What prompted you to write about ex-Christians?
My friends started to leave the faith—the first was a friend from high school. We had both grown up in the church. Both of our fathers were pastors. Then a few years after high school, he came to visit and informed me that he was no longer a Christian. That got my attention. As I moved through my twenties, I witnessed other friends "deconvert." I started reading about the topic and realized that these experiences were not unique. Many in my generation were walking away from their Christian faith.
What was the most poignant finding you came across when writing Generation Ex-Christian?
I encountered some surprising signs of spiritual life. In the interviews, I asked the ex-Christians whether they ever still prayed. It was an absurd question, really, considering how bitterly most of them had rejected God. But most still did pray. They were angry, conflicted prayers, but beautiful in their honesty and desperation: "God, where are you? Can you hear me? Do you exist? Do you even care about me? I miss you."
As a Christian, these prayers were heartening. God is still very much at work in the hearts of those who have rejected him. I've learned to start hearing skepticism as the language of spiritual longing.
You have some interesting categories in your book: Drifters, Neopagans, Rebels, Recoilers, and Modern and Postmodern leavers. Can you explain what these terms mean?
No two "leavers" are exactly the same, but some patterns did emerge. "Postmodern" leavers reject Christianity because of its exclusive truth claims and moral absolutes. For them, Christian faith is just too narrow. "Recoilers" leave because they were hurt in the church. They suffered some form of abuse at the hands of someone they saw as a spiritual authority. God was guilty by association. "Modernists" completely reject supernatural claims. God is a delusion. Any truth beyond science is dismissed as superstition. "Neo-pagans" are those who left for earth-based religions such as Wicca. Not all of these actually cast spells or perform pagan rituals, but they deny a transcendent God, and see earth as the locus of true spirituality. Spiritual "Rebels" flee the faith to indulge in behavior that was incompatible with their faith. They also value autonomy and don't want anyone—especially a superintending deity—telling them what to do. "Drifters" do not suffer intellectual crises or consciously leave the faith; they simply drift away. Over time God becomes less and less important until one day he's no longer part of their lives.
These groupings were not meant to be scientifically precise; their value was diagnostic and utilitarian. I wanted to help people understand why young people abandon the faith and equip Christians to engage leavers in meaningful conversations about God.
Has the church played a role in causing this trend? If so, how can it stem the tide?
Over the past couple decades the focus in youth ministry has shifted from spiritual growth to attracting large numbers of kids and keeping them entertained. This move has had some ugly unintended consequences. Today many youth ministries are practically devoid of any spiritual engagement. Some have been reduced to using violent video game parties to lure students through their church doors on Friday nights. Church researcher Ed Stetzer describes most youth groups as "holding tanks with pizza." There's nothing wrong with video games and pizza, but they're tragic replacements for discipleship and catechism. Many young people have been exposed to a superficial form of Christianity that effectively inoculates them against authentic faith. To stem the tide of young people leaving, I believe churches need to shift the emphasis back to religious education and spiritual growth.