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Throughout the month of August, we’re looking at Ecclesiastes, that strange and seemingly “modern” Old Testament book that depicts what happens when humanity searches for ultimate meaning apart from God.
“Remember your Creator in the days of your youth…” (Ecclesiastes 12:1)
By and large, that’s exactly what young people have always done.
But things definitely appear to be changing. In 2017, for the first time in American history, fewer than half of high school seniors said religious commitment was important to them. Fewer than one in four 12th graders said they attended a religious gathering at least once a week.
The contrast to previous generations is stunning. In the early 1970s, when Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) were young adults – this would be the heyday of bell bottoms, classic rock, experimental drug-taking, and the sexual revolution – 90% attended a religious service at least once a week. The members of Generation X (born 1965-1979) generally followed suit.
But something changed with their kids. Millennials (born 1980-1994) are, to date, the least religious group of young adults in our nation’s history. The only generation that might challenge them is so-called Gen Z (born 1995-2012), which is already on track to be even less interested in prayer, Bible study, and church attendance – the classic Christian markers of remembering one’s Creator.
Do these trends matter?
They matter if followers of Jesus hope to be followed by a fresh wave of disciples.
Demographers have long known that adult conversions in America are rare. Most people who fall in love with God do so before their early 20s. As a rule, students in middle school, high school, and college are at least somewhat open-minded about life’s most important questions: Does God exist, and can I know him? Is God safe, and can I trust him? Is the universe better explained as a purposeless collocation of atomic particles, leaving humanity with no supernatural resources and no Entity to whom we’re accountable?
Or does anyone even care? “Meaningless,” says the Teacher, “everything is meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 1:2).
Only 2% of America’s Christ-followers come to faith after age 25 – powerful evidence that worldviews are usually shaped early in life, and are hard to change after women and men enter “the real world.”
What accounts for the current trend of younger generations taking a pass on religious commitment?
In her new book Generations, sociologist Jean M. Twenge suggests that surrendering oneself to God runs counter to the most cherished value of the Millennial generation – individualism. Individualism means finding my own way. It’s like the universal solvent. It dissolves everything in the cosmos except me.
Millennials are the most self-confident and optimistic group ever born on American soil. They’ve been told, time and again, that they are simply awesome. “I am special, I am special, look at me!” virtually became the national anthem of preschools in the 1990s. When Time magazine ran a cover story on Millennial young adults in 2013, it was titled “The Me Me Me Generation.”
Let’s keep in mind these are generalities. There are myriads of men and women born between 1980 and 1994 who aren’t in lockstep with their peers. Individualism, for that matter, is hardly a Millennial invention. That core value was clearly championed and pioneered by their parents.
It’s just that Boomers and Gen Xers never had the chance to explore what we might call Millennial extremes – such as the fad in the 2000s of hiring fake paparazzi to follow you around all evening, snapping your picture in front of others to generate envy, then sending you home with your pics plastered all over the cover of a phony celebrity magazine.
What makes it hard for younger generations to “remember their Creator”?
One Millennial told Twenge, “Whatever you feel, it’s personal. Everybody has their own ideas of God and what God is… You have your own personal beliefs of what’s acceptable for you and what’s right for you personally.” Another added, “I was not encouraged to think for myself. [Religious rules are] literally, ‘This is black. This is white. Do this. Don’t do that.’ And I can’t hang with that.” God, or at least the church, had better not get in the way of my own opinions.
For many of today’s teens and young adults, the church’s hesitancy to affirm LGBTQ relationships and its glacial slowness in acknowledging racial injustice are also dealbreakers.
In the past, young church attenders might ask questions and register their protests, then hang around to hear the answers. Today’s kids seem to be saying, “This is for the birds,” and choose not even to enter the discussion.
Twenge sees no evidence of such attitudes changing in the near future. What are some of the consequences?
The decline of church involvement will mean a decline in the experience of community – of being face to face with other people in a common cause. That’s bad news especially for Gen Z (those who are currently 11 to 28 years old), who are manifesting never-before-seen levels of depression, loneliness, and self-harm. Religious groups likewise provide America’s most effective outreach to those who are poor and marginalized. Their weakening would almost certainly lead to significant social setbacks.
If religious causes are falling out of favor with younger generations, what’s taking their place?
Catch your breath.
Twenge votes for political groups. More and more, political parties feel like religious organizations. They may even make use of the name of Jesus – although it can hardly be said either major party seems to grasp the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount. Worse still, politics is becoming winner-take-all combat instead of the free exchange of ideas in the public square. Twenge’s 515-page book includes very few personal value judgments. But on this matter, she offers an opinion: “World history suggests that transferring religious beliefs into politics will not end well.”
Ecclesiastes can be summarized in six words: Apart from God, Everything is Meaningless.
If people of all ages and stages are called to elevate devotion to God to life’s highest priority, how can that possibly happen in an increasingly secularized culture?
God can make it happen. God is the Actor whose presence supersedes every sociological trend of every generation.
As Father Richard Rohr points out, human transformation usually springs from either prayer or pain. Jesus promises, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). God is not on vacation. God reveals himself to those who seek.
Likewise, “God is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). Very often it is trauma that finally opens the eyes of our hearts.
Perhaps you feel exasperated by some of the social, political, or religious opinions of America’s younger generations, since they’re not your own.
And perhaps you’re done with parents who buy plane tickets for their whiny kids and end up sitting in your row.
It’s also possible these can become great reminders to pray for those who come behind us – that they, by God’s grace, can remember their Creator in the days of their youth.
To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here