Wednesday, May 16, 2012

You Lost Me

One of the side effects of my two weeks spent hanging out online with Methodists is that I heard frequently about the book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church . . . and Rethinking Faith, by David Kinnaman. It is not the kind of book that I would normally read, if not for the fact that it was available for free on Kindle. I’ve been reading a lot of free books since I re-injured my left foot.

The title of  You Lost Me is self-explanatory. The book reviews data collected by the Barna Group, showing that over half of 18 to 29 year-olds who attended church as teens are leaving the church, and discusses what to do about it. He divides his research subjects into three groups: Nomads, who drop out of church but still identify as Christian, Prodigals, who are skeptics and consider themselves ex-Christians, and Exiles, who don’t attend church but still “pursue God-honoring lives”.

Given the emphasis on research in the descriptions of this book, I was expecting a different kind of book. Kinnaman’s book is written from the point of view that young people leaving the church is a bad thing. That’s a perfectly valid point of view. Kinnaman, after all, is president of the Barna Group, an evangelical polling firm whose business is providing churches with information they need to grow those churches. It doesn’t mean (I hope) that they slant their statistics, but it does mean they are going to have an opinion about what their statistics show. I would have been more interested in reading about the results presented from a more neutral viewpoint, not “Whoops, we’re doing something wrong” or even “Yay, we’re doing something right” from an atheist perspective. But that’s a personal preference, and doesn’t say anything about the value of the book to the average reader.

The more important problem I see is what is missing from the book. In each chapter, Kinnaman cites the pertinent statistics about young people who gave negative answers, but he doesn’t cite the numbers or percentages of young people who gave positive (toward church)  or neutral answers. For example, in a section titled Nomads Describe Their Faith Journeys, Kinnaman lists 6 statements that reflect negative views of church such as “Church meant a lot to me when I was younger, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense in my life now” and “I may return to church when I am older but I have no interest now”. Next to each statement, he gives the percentage of respondents who described each statement as “completely true of me” or “completely or mostly true of me”. I presume that choices such as “slightly true of me”, “mostly not true of me” or “not true at all of me” were also available to respondents, but we don’t ever see those numbers. So for the statement “Church meant a lot to me when I was younger, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense in my life now”, we are told that 6% of respondents selected “completely true of me” and 20% selected “completely or mostly true of me”, but we don’t know how the rest of the answers were distributed. Did most of the missing 74% think the statement was sort of true of  them or not at all true of them? There is a huge difference between a problem of a church that barely meets the needs of young people and meets the needs of a significant chunk of them so badly that they are leaving, and a church that meets the needs of most young people quite well but is failing to meet the needs of a significant chunk of them so badly that they are leaving. Unless I missed something, nowhere in the book is that distinction addressed. 

There is an old saying that you can prove anything with statistics, but that is true only to the extent that no one is paying attention. If you understand the underlying logic behind the gathering of statistics, you will know whether the numbers someone offers proves their case or not, unless they are flat out making the numbers up. You will know why it’s important to have a control group to contrast with a study group. You’ll know which numbers answer which questions.

Kinnaman wants us to believe that the generation he calls “Mosaics” are “discontinuously different” from previous generations in terms of Access (to information and technology), Alienation, and their response to Authority. Even if this is true, without comparing how (or even if)  18 to 29-year-olds who have left church differ from those who still attend church with respect to access, alienation, and authority, he has no grounds for saying that these are the factors that influence their having left church, let alone serve as predictors they won’t return.

Not only does Kinnaman not present data that differentiated his Nomads, Prodigals, and Exiles from their church-going peers, he doesn’t have a comparison group of data from older generations obtained at the time they were 18-29. Granted, that data might not even exist, but you can’t demonstrate that Mosaics are truly “discontinuously different” from prior generations by comparing how Mosaics describe themselves now to how the previous generations also describe themselves now, which is what Kinnaman attempts to do. He cites Bob Buford as claiming, “Boomers describe their generation with terms like ‘work ethic’, ‘respectful’, ‘values and morals’, and ‘smarter’”. I am a Boomer, and here’s how I remember it: our “work ethic” was “tune in, turn on, drop out”; “respectful” meant “don’t trust anyone over thirty” and calling law enforcement officers “pigs”;  our “values and morals” led to the sexual revolution and a book called Steal This Book. If we’ve persuaded Buford to believe we truly saw ourselves as embodying a work ethic, respect and values and morals, we were definitely smart, I’ll give him that.

Obviously this book is useful to the pastors and youth workers who have been talking it up. I wouldn’t tell anyone not to buy it. It’s just that I see it as one more in a long line of popular books that cite research inappropriately, and in the process miseducate their readers about what questions statistics can answers and how powerful they can be when used properly. For that reason, David Kinnaman, you lost me.

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