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Christian Union: The Magazine
August 13, 2020

Flourishing in Digital Babylon 

by david kinnaman and mark matlock

In a previous era, we had some semblance of success with mass-producing disciples. We had big rallies and crusades and whiz-bang events, and many young people came forward to pledge their lives to Christ. But as the growing dropout rate starkly reveals, that approach alone doesn’t seem to work here and now as well as it did there and then.

In digital Babylon, faithful, resilient disciples are handcrafted one life at a time. Over the past ten years, we’ve observed five patterns of intentional behavior we can adopt to guide disciples in the making.


We propose that the goal of discipleship today is to develop Jesus followers who are resiliently faithful in the face of cultural coercion and who live a vibrant life in the Spirit.

Let’s examine the component parts of this definition.

To develop Jesus followers. Our ultimate aim must be to make deep, lasting connections between young people and Jesus, “who initiates and perfects our faith” and endured the cross and its shame to joyfully redeem the world (Heb. 12:2). Those who follow Him also undertake His joyful mission of redemption. As a community of faith, we sometimes miss opportunities to propel young people into the mission of Jesus. Millennials and Gen Z are often more willing to be challenged than we are willing to challenge them.

Who are resiliently faithful in the face of cultural coercion. Resilience is a hot topic in business circles, and for good reason; it’s what a person, team, or company needs in order to emerge from inevitable challenges not only intact but also with refined skills and deeper wisdom. In the realm of faith, resilient disciples grow more like Jesus, not in spite of, but because of their location in a society that exerts enormous coercive power, as in digital Babylon.

And who live a vibrant life in the Spirit. These Jesus-centered, culture-countering people adopt a way of life that is obviously different from the powerful norms of go-with-the-flow life in the screen age.

Our focus in our research was not those who leave but those who stick around, who find cause as they come of age to make faith a high priority—and find the inner and outer resources to sustain resilient faith in the face of long odds. We interviewed young adults, eighteen to twenty-nine-year-olds with a churchgoing background, about their past and present experiences of Christian formation.

To zero in on the most committed young adults, we started by looking for the significant basics of Christian life. These Christians are regularly involved in a worshiping community and have made a personal commitment to Jesus, who they believe was crucified and raised to conquer sin and death. They also strongly affirm that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, which contains truth about the world. For this study, they also had to agree with one or more of the following “exile” statements:


• I want to find a way to follow Jesus that connects with the world I live in.

• God is more at work outside the church than inside, and I want to be a part of that.


How many young Christians meet these criteria? There is a countercultural 10 percent of young Christians whose faith is vibrant and robust. Let’s sit with the good news for a minute: from a numbers point of view, this percentage amounts to just under four million eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds in the U.S. who follow Jesus and are resiliently faithful. Not only are the most engaged young Christians serious about personal faith and faithfulness, but they are also concerned for and thoughtful about how their faith in Christ intersects meaningfully and missionally with the world around them. In spite of the tensions they feel between church and everyday life, they keep showing up. Three-quarters of them declare a commitment to “help the church change its priorities to be what Jesus intended it to be” (76 percent).

That’s resilience.

These are our “exemplars”—those who exemplify the kind of resilient discipleship we believe can flourish in digital Babylon. These sisters and brothers are young adults who model the outcomes hoped for by the community of faith. By getting to know these resilient disciples, we can find out what formation experiences and relationships are most effective for growing resilient faith in exile.

They represent the leading lights of young adult Christianity—not because they are perfect but because they exemplify a full-bodied experience of following Jesus that we should all hope to emulate. Most of their Christianized peers do not.

Our research shows that, in the face of a coercive, spirit-depleting, screen-obsessed society, cultivating the following five practices helps to form resilient faith. Again, these are not simple formulas; they are guidelines and guardrails for the formation of the soul. Think of these as the spiritual scaffolding around a young soul that enables the Holy Spirit to access the life inside, or the trellis that supports a growing disciple’s branches as their roots sink deep enough to sustain them.


• 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.


The second practice is cultural discernment, which relates primarily to the life of the mind—how we think about and perceive our role in a post-Christian environment. Exercising wisdom is harder than ever because the increasing complexity of life correlates with the rising anxiety of our age. In response to these trends and in order to cultivate cultural discernment, churches must become robust learning communities that help people address deep questions related to How should I live?

The third practice is meaningful, intergenerational relationships, an objective of resilience that is often undone by powerful forces of isolation and mistrust. That is, society’s centrifugal force of individualism tends to pull people apart, but the church puts people back together. We aspire to create a community in which people enjoy spending time together and want to emulate one another’s lives. In so doing, we lay a foundation for one of the fundamental questions people ask: Am I really known and loved by anyone?

The fourth practice is vocational discipleship, which involves crafting integrated lives of purpose, especially in the arena of work. Teens and young adults today are smart, connected, ambitious, and career focused. The church can disciple them into their God-given callings—what they were made by their Creator to do—by reframing things such as ambition, generosity, productivity, and meaning. Vocational discipleship builds a foundation to help people wrestle to the ground questions such as What am I called to do with my life?

The fifth and final practice is countercultural mission, the relentless pursuit of faithful and fruitful presence in our communities by living differently from cultural norms (pursuing holiness) and trusting God to show up. Despite cultural pressures toward entitlement and self-centeredness, Christians pursue a life of sacrifice and service to others. But this isn’t merely some social club for doing good; pursuing countercultural mission means acknowledging that God’s design for life is much bigger than we can imagine and helps us address gnawing questions like What is the significance of life? and What kind of legacy am I leaving?


Adapted from Faith for Exiles by David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock (pages 29-35 and 208-210).