Jesus in those places shine like the stars. You don’t do it because you are supposed to do it; you do it because you are emblazoned with passion for Jesus.
My word to you, as parents and grandparents, would be to believe in your kids and believe in the next generation. Keep interceding for them and keep investing in them. Learn from them as they learn from you. The beauty is that Christ is in them, the hope of glory, and our kids know it’s a complex world that they face and that they’re navigating. They understand the need for a wholistic, integrated, deep faith that speaks to all of life. God’s kingdom will continue to expand generation after generation through them. So please join us at FamilyLife of being a part of pouring into the next generation and platforming the next generation of Christ-followers with us.
Bob: Well, thank you to those regular listeners, who partner with us in this ministry—help us reach hundreds of thousands of people every day with practical biblical help and hope for their marriage/for their family—your investment in this ministry is really an investment in the lives of so many couples/so many parents. We’re working hard to effectively develop godly marriages and families, and you help make that happen.
In fact, we would love this month to say, “Thank you,” for any financial support you can provide for the ministry. We have copies of my new book, which is called Love Like You Mean It. It’s all about understanding a biblical definition of love in marriage rather than focusing on a cultural definition or a superficial definition of love. That book is our thank-you gift when you make a donation today. You can do that, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call to donate: 1-800-FL-TODAY is the number.
We are so grateful for those of you who have stood with us in the past. Again, if you can help with a donation today, we’d love to hear from you. Thanks, in advance, for whatever you’re able to do.
Now, tomorrow, we want to talk about how moms and dads can raise daughters, who are strong, and confident, and courageous. What does that look like? Terra Mattson’s going to join us to help with that. I hope you can tune in and be a part of that conversation.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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