Book Review: ‘Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon’ by David Kinnaman & Mark Matlock

Review by Jana Riess. Jana Riess is the author of many books, including “The Prayer Wheel” (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and “The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church” (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

A former colleague got in touch this week to ask me a question I’ve heard often since The Next Mormons was published. He understands the problems we’re all facing with religious retention in America; now he would like to be pointed to solutions, especially for Millennials and Generation Z.

What ideas or practices are actually “working to mitigate or reverse those trends,” and is there solid research about what can help?

His timing is excellent, because this week I interviewed researcher David Kinnaman, who is the president of the Barna Group and the co-author of two prior studies that have been extremely helpful in diagnosing the problems (You Lost Me and UnChristian). Kinnaman’s third book is Faith for Exiles, co-authored with pastor and consultant Mark Matlock. It takes some of Barna’s research and turns it around, focusing not on the characteristics and views of those who have left their churches, but those who have stayed.

First, the bad news. In the years that Barna has been tracking young Christians’ engagement with their faith, retention has gotten worse. In 2011, 59% of young Americans who grew up Christian had stopped attending their churches, but less than a decade later that has inched upward to 64%, or nearly two-thirds.

And in another trend, the percentage who no longer identify as Christian at all—not just that they’re not attending church, but that they don’t believe—has doubled in that time, from 11% to 22%. “That corresponds with a trend in our GenZ work where atheism has doubled,” says Kinnaman.

David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group

The rest of Faith for Exiles takes a glass-half-full approach, however, and focuses attention on the most committed disciples, the talented tenth. According to Barna’s research, 10% of young adults who grew up at least nominally Christian are not only still claiming that identity today, but engaging in a warm and vibrant faith that informs their daily decisions. Kinnaman calls these the “Resilient Disciples.”

He also calls them “exiles,” but exile here is actually positive. What the Resilient Disciples are exiled from is the frenetic consumerism and selfishness of American culture in the 21st century. In an image that crops up periodically throughout the book, they are akin to the Bible’s Daniel and his friends trying to live out their faith in a foreign environment.

The book calls our own environment “digital Babylon,” and it is very different from the “Jerusalem” that American Christians used to inhabit.

Jerusalem was . . . Babylon is . . .
Monoreligious Pluralistic
Slower paced Accelerated
Homogeneous Diverse
Central control Open source
Sweet and simple Bittersweet
Idols: religious pride and false piety Idols: Fitting in and not missing out


Resilient Disciples are caught between cultures but are navigating that dilemma with their faith “firmly planted in the real world.” In fact, Kinnaman says this group actually thrives more in the hostile environment—and that there is a biblical precedent for this crucible effect.

“In the Bible there are times when the people of God who are the center of the story in the scriptures are also at the center of society, like when David was king. And whether they’re doing good or not, there’s a shared central narrative about how society is supposed to work. But the majority of Christian scriptures are written from and to and about Exiles, which means that they’re dealing with the tensions that we’re seeing today.”

As America shifts from a predominantly Christian identity to a “post-Christian or even post-faith identity,” more Christians will have to learn how to live “with that one foot in and one foot out,” like Daniel.

With that in mind, Faith for Exiles highlights five characteristics that Resilient Disciples seem to share—and offers advice for pastors and others who want to create the best possible contexts for teenagers and young adults to flourish.

They experience personal intimacy with Jesus.

According to the book, America’s fixation with individualism has eroded Christians’ primary identity as children of God. Churches that push back on “Brand Jesus,” emphasize regular devotional habits, and make heartfelt worship a priority are doing better than those that seek to entertain.

“This generation has a really high sense that they’ve been marketed to to death,” Kinnaman says. “They have a high regard for authenticity. So the first thing to ask is: what’s really going on inside? Just because people are assenting or attending doesn’t mean they’ve made a deep emotional connection to God.”

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Source: Religion News Service