Faith for Exiles

They had me at the Tolkien quote on the front page.

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Faith for Exiles

I’m a long time fan of David Kinnaman’s work and a newbie to Mark Matlock’s, having read, and incorporated into my doctoral thesis, pretty much all of Kinnaman’s titles. (You Lost Me, unChristian, Good Faith, Churchless).

So I might have been the first person to fill out the application to be on the launch team for Faith for Exiles: Five Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon.

It did not disappoint.

The Exodus Is Real

While many of us in church leadership wring our hands over the exodus of young people from the church, documented so well in the books mentioned above, the authors offer here a portrait of the kind of young believer who stays—thus affording us a chance to change the equation, if we pay attention.

This is good news for both church leaders and parents. Parents of littles—don’t believe you have to wait for this information. Discipleship begins young, very young, and having a front-row seat to learn all you can now about how kids stay faithful matters. It matters very, very much.

I've yet to read the Scriptue that said children have to wait and watch until they'rte old enough to _handle_ using their spiritual gifts. Our children need to experience their faith in action. discovering they don't

Kinnaman and Matlock begin with the premise I’ve believed and talked about for a long time—we no longer live in the Promised Land. We are exiles in Babylon who must look to the prophets for our wisdom more than the Exodus. Our culture is not Christian, but God wants us to be Christians in our culture. Like Daniel and his famous furnace friends, we must develop the faith required to hold onto the essentials of what we know about God while caring deeply for the place in which we find ourselves. Our stance should take it’s wisdom from one of my most oft-quotes Jeremiah lines (and I quote Jeremiah a lot):

“This is what the Lord says to all the captives he has exiled to Babylon from Jerusalem: ‘Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.’” (Jeremiah 29:4-7)

Our young people deeply feel this truth—that the welfare of those around them—all those around them—will determine their welfare. Yet they struggle with the information overload, the plethora of options and “truths” ricocheted toward them like they’re living in a particle accelerator with no off switch. The older generation needs their understanding of and compassion for Babylon. They need our experience in how not to allow its noise to drown us and mold us into its design.

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Photo by Rohit Tandon on Unsplash

Digital Babylon, as the title explains, is not a concrete place but an interwoven haze of electronic environment that overhangs and fogs us all. The younger generation are both more aware of its potential and  more susceptible to its siren call.

“Through screens’ ubiquitous presence, Babylon’s pride, power, prestige, and pleasure colonize our hearts and minds. Pop culture is a reality filter. Websites, apps, movies, TV, video games, music, social media, YouTube channels, and so on increasingly provide the grid against which we test what is true and what is real. The media and the messages blur the boundary between truth and falsehood. What is real is up for grabs.”

The authors first make the case for the dangers ( as well as the potential) of digital Babylon, and they make it well. Those of us who did not come of age surrounded by electronics, available 24/7, conscious of our pubic image at all times, do not understand this, no matter how much we research it. We need to hear our young people on it, without making assumptions or declarations.

The focus of the book, however, is not on the problem but on the solution. How do we raise what they refer to as “resilient Christians”—young people who remain in church, retain their active faith, and recharge their world while in Babylon?

Five Practices

Five things stood out as they interviewed the ones who stay. Resilient Christians, those whose faith remains strong and active, have five characteristic practices:

Practice 1: To form a resilient identity, experience intimacy with Jesus. ​

Practice 2: In a complex and anxious age, develop the muscles of cultural discernment. ​

Practice 3: When isolation and mistrust are the norms, forge meaningful, intergenerational relationships. ​

​Practice 4: To ground and motivate an ambitious generation, train for vocational discipleship. ​

​Practice 5: Curb entitlement and self-centered tendencies by engaging in countercultural mission.

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Photo by anja. on Unsplash

The book outlines all of the five with illustrations, ideas, and examples of how these practices are given life in both young people and their churches. The churches, of course, are the target for this information. If church leaders do not look at the data and pay attention to what effective discipleship looks like, it won’t matter that we know the right answers. The church has to make the move to change the way we disciple our young people. Parents, it’s never too early to look at our church practices and help be the change. (That’s one reason I have two talks–“Unplugged” and “Families on Mission,” on my speaking page!)

Just One Practice

For example, practice one—experience intimacy with Jesus.

“It is easy to call oneself a Christian but much less common to find deep joy in Jesus. That conclusion is where our first practice begins. The first practice of resilient discipleship in digital Babylon is clearing religious clutter to experience intimacy with Jesus.”

We learn how to identify that clutter (things like idolizing our own image, for example) and how to focus, as a church, on helping young people find their center in Christ, not personal brand or knowledge about God. It’s this deep, personal experience with God that gives them the resilience to  know, despite culture’s barrage to the contrary, that their identity is secure in Christ and He knows exactly what it’s like to live in their shoes.

One of the errors the authors point out is that the church, rather than pursuing this deep relationship, has pursued the branding of Jesus themselves.

“The church has responded to the identity pressures of our culture by offering young people a Jesus ‘brand experience’ rather than facilitating a transformational experience to find their identity in the person and work of Jesus.”

Once the brand wears off, as they all do, there is no resilient faith left.

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Photo by James Baldwin on Unsplash

The Other Four

The other four practices are equally interesting and informative. I already used some of the material in the chapter on vocation to foster a lively discussion during my sermon on calling a couple weeks ago. The young people there definitely resonated with the realities Kinnaman and Matlock present, and they had much to say about their frustrations regarding jobs, careers, and calling in today’s world. The church can step in with so much wisdom in this area, if we try.

The chapter on intergenerational discipleship drives home the absolute need for older people to be involved. Another finding I’ve read is that the “magic number” of adults actively involved in a young person’s life is five. That means five older Christians to take an interest, have a conversation (where you listen!), take a young person out to coffee or for a walk, teach someone how to cook or sew or handle a bank account, text a caring message, can make all the difference in a person’s continued faith.

