Tag: Jeffrey Arnett

“Millennial Deniers”

NextAmerica_3d_260x260I have been focused on millennials for several years now. In part, it’s an outgrowth of what I do for a living. Teaching Christian college students over three decades, I’ve been aware of how their interests and positions have shifted over time.

As I’ve examined these shifts sociologically, I’ve been struck by how a number of different sources seem to converge in telling separate aspects of a larger story. There is the perspective of Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, who sees the 20s as a period of Emerging Adulthood. This correlates with changing attitudes toward sexuality and later ages of marriage. It corresponds with a remarkable increase among millennials in likely to report no religious affiliation and a decline in traditional religious commitment. It shows up in the polling from Gallup and Pew that shows a truly remarkable shift in millennial attitudes toward same-sex marriage even over a two year time span. It shows up in David Kinnaman’s work on the previously religious who see the church as overly judgmental, anti-science, anti-gay, and anti-doubt. It shows up in a generation whose economic prospects look very different from early generations, who may live at home for a season, but who seem more optimistic about future. It shows up in a generation that is more digitally adept than any before it, sifting information from a variety of sites and testing claims (even fact-checking sermons!).

As David Kinnaman puts it, this generation is “discontinuously different“. That difference deserves to be taken seriously.

So it baffles me when I read articles from leading religious figures arguing that there really isn’t anything to these differences. Or, if there are differences, it’s because the church has not been sufficiently firm on key issues. I saw a tweet today from Dr. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention saying “the myth of the Liberal Evangelical Millennial is exactly that.” Others have pointed out that this depends upon what the meaning of liberal is (or, what the meaning of Evangelical is).

I grant that evangelical millennials don’t exactly mirror their general millennial peers in the issues I summarized above. By and large, they will skew somewhat more traditionally. But they are responding to the same social patterns, internet presence, and general anti-institutionalism the entire generation is responding to.

Here’s another example. Earlier this month, Rob Swartzwalder wrote a piece called “Why Younger Evangelicals Are Leaving the Church: Some Arguments Against the Conventional Wisdom“. To his credit, he recognizes that there has been some backlash among millennials against overreaching statements by conservative leaders. He also observes (quoting Bradley Wright) that we’ve seen younger people leave institutions before. He responds to a straw argument in a piece Carol Howard Merritt wrote four years ago about the impacts of sexism, intolerance, and conservatism. But he centers in on other reasons why evangelical youth might be leaving the church.

1. Evangelical churches try so hard to be palatable and relevant that we become distasteful and irrelevant.

2. Evangelical leaders too often don’t preach/teach on the essential doctrines of Scripture because of their lack of confidence in the power of God’s Word to transform and because they don’t want to offend.

3. Evangelicalism has failed to articulate and advance the biblical view of human sexuality.

4. Our youth have been raised in an era in which personal autonomy is seen as the greatest good and in which revealed truth is seen as malleable.

In short, the solution to preparing today’s evangelical millennials to be faithful Christians is to go back to old separatist patterns of rhetoric.

I just finished Paul Taylor’s The Next America (pictured). Taylor, president of the Pew Research Center, summarizes a vast array of data on the generational differences separating the four living generations in America: Silents, Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials. One of the subtexts of the book is the inherent competition between Boomers and Millennials, especially in terms of economics, jobs, and social security.

He distinguishes, as do many excellent sociologists, between three different factors shaping generational differences: Life Cycle Effects, Period Effects, and Cohort Effects. For example, the first looks at how all 18 year olds of any era handle transition from parental structures. The second, looks at pivotal events that affected all generations (e.g., JFK assassination, Moon landing, 9/11). The third, which is his primary focus, examines how the social milieu surrounding a generation coming of age differs from those that came before.

Taylor’s book is very good. While we won’t have a great war over social security (because relationships trump policy for millennials), there are intractable changes afoot. And like social security, this will pit Boomer priorities against Millennial priorities.

If we keep characterizing this as a zero-sum game, there will be no winners. Instead we’ll see increasing populations shifting into the “religious none” category (which has lost its social opprobrium).

