Category Definitions: Access, Alienation, Authority, Nomads, Prodigals, and Exiles

My next several book review posts will be going through the book You Lost Me by David Kinnaman. While Kinnaman’s previous book along with Gabe Lyons unChristian focused on how outsiders viewed the church, You Lost Me focuses on why those who were raised in the church have since left or otherwise expressed extreme dissatisfaction. In this post I want to introduce a couple of categories of things.

Defining the Shift: Access, Alienation, and Authority

As I have said myself multiple times, Kinnaman makes sure that we know that we are in the middle of a large cultural shift. There are always gaps between generations, but ours is far more than normal because we are moving from modernism to postmodernism. Simply shifting to new music and more technology is not sufficient. Why is this so? Kinnaman discusses the shift’s consequences in three dimensions: access, alienation, and authority. They are all fairly obvious but may be overlooked. In my experience, the challenges to authority which come with postmodernism are discussed – maybe not enough, but I do see it acknowledged regularly in my reading and listening to podcasts. The other two I haven’t encountered discussed as thoroughly as Kinnaman does in You Lost Me.

In talking about access Kinnaman discusses how easy it now is for us to get whatever we want in virtually no time at all. One example that stuck with me is when he was younger and Star Wars originally came out. He talks about a friend who went to see it in theatres multiple times because he didn’t know if he would ever be able to see it again. The access simply was not there. You didn’t download a movie in 5 minutes off of any of the multiple online-video stores. You didn’t even walk into a store to buy or rent a DVD or VHS. There are clear consequences of this. My generation, the first postmodern generation, expects to be entertained at all times. Many of us have a problem with silence – which is important for some spiritual disciplines – because we are so used to having music, TV, or any number of other things playing at all times.

Alienation is another important point. Despite our population getting denser, we spend less time actually communicating in the presence of other people. When we do communicate with others, it is more and more often mediated by screens: cell phone screens, tablet screen, computer screens, TV screens, etc. So it is no surprise that the early postmodern Western world suffers from the most depression of any generation in history. As human beings, we are built for relationship, and the screen-mediated relationships often don’t cut it. I’m not saying all electronic communication is bad. I’m just saying it is insufficient. I appreciate being able to follow friends on Facebook or Twitter and to learn from those far away through their blogs or podcasts. But I cannot go without seeing people as part of a community in person.

The most-talked-about issue, especially in evangelical circles, is that of authority. Postmodernism rejects the modernist assumption that through the proper objective means we can learn all truth with absolute certainty. This is usually presented with doom-and-gloom overtones by modernist conservative evangelicals: “the postmodern generation has no respect for authority and so the faith will die if we don’t hold fast to Truth.” But there’s the big difference between modernists (both liberal and conservative) from postmodernists. We care a lot more about following the straight-forward commands of Jesus – love your neighbour and enemy alike, pick up your cross, judge not lest we be judged, etc – than we do about establishing precise doctrines that we can use to beat our opponents over the head with. That’s especially true for those doctrines that are historically new or not held by lots of other Christian groups, since our generation’s access is also leading to exploring other Christian teachings. It scares a lot of people, but what it comes down to is not that we don’t have any sense of authority. It is instead that we have a different goal: love instead of truth.

There are also advantages of these three shifts. If the church can learn to take advantage of them, at least. In general, the church is led by the modern generations and have a hard time realizing that these shifts are taking place. So young people leave the church, most of which don’t come back, and the older generations simply shrug it off because they are doing what they have always done. If those generations can learn to listen to our postmodern generation and can take the appropriate actions, the bleeding from their churches will stop. I’m sure I’ll get more practical as I get into the more-specific complaints of church dropouts which Kinnaman gets into later in the book.

Defining the Drop-Outs: Nomads, Prodigals, and Exiles

As the next point of introduction, Kinnaman talks about three different categories of those who are dropping out of the church. I’ll be quick in summarizing this, although Kinnaman does give more details. I’ll just post here paraphrases of some of his summary notes on each.

Nomads:

  • They still describe themselves as Christians, but are not particularly committed to their faith or church.
  • They believe that involvement in a Christian community is optional.
  • Faith is not important.
  • Most are not angry or hostile to Christianity.
  • Many experiment with other spiritualities.

Prodigals:

  • They feel varying levels of resentment to Christians and Christianity.
  • They have disavowed ever returning to church.
  • They have completely given up on Christianity.
  • If they have regrets, they usually centre on feeling bad for their parents (not missing the faith or the church at all)
  • They feel like they have broken free of constraints

Exiles

  • They are not inclined toward being separate from “the world.”
  • They are skeptical of institutions but not entirely disengaged from them.
  • They sense God moving outside of the church.
  • They are not disillusioned with the Christian tradition but are frustrated with shallow religion.
  • They express a mix of concern and optimism for their peers.
  • They have not found that faith is instructive to their calling or gifts.
  • They struggle when other Christians question their motives.

It seems pretty safe to say that I’m an exile as those all do define me to some extent. Maybe I’m being a little selfish but I think the exile group is the one that the modern church most needs to pay attention to. Unlike the others, we haven’t already given up. We are actively thinking about these things and we have ideas to contribute.

Where do you fit: nomad, prodigal, exile, content with the modern church, or outside of the church and the faith entirely?

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.