Posted by: dacalu | 18 October 2011

Generation Gap

One of my friends suggested recently that the current generation of youth and young adults (13-35) is vapid, shallow, and self focused.  He thought it was particularly important to share faith with young people to combat this trend.  This seems to be a popular message in today’s Christian world, and I think it has some elements of truth to it, but I also fear it to be dangerous to evangelism and, frankly, to our ability to love one another.  I address this blog to anyone over 35 who worries about the next generation – but I hope the rest of you will find it useful as well.

As to my own context, I’m 36.  I’ve spent 9 of the last 12 years working with people ages 18-25; I have been a college teacher or professor for 5 of those years, a resident tutor for 4, and a priest for 4.  To my delight (and occasional horror), I have lived, worked, and worshiped with 20 year olds since I was 20 myself.

As to research, the trends are somewhat conflicting.  Denominational church membership has dropped steadily since the 70s.  Overall church and synagogue attendance has likewise dropped.  Demographics appear to have stayed the same, with a decrease in church attendance between the ages of 18 and 29, but returning in the 30s and 40s.  Reports of personal spirituality and belief have not gone down, but participation in large religious institutions has.  That in mind, most of what I will say is anecdotal, for which I make no apology; evangelism happens on a person by person basis. I’ll be the first to say we should take all we can from the numbers and the surveys…and then go out and talk to real people.

So, back to the statement: “the current generation of youth and young adults (13-35) is vapid, shallow, and self focused.”  How would I respond?

1) “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity…and there is no new thing under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1)  I do believe that most, if not all generations are vapid, shallow, and self-focused.  Christians have long held that humans tend toward pride, so in this, I must agree.  People are indeed shallow and we all need help to find true meaning, healthy relationships, and an abiding love of God.

2) As my mother reminded me recently, every generation believes the next generation to be out of step, too focused on themselves.  It’s a generational hazard, for which there’s a nifty catch phrase, “the generation gap.”

But let’s get down to brass tacks.

3) Were it true that this generation was shallow, telling them that they are will make for very poor evangelism.  Those young adults who are already members will feel insulted, and those outside will presume you simply don’t understand them.  “Why should I join a religious group that thinks I’m a weak willed consumer who simply goes with the spirit of the age?”  Perhaps – just perhaps – if we could tell them exactly what their sins are, they would be inclined to join.  But this has not happened.  What I hear are critiques of music, participation, and depth.  Generation Y has produced profoundly reflective music (both spiritual and secular), join groups more than anyone in 20 years, and regularly looks at questions of life and meaning.  These critiques miss the mark.

Which brings us to the central issue:  is the current generation shallow?

4) I genuinely think not.  Americans who are 20 today were 10 when the World Trade Center fell.  They have spent half their life with the country at war.  They have brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers who live and die on the other side of the world for the American military.  Many have joined the military or plan to do so when they leave college.  Though they cannot remember the cold war, AIDS has been a reality all of their lives.  With the recent downturn in the economy, many of them are graduating college with dim prospects for finding a job in their chosen field.  The big companies like IBM and Boeing, that used to offer a lifetime of job security, increasingly hire part-timers and contractors so that they don’t have to pay benefits.  The Wall Street of the 80s and the Silicon Valley of the 90s no longer hold out offers of abundant work and ready riches.  Even the university system seems to be trying to phase out tenure.  They’ve been told that the country cannot afford to pay for their medical care and probably won’t be able to pay them social security.  If this generation does not believe in institutions, there is a reason.  If they do not plan for the future, it is because the future is so unpredictable.

And yet, this is not a generation without hope.  Reflecting on my own childhood, I must say, we were shallow.  Generation X dealt with no wars in our childhood.  We worried about stability and meaning in our lives, but the economy was good and the country rather self-satisfied.  I have found Generation Y to be far more interested in public service and far more proactive about getting it done.  While Generation X and the Baby Boomers (perhaps necessarily) spent time finding ourselves, Gen Y wants community.  They just don’t know how to find it.

And here, again, I don’t think it’s appropriate to blame Gen Y.  It’s the people 40 and up who insisted on deconstructing institutional authority.  It’s the relentless pursuit of personal gain in the 80s that led to isolated families and weakened social structures.  It’s the partisanship of the 90s and 00s that led to our dismal inability to rely on authority figures.

Is it, then, all doom and gloom?  By no means.  There is hope in the future – and in the present.  Baby Boomers’ trust in our ability to fix things, Gen Xers’ profound introspection, and Gen Ys’ heartfelt desire to rebuild a common society – these are amazing blessings that can lead to the formation of a blessed and functional church and society.  We cannot – we must not – blame this generation for the faults of the world.  We have to talk to them, find out what their genuine problems are, and see if there is anything we can do to help.  We must look to them for the solutions we cannot find within ourselves.  We must find Christ in them.

My advice to the church…  If your goal is to fill your pews, you’ve already lost the battle.  The church is not now and never has been about attracting members.  It’s about sharing the good news of Christ Jesus, who notably never joined a church or gave a tithe.  If your goal is to get young people to carry on the traditions you hold dear, you must find out why you hold them dear and share that love with the people you meet.

In the end, though, I wish neither of those things for you or the church.  If our goal is to build the Body of Christ, we must learn to have genuine conversations with young people, learn their language so that they can speak to us and we to them.  Because I do believe this generation has particular challenges.  I believe they lack character, discipline, and concrete religious practices.  They ask for help in critical reflection, the deepening of spiritual experience, and the building of community.  We have that to offer.

And we must listen as well, because we are the ones who let the church decline.  We are the ones responsible for a breakdown in common life and hope.  We are the ones who raised this generation.

No more “vampire church” (We’re dead and we need fresh blood to stay alive).  No more “Why don’t they like us?  Why won’t they join?”  And above all, no more whining about the inadequacies of the people who choose not to join.  That’s vapid.  That’s shallow.  And yes, that is self-centered.  We (and they) are the children of God.  We (and they) preserve and share the Good News of Christ Jesus, that God loves us so dearly that he became one of us, died on our cross, and still came back.  God loves us so dearly that she abides with us, and in us, and acts through us.

They (and we) bring the truth that we could not bear before.

Let us all, then, do the work of seeking and serving Christ in all people, and building the Kingdom of God with the bricks that are available.

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