Why would religious leaders be so interested in denying the reality of millennial change? I’d suggest a couple of reasons.

First,  having denied the ways in which the church has responded to culture in the past, they hold an exaggerated view of constancy. I’d argue that the entire “seeker-sensitive” movement was a direct response to the suburbanization of baby boomers who weren’t affiliated with evangelical churches. To legitimize millennial culture change is threatening to worldview arguments. It confuses life cycle effects with the other factors.

Second, their view of orthodoxy is maintained by stereotyping the younger generation rather than engaging it. I don’t know exactly what Moore meant by Liberal Evangelicals. With such a fuzzy label, he may be speaking of some group other than the evangelical millennials I know on the internet and in real life. But rhetorically, he’s able to say “they aren’t all like that” without responding to the very real shifts that are going on.

Third, as I’ve been writing for some time, the millennial generation privileges relationship over abstract principle. This embrace of diversity is disruptive to systematic approaches to apologetics. Hence, the retreat to slippery slope arguments. This is the key to the cohort effect.

I’m the first to admit that millennials are a diverse bunch. “They really aren’t all like that.” But their understanding of and commitment to diversity is the secret to their strength. It is in the messiness of that variability that God is moving.

To my colleagues who are concerned about excesses of the millennial generation, I beg you to engage the dialogue in open ways and leave behind the stereotyping and demagoguery for authentic engagement. I hear some of my evangelical millennial colleagues calling for that kind of open dialogue that leaves behind labeling and name-calling. This is a very encouraging sign and provides us with an opportunity to be the church at work.

 

Investing in A Decade or What’s Wrong with “Friends”

Today I came across a wonderful TED talk video (thanks, Tom Oord!). Psychologist Meg Jay reflects on misconceptions about emerging adults. She points out that too much of popular culture, media figures, and even educators have viewed “30 as the new 20“. In other words, because of later ages of marriage, childbirth, career launch, and so on, that the decades of the 20s is a period of marking time until real adulthood starts.

Personally, I blame “Friends” for glamorizing a bunch of 20-somethings (at least originally) trying to find direction in their lives.

friends

Meg Jay says that rather than seeing the 20s as this great period of uncertainty and role exploration it should be the time of personal work building toward the future. Specifically, she calls for twenty-somethings to 1) build identity capital, 2) develop weak ties in addition to strong ones, and 3) begin picking prospective family.

Sociologist Christian Smith used the National Survey of Youth and Religion to point out the problematic nature of an undirected twenties decade in Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. Smith and colleagues report on the high degrees of binge drinking, problems of substance abuse, impermanent sexual relationships, and high degrees of directionless-ness. This data follows closely on what Jeffrey Arnett’s work suggests in terms of emerging adults.

So what can we do to help our students avoid the melodramatic lessons of Chandler, Monica, Ross, Rachel, Joey, and Phoebe? How can we use what Meg Jay has learned in her clinical work to make the twenties not a period of open exploration but a period of stage-setting? I think her three challenges have direct implications for Christian educators.

First, she argues that young people need to build identity capital: “Do something that’s an investment in who you might want to be next.” It’s not that the student needs to have things mapped out. But a vague sense of general direction can be useful. Our task is to help students pay attention to what they’re learning about their own strengths,  weaknesses, interests, passions, and causes. They aren’t taking a bunch of required classes for some job but are sifting through a range of options. It’s okay for that to be unfinished — the process of narrowing pays dividends down the road.

Second, twenty-somethings need networks. Not just the roommates and those across the hall or who hang out at Central Perk. They need to connect with others: “New things come from what are called our weak ties, our friends of friends of friends.” With that shout-out to Mark Granovetter’s classic sociology piece about the “strength of weak ties”, Meg observes that twenty-somethings need diverse, cross-generational contacts. This can be a challenge for a Christian college. Frankly, the homogeneity is just too high. Faculty members become important contacts, not for potential letters of recommendation, but because we provide someone outside of family and friendship networks who can be honest with students and use our own contacts to help introduce options.

