June 18th, 2010

What are the results when a generation grows up with values symbolized and shaped by the Internet? Every voice can be heard but none is trustworthy.  Knowledge is readily available, but there’s too much of it to sift through.  A crisis anywhere in the world is your crisis vicariously, so that crisis itself seems less critical.   A book I read a book this week offers some great insights into the lives and thoughts of young adults.

Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults by Christian Smith with Patricia Snell (Oxford, 2009) is a superbly researched and written outcome of the NSYR (National Study of Youth and Religion).  The survey and interview data reveal much about “emerging adults” who are 18-23.  Note that it’s not a “Christian” book – it’s the result of scholarly, objective social science.

Consider how the different is their culture from that of their parents (much less grandparents).  They have unfiltered access to seemingly infinite information and entertainment.  There are not only a gazillion channels on TV, but any one of them has multiple messages and simultaneously a whole world of alternative diversions is either playing or readily available.  We have turned hyperactivity and attention deficit into the norm.

This is a generation “in transition,” as the book title says.  There’s no stability for them at all.  They don’t assume their world will be the same tomorrow as it is today – not the world at large (an earthquake or an oil spill or a financial crisis in one place can change everything for everyone) and not for them personally.  They don’t assume that love lasts a lifetime. Having parents who raise them together into adulthood is the exception.  Marriage is still their ideal, but they need to cohabit first to make sure the relationship’s a keeper.  Hedge your bets with a pre-nup just to play it safe.  And, since marriages come and go anyway, what’s the point of saving sex until marriage?  It’s just another form of entertainment.

To be sure, you can’t generalize about emerging adults any more than you can other generations.  They are not all the same.  Souls in Transition notes six groups in terms of their religion and spirituality: (1) committed traditionalists, 15% (confident faith put into practice), (2) selective adherents, 30% (pick and choose what part of religion to follow), (3) spiritually open, 15% (possibly interested or receptive), (4) religiously indifferent, 25% (not in favor, not against religion), (5) religiously disconnected, 5% (like  type 4, but have little experience with religious ideas or people), and (6) irreligious, 10% (skeptical and critical).

But what is the overall impact of the cultural forces that have shaped the emerging generation?  Transition implies uncertainty.  Who can be sure of any truth or any value when there are always contrasting opinions?  An overwhelming percentage of young adults still believe in God and in being good.  In fact, they see religion as generally positive for pointing people to God and encouraging them to be good.  But beyond those generalizations, there is no certainty.

For some, that’s great progress.  The book, in fact, suggests that mainline Protestant denominations, even though they have declined numerically for the last fifty years, have essentially “won” the cultural battle.  Their relativism has permeated every religion and denomination.

But consider this.  To emerging adults, even serving and giving are not universal values.  In Smith’s words, “nobody has any natