The Rise of Digital Urban Tribes: How we under and overestimate the power and shape of the next generation, by David Kinnaman

A response to Thomas E. Bergler’s The Juvenilization of American Christianity

by David Kinnaman

The most popular games are those that rely on both strategy and luck. When we win, we like to credit our acumen. When we lose, it’s easy to blame the unfortunate odds.

Many Christians seem to think discipling the next generation of Christ followers is a simple mix of skill and luck. It goes something like this: God gets the credit when the kids turn out all right, and our broken world gets the blame when things run amok. This logic may not be entirely wrong, but it oversimplifies on-the-ground realities

Our team at Barna Group has spent the past five years researching the development of Christianity among youth and young adults—more than 5,000 interviews on this subject. We’ve examined the perceptions of teens and 20-somethings, and we’ve explored the attitudes of stakeholders, including pastors, youth workers, parents, and ministry professionals who work with the younger generation. My take on our research findings is that we underestimate three aspects of discipleship, and overvalue another, regarding the next generation.

Underestimating the profound impact of social change

First, we underestimate the profound impact of the social changes that are taking place with the current millennial generation, or “mosaics,” as we call them. Today’s generation of youth and young adults is more conversant with technology, less likely to come from married families, and more financially indebted than any previous generation. Their levels of religious, ethnic, and sexual diversity far outpace those of preceding generations. And they are getting married much later in life than did the boomers. Robert Wuthnow’s book After the Boomers shows just how much this current generation of young adults is “launching” later in life—taking longer to get through the major maturing events in life, like marriage, education, and parenthood.

Here’s how we describe this trend: Most 20-somethings today are digitally connected, in urban tribes, and are unmarried. By comparison, the typical boomer completed most major life transitions before age 30. To put it more starkly: A majority of today’s 20-somethings live in anything but conventional young families. And this is a particular problem for congregations, because most faith communities tend to “work best” with traditional family units.

The point is this: The rise of digital urban tribes of 20-somethings is having a profound, lasting impact on the spiritual trajectory of today’s emerging generation and specifically the church.

Underestimating how young people are shaped by the massive power of the digital media

Second, we underestimate how much young people are shaped by the massive power of the digital tools, consumer culture, and media of the broader American culture. Thomas Bergler’s work in The Juvenilization of American Christianity gives us a fabulous phrase for this: “the deadening effect of popular culture.”

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