In the case of the well-known tension between the church and the younger generation, only one conclusion is possible. It’s not hard to figure out what we’re missing, it’s just hard to accept—on both sides.
It is no coincidence that we learn more from travelling than from books. And it is not for nothing that many of those who have had the chance to travel to places in the world which are culturally very different from the place in which they were born want to repeat the experience as soon as possible.
Yet, too often the fascination of looking at the world through different eyes, as a tourist, vanishes into thin air when it comes to cultural differences in our immediate contexts. Here, these become a source of tension, misunderstandings, and conflict. We no longer find anything exotic in the different worldviews of those around us. No passion to learn from differences is stirred up inside us, but rather an immense impulse to establish common standards for all.
Culture is nothing else but the reflection of a worldview: values, presuppositions and engagements shared by a group. And these different groups must not only be seen when outside of one’s country, on exotic holidays, simply to be appreciated as a source of knowledge and personal development. We need eyes to see them anytime and anywhere. In reality, it might be more exciting to try to understand the cultural differences among the regional populations of a country, the different cohabiting ethnic groups, the religious communities of a city, or different generations (which are, practically, the most accessible). Currently, at least from a religious point of view—even when it is part of the same national, ethnic, or religious group—the young generation (15-30 years) represents a different culture than that of the previous generation.
On the edge of the “non-existent” precipice
Social entrepreneur and Christian author, Bob Budford, said in 2010 that, in his opinion, “this generation is not just slightly different from the past. I believe they are discontinuously different than anything we have seen before.” Budford, who confessed that he did not know how to encourage the youngsters’ involvement in the church, based his conclusion on research which presented a list of the five most used phrases which four successive generations (the last one being the present one) used to describe themselves. One expression appears in all five lists: “smarter”. But what drove Budford to his conclusion was the fact that the three generations prior to the current one have more in common: “work ethic” appears on the list of each of the other three, “values and morals” and “respect” appear in two of the three lists, while the current young generation describes its main interests as follows: “using technology; music and pop culture; liberal/tolerant; smarter, and clothes”.
As a result, young people are tempted to create a personalised life pattern, to interact with all aspects which play a role in their lives, and to claim to influence and modify them.
Many older Christians like Bob Budford cannot understand how it is possible for such a gap (often subjectively perceived as being deeper than it really is) to exist, and how it is possible for a generation born in the same place to be so different. Many adults are inclined to believe that the young people of today are “out of order”, rather than different. How could they be so different, unless they are “out of order”?
The transformation of the world
Even if older Christian generations refuse to fully admit and explore it in detail, a transformation of the world—which in the past used to happen only once every few centuries—is currently in progress. The younger generation was born on the other side of a huge chasm, where the world is characterised by very different dynamics.
The fluidity, diversity, complexity, modularity and uncertainty which young people are faced with nowadays are unknown to the other three generations. Access to information, alienation from institutions (such as the fundamental institutions of marriage and the family), and distrust and questioning of authority are, in the view of the American Christian sociologist David Kinnaman, the three most important processes of identity construction for the younger generation.
Access to information
New technologies offer unprecedented access to information. Anything can be checked in real time on the internet. Young people live connected to the internet. Apps truly change their way of life, right down to the very tiniest and trivial details. Nowadays, the mobile phone is the key to access a world in which one can virtually find the answer to any question (especially since adults do not always have the time or the ability to give them answers). Apparently, for young people today, the challenge is no longer related to the place where you can find the answer to a question, but which of those questions one should ask with the answers just one click away.
As a result, young people are tempted to create a personalised life pattern, to interact with all aspects which play a role in their lives, and to claim to influence and modify them. To participate and modify everything happening to them has already turned into a reflex. Life no longer means just what is given to them, but it means, more than ever, what they choose and how they modify what they are given. This is where the idea of modularity comes from. Young people build their lives selecting and combining ‘modules’ of what they discover around them. They long to build their own brand on the internet, with an ever-growing audience, their own line of clothing, to have a personalised job, their own family model, their own life philosophy, and own religion. They want to express themselves, and to participate, not just consume.
Alienation and distrust of authority
A few decades after the emergence of the sexual revolution, feminism, the pro-choice movement and hippie culture, some of the effects of these new attitudes have been amplified.
Today we have more single-parent families and more children born outside of a family, which creates more isolation and alienation for the children. They grow up slower and get married later. A lot of young people come to feel abandoned by the education system (which they give up on), the labour market (which no longer offers them a job), the government (which they no longer vote for), traditional media (which they no longer read), and churches (which they no longer go to). Young people are “skeptical, even cynical, about the institutions that have shaped our society and, while they maintain an undiminished optimism about the future, they see themselves creating it, for the most part, by disengaging from the institutions (or at least reinventing them) which have shaped our culture up until now.”
The inadequacy of Christian churches, in the happiest case, and their hypocrisy, in the worst case, are now vocally called out by young people.
The common element of the aspects listed above is that young people nowadays tend not to have around them a group of adults to sustain and mentor them. Furthermore, they tend to lack a support group made up of people of the same age—even if they have a big “audience” of acquaintances on Facebook (which doesn’t mean they have a lot of real friends). There are some outliers, which are increasing slightly as a result of the growth in the number of young people who intentionally live according to different patterns. The existence of certain trends does not mean that all young people are confronted with the same situations.
We are currently dealing with some adult and senior Christian generations, on the one hand, which were formed in a different culture, and, on the other hand, we have a generation of young people with access to information who are alienated, and who choose their own sources of arbitration and authority (including religious ones). We therefore have some generations which do not fully comprehend the dynamics and novelty of young people’s lives, and a young generation alienated from the church, and skeptical towards authority. In this picture, Christianity is apparently the fish washed up on the shore, missing the lungs it needs to breathe.
The inadequacy of Christian churches, in the happiest case, and their hypocrisy, in the worst case, are now vocally called out by young people. Based on studies carried out over a long period, the Barna Research Institute compiled a list of six major reproaches young people invoke against today’s churches.
The church is restrictive. It does not allow programs to be rethought, or worship to be reformulated. It blocks creativity and asks young people to be counter-cultural.
The church is superficial. It is boring. Their messages are trite and full of platitudes, texts which are used as pretexts, slogans, and wooden language. Its worship is formal, but devoid of content. One lacks the feeling of the authentic, lively, dynamic experience of meeting with Jesus Christ.
The church is anti-scientific. This generates a feeling of incompatibility between science and religion. While science works with methodological doubt, the church seems to reject it. There are very few pastors who accept discussion on science-related subjects.
The church is repressive. It imposes rigid conduct rules, especially in the field of morality (sexual morality, mainly).
The church is exclusive, intolerant, and narrow-minded. To many young people, the church seems unwilling to engage in a dialogue with other religions which young people do not regard as fundamentally different from Christianity.
The church does not accept doubting one’s faith. Young people do not feel free to give their doubt any vulnerable expression, and the answers given to the questions which are born out of doubt are harsh or trivial.
The church is not only represented by its leaders, but also by each and every one of its believers, whose influence on the younger generation cannot be undermined. An open attitude towards change; more preoccupation with conveying a living, authentic, informed message, in the manner of communication specific to the young generation; a Christ-inspired emphasis on grace and support, on inclusiveness and the willingness to engage in vulnerable dialogues would be outstretched hands for the younger generation. This generation is in dire need of dialogue, mentorship, and counselling, because, in their skepticism towards authority, young people have turned their backs not only on institutions, but also on the Bible and the notions of truth and absolute moral values. We need a young and flexible Christianity, but also an authentic and wise one.
The biggest deficiency
As previously anticipated, the church’s biggest problem is the lack of authentic models they can offer to young people. This is illustrated by the results of a 2013 study carried out by the Barna Research Institute. The study’s objective was to determine whether the actions and attitudes of self-declared Christians more closely resemble those of Jesus or those of the Pharisees.
The authors have formulated 20 affirmations related to common human interactions (5+5 specific to Jesus’ attitudes and actions during His life on earth, and 5+5 specific to the actions and attitudes of the Pharisees). Based on the answers obtained, four categories of believers were established—and the results were unsettling. The most numerous category (51% of the total respondents) was Christians whose attitudes and actions tend to resemble those of the Pharisees. Only 14% of those interviewed offered answers that can be identified with Christ-like attitudes and actions. Those whose attitudes tend to resemble those of Christ, but whose actions resemble those of the Pharisees, were represented by 21%, and those who tend to have pharisaical attitudes and Christlike actions represented the remaining 14%.
The Making Space for Millennials report suggests that, when it comes to accepting cohabitation, pornography, sexual fantasies, abortion and marijuana, young American Christians are, in general, a little bit more conservative than the two previous generations. This conclusion makes sense. Young Christians—who need models, mentors—are a tad more convinced by the Bible’s morals than their parents and grandparents were, which explains why the majority of self-proclaimed Christians tend to resemble the Pharisees rather than Jesus in their attitudes and actions.
What statistics don’t tell you
The Bible has never described God’s people as perfect. Unfortunately, history shows that God’s church has always had problems. But God did not give up on the purpose of His Son’s sacrifice because of this. He knew that a remnant would always carry His light further, mentoring the new generations, passing on the spirit of His love and justice, and representing His character to men. God has always given the few people following Him the assurance that He is with them (Matthew 28:20), that He will fight for them (Exodus 14:14) and that He will bless the fruit of their soul’s work (Isaiah 53:11). He guaranteed that, through the work of those who will always remain loyal to Him, each person on the face of the earth will have the opportunity to receive the testimony of God’s love and make a choice (2 Peter 3:9).
The statistics showing how badly many Christians fail also tell us, at the same time, how good the God who never gives up on the few is. The proof of the divine origin of Christianity will never consist of an overwhelming percentage of those who are authentic, but will consist of the authenticity of the few who “remain faithful to Jesus” (Revelation 14:12). The analysis of Christianity and the attempt to answer questions related to its actual state seek to offer the correct image, with its challenges and blessings, its highs and lows. They seek to warn against errors, to identify solutions and to encourage better decisions.
The hands that are not outstretched
A few Seventh-day Adventist researchers have recently initiated open discussions, via the internet, with two groups of young people, over a three-day period, in an attempt to hear what these young people have to say. Their conclusions have not been essentially different when it comes to the reproaches young people have against the church. The interesting part consisted of summarising the elements which might convince young people to tighten their bonds with the church: intergenerational relations—young people have thus confirmed the recurrent need for mentorship and models; forgiveness and acceptance—nothing seems to push them further away from the church than rejection and nothing convinces them more easily of the church’s worth than acceptance; and opportunities to vulnerably discuss crises in their lives—which would prepare them for the inevitable occurrence of the difficult moments that each individual goes through at some point in their lives.
Norel Iacob is Editor in Chief of ST Network and Semnele timpului.