Third, Meg says that rather than seeing relationships as transient in the twenties, it’s better to see them as exploring the kinds of relationships that are affirming: “Picking your family is about consciously choosing who and what you want rather than just making it work…“. In the Christian university context, this means focusing on quality relationships while avoiding pushing couples into premature commitments. Engagement ceremonies have their place but we must stay clear of “ring by spring” expectations or old tropes about MRS degrees. The real work is in being with others, understanding how the student relates to them and why. In our Christian environments, we should be cautious about “this is the person God meant for me”. Far better to say, “God created me to flourish with this type of person”.

Twenty-somethings who take Meg’s advice seriously will exhibit a common orientation: they will be thoughtful and reflective about the situations in which they find themselves. Their classes can provide clues about passion and direction, if they are looking for them as opposed to simply meeting requirements. Their networks can stretch them with new dreams if they are aware of what possibilities are in front of them and think of strategies to pursue them. Their relationships become means of learning about oneself and not about solving some life puzzle.

All of this puts special pressures on faculty members and student life personnel in the Christian college or university. I must be open with my students about the challenges they will confront. I must be in sufficient relationship with them to ask good clarifying questions as they’re considering options. I must see that my investment in them runs long after they leave my class and the university.

But if I do these things, it means that they are well on the road to the life they dreamed of. The returns on those investments are absolutely immeasurable.

Today’s Christian University Students

I’m launching this blog as a means of exploring issues within the realm of higher education and the popular culture that directly impact how we think and act as Christian educators. Over the course of my more than 30 years in Christian Colleges and Universities, I have seen a marked shift in my students. This has been true since roughly the beginning of the 21st Century.

In my experience, Christian Universities have been slow to respond to these shifts. Many have gone out of their way to reinforce messages from 40 years ago and take pride in “holding the line“. In the process, they run the risk of making Christian Higher Ed increasingly irrelevant to larger and larger numbers of young people.

I began focusing on this question more academically over the course of the last two years. Jeffery Jensen Arnett‘s work on Emerging Adults is particularly interesting in terms of what is happening with the current generation of 18-30 year olds. I’m currently working on a book for freshmen entering a Christian University that builds upon some of his work.

In September, I made a presentation at Spring Arbor University (where I now teach) summarizing the challenge this postmodern generation brings to Christian Higher Ed. Some of it relates specifically to life at Spring Arbor (the reference to the Concept and the Clock Tower) but most of it can be generalized to other Christian Universities. Here’s the link to the video. If the PowerPoint goes too fast, here’s another version.Community of Learners 9-21-12.

This fall, I had the joy of listening to the audiobook of Rachel Held Evans’s wonderful book, Evolving In Monkey Town. Rachel is a popular blogger in young evangelical circles (including some readers like me who are no longer young!). She grew up around Christian apologetics, Christian high schools, and Christian Colleges. But in her early twenties, she began asking herself hard cultural and intellectual questions that her safe Christian mental models really couldn’t reconcile. She’s not new in that regard — the same has happened to bright, reflective evangelical students over the years.

Many Christian students who face deep questions take one of two tracks: either they compartmentalize their reality so that they just hold to their prior position (“God’s ways are not our ways“) or they junk the Christian presuppositions altogether. Rachel describes interactions with friends in both camps.

What makes her book so important is that she models what it means to embrace the tension. It makes life much more complicated but also more authentic. My presentation to the Spring Arbor Community summarized some research findings from the Barna group on the disaffection of young adults in the evangelical church. There are several themes David Kinnaman and his colleagues uncovered, but central to them is the idea that the evangelical church doesn’t deal with complexity.

As I interact with today’s Christian College students, I find some who compartmentalize and some who abandon. But there seem to be significant numbers of  students attempting to follow Rachel’s more demanding path.

This bodes well for the Christian University. If we can be the places where students begin to work through their challenges, we can provide models and supportive environments where questions are welcomed because we have nothing to fear.

On the other hand, if we insist that our Christian universities can only be places for people who hold the party line we will miss larger and larger sectors of the young adult population. This is not only bad for the universities, it’s damaging to the greater culture.