In conversations and writing with my own twenty-somethings and others, many of the truths in this books have come alive. 

These aren’t difficult practices. But they are deliberate and intentional, and they require a sacrifice of that elusive commodity–time. They do insist we changing our framework from entertaining and evangelizing to discipling and serving. I’ll close with this, one of the greatest truths of discipleship, yet one we forgo time and again when it comes to young people. Please, don’t let it go in your child’s life.

“In digital Babylon, faithful, resilient disciples are handcrafted one life at a time.”

Pokemon GO and the Salvation of Western Civilization

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As a prelude to what I hope will be a series on young people, and a follow up to last week’s discussion of Growing With–I’m retuning to a favorite of mine, originally run here on the Theology Mix blog.

I have to update–statements made in the first paragraph are now invalid. My daughter taught me to play a few weeks ago. And all my assumptions that I could get addicted were accurate.

Pokémon GO will save the world

Well, that could be an overstatement. Other things are doing their share.

Still, it’s a valid hope. I don’t personally play the game. It looks fun—and I do have an inherent passion for collecting things that is totally compatible with the idea of going around catching various creatures, indexing and organizing them like my junior high insect collection that took on epic proportions. My highest StrengthsFinder score is Input–ie, collector of things. Any things, really.

\So, really, best I don’t touch the thing. I know my limits, and with time an endangered commodity in my life right now, another way to spend it should not be on the table. I will stick with geocaching when I feel the need to hunt outdoors.

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Yes, this is actually mine. Yes, it’s fun.

However, I have trailed along as a cultural observer when others play. In the trailing, there is a tale to tell. Pokémon players are changing the lonely landscape for the better.

Fact: Millennials are the loneliest age group in America.

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https://www.themarshallproject.org/2016/07/12/who-loves-pokemon-go-the-police

This as determined by researchers from the University of Cologne and the University of Chicago. They have eclipsed the presumed leaders in that race, the elderly. Their buzzword of choice may be community, but the reality is, they are finding it less and less. Blame social media, economic issues, mobility, competition, overzealous parents and ovescheduled lives, and fear of commitment. Whatever we blame, the reality is, our culture finds friendship and relationship disposable, and no one suffers more for it than the generation that learned friendship online.

Enter Pokémon. What I witnessed when accompanying my two Millennial daughters was nothing less than a modern social miracle. Dozens of young people wandered around the lakeside park. Some in groups, some alone, everyone staring at their phones. Suddenly, a random “Charmander!” rang out from across the field. Once, twice, three times. Strangers were calling others to come share the mecca of fiery creatures they had found. Other people who passed us offered up clues—“Dratini right over there.” “Go to that willow tree—there are Bulbasaur all over the place!” Everyone in the park was helping one another play the game. Something made them act as a team. Some sense of “we’re together here” permeated the area.

They are not becoming fast friends. They’re not walking away together linking arms and singing kumbaya or planning to be in each others’ weddings. But they are helping one another toward a mutual goal, with no personal gain at all.

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In a particularly contentious and angry time in the US, a game on a cell phone is causing strangers to work together. This is nothing short of miraculous. We should all be standing and applauding.

Of course, we’re not. Instead, I read random rants about how young people are staring at their phones again/always and how this makes them self-centered. I see older people condescending to younger ones with broad assumptions like, “If they put this much effort into getting a job, they’d be out of their parents houses’.” Such assumptions bother me, since my children, and most players I know, are gainfully employed and/or full time students. But they bother me further, on a much deeper level, because they prove the speaker has never had a conversation with any young person. At least, not a mutually respectful one.

This matters in the church. If we care about the loneliness epidemic outside (and inside) our walls among the Millennial generation, we will care about ways to bring them together. We will want to understand how they form community and why it matters. Pokémon GO has a few things to teach us about our relationships with and continued learning from the next generation.

Pokémon GO reminds us that Millennials don’t think play and work are mutually exclusive.

Will our leadership accept that work and play often look a lot alike for Millennials, and sometimes they are doing their best innovating when they are having fun? Can we adjust our committees, classes, and teaching to reflect this?

Pokémon GO is a game. It’s also a community, a place to belong, and a network. It didn’t take players long to realize that a game can be used to meet people, learn about other cultures, find job opportunities, or shatter their Fitbit goals.

Cities report that police officers are joining the game to create relationships in their communities. People are using the social phenomenon to solve seemingly intractable problems—like racial tensions and law enforcement woes. While the lines are blurring between work and play, they are also completely blurred between fun and practical change. Will our churches follow suit, or will we retain our insistence on old methods of solving problems?

Pokémon GO reminds us that Millennials want to ask questions rather than be told where everything is and how it works.

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Note Attention Road Sign Right Of Way Duplicate

Can our discipleship involve the kind of seeking that Millennials seem to prefer over the straight telling we have embraced for so long? Maybe we should ask more questions rather than give so many answers, so the search for being like Jesus can consume us like the search for Pikachu.

Pokémon GO reminds us that Millennials value relationships over formulas.

Can we encourage evangelism that’s more like playing games with a group of new friends than sealing a used car deal? Do all the right words mean less, ultimately, than being with another person? What would that look like in church programming?

Pokémon GO reminds us that Millennials want for a place to belong.

Will the church embrace that need and offer a balm for loneliness? Will we hold out the ultimate relationship rather than rules to live by? Will we invite them in regardless of their tribe or background or beliefs? Will we be the ones standing on the path calling, “What you’re looking for is over here! Come be with us. We understand the search. We’re with you in it. Let’s look together.”

It could save the world, you know.