Sustainable Faith: Prodigals, Nomads, Exiles

Sustainable Faith: Prodigals, Nomads, Exiles

What makes the difference between a teenager staying connected to the church or straying from it? A previous article here shares several key observations by David Kinnaman, president of The Barna Group on the topic. His organization has been researching what makes for sustainable faith and while the organization is still in the midst of the study, he did share several key observations at the LOGOS Live Conference in San Antonio, Texas in October. This article continues the discussion.


What about those of the “next generation” who do leave the church?  Do they share any common characteristics?  And if so, does that give church leaders clues as to how we can keep our young people engaged and connected to the faith?

David described three types of young people who leave . . . Prodigals, Nomads, and Exiles.

  • Prodigals: These are the ones who have walked away from their faith. They’ve made an intentional break.  Presumably they’ve had a negative experience with the church or with Christians.  They’re feeling angry or annoyed with Christians in general now.
  • Nomads: These are the spiritual wanderers who have gradually disengaged.  Church is just not as important to them as it used to be.  They don’t feel that they “fit in” to church anymore and they don’t see that church matters.  This is the most common group who leave the church.
  • Exiles: These are the young people who now find themselves in a culture or environment that is very different than what their “growing up in” church understands or accepts. Because of their occupation or where they live or how they live, they have a need to navigate new territory and don’t see the church as being helpful or supportive.

I’m wondering if many of our nomads started as exiles as they entered college.  Unless they were very intentional in connecting with a Christian community it would be all too easy to move deeper and deeper into a place that separates them from what they experienced in their home-church environment — no matter how beloved at the time. And then that separation just becomes the norm and there’s little recognition of the importance of a church community or for practicing their faith.

Some questions to ponder:

What do you do to maintain the connection with the post-high school (and particularly college attending) youth from your church?  Is it important to keep them connected not only to their home church leaders but also to their home church peers?

What are some ideas to reconnect with them on a regular basis and when they come home for their natural seasonal breaks? Do you plan mission trips or on-line Bible studies?  Fellowship gatherings?


Liz Perraud is the Executive Director of GenOn Ministries, a non-denominational Christian organization that works in partnership with local church leaders to build disciples of Jesus Christ through intergenerational relationships.


This Post Has One Comment

  1. Jenifer Gamber

    Thanks for this article–for raising important questions about what the church offers (and doesn’t offer) emerging adults. From talking with emerging adults, churches often don’t offer them a place to gather and learn together.

    Those interested in knowing the “ingredients” for growing young adults who sustain their belief in God may want to read the book “Souls in Transition” by Christian Smith. [I rather like to pose the question this way–what soil nurtures the faith of teenagers?] You will find your answer about nomads–5% of young adult Christians made their first commitment to God during their young adult years. 85% made it before age 14. (I’m not a fan of the numbers game. The “average young adult” doesn’t exist and making a difference in the life of one young adult is worth it.) Young adults aren’t leaving church at a higher rate than 30 years ago.

    The book is based on the third wave of interviews that are part of the National Study on Youth and Religion ( This last wave is a five-year follow up with teenagers who were part of the study that produced the book “Soul Searching” (also by Christian). The most important predictor of the faith of emerging adults? Strong parental religion. This suggests that growing religious teens requires having programs that support faith practices in the home. Another factor is frequent personal prayer. Does the Episcopal church have resources that support a prayer life for Episcopal teens?

    Interestingly enough, according to this study of all Christian young adults mission trips during teenage years are not independently important to a stronger belief in God for young adults. That doesn’t mean we ought not to go on mission trips. We go on mission trips for other reasons–to minister to the world–to bring God’s kingdom to the here and now. I imagine that young adults in the Episcopal church value ministry outside the walls of the church because that is what we do. It’s part of our core identity as expressed in the Baptismal Covenant.

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