How to Form Resilient Disciples in an Age of Church Dropouts

Pastor Dillon Thornton


In a recent post, I asserted that the traditional approach to ministry needs an overhaul. As a refresher, here’s what I wrote: 

If the goal is to impart a lively, lasting faith to the next generation, we’re failing. Perhaps it’s time to rethink our practices, beginning with the idea that our children and students need to be segregated from the congregation. For decades, the dominant ministry model has been the one that creates flashy, thrilling settings for children and youth, something akin to a Christian version of Walt Disney World or Universal. Make no mistake: this ministry model is extremely effective at drawing a crowd. But the statistics reveal that it is not effective at producing deep-soil disciples.

Last week David Kinnaman’s newest book was released. If Kinnaman writes a book, I read it. He’s that good. That helpful. If you’re not familiar with Kinnaman, he’s the president of Barna Group, the leading research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture. In his 2011 book, You Lost Me, Kinnaman argued that the church has a serious dropout problem. At the time, his studies revealed that 59 percent of young adults with a Christian background had dropped out of church involvement. In his newest book, Faith for Exiles, he writes, “In less than a decade, the proportion of eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-old dropouts has increased. Today, nearly two-thirds of all young adults who were once regular churchgoers have dropped out (64 percent).”

In Faith for Exiles, Kinnaman divides today’s eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds into four categories:

  • Prodigals (Ex-Christians): Individuals with a Christian background who no longer identify as Christian.

  • Nomads (Anti-Church): People who identify as Christian but are no longer involved in a church.

  • Habitual Churchgoers (Attenders/Consumers): Those who describe themselves as Christian, and attend church at least monthly, but are not intentional about engaging the culture or sharing their faith with others.

  • Resilient Disciples (Difference Makers): Christ-followers who gather regularly for worship, Bible study, and prayer, and then scatter for the purpose of displaying the glory of Christ to the world.

Here’s the kicker: According to the latest research, only 10 percent of today’s young adults can be classified as Resilient Disciples. 

Kinnaman’s new work focuses on the 10 percent; it probes the data to discern the story behind their resilience. The book uncovers five key practices that form resilient faith:

  • To form a resilient identity, experience intimacy with Jesus.

  • In a complex and anxious age, develop the muscles of cultural discernment.

  • When isolation and mistrust are the norms, forge meaningful, intergenerational relationships.

  • To ground and motivate an ambitious generation, train for vocational discipleship.

  • Curb entitlement and self-centered tendencies by engaging in countercultural mission.

As I read about these practices, I was profoundly encouraged. Our identity in Christ, living out our Christian identity in our cultural context, the importance of intergenerational fellowship (one body), faith and vocation, and the primacy of the mission: these are points that Faith Church has been underscoring, especially recently. By God’s grace, and according to Kinnaman’s research, we are moving in a healthy direction; we are committed to the very practices that will help form resilient disciples. So whatever challenges come our way, let us not grow weary of doing good (2 Thess 3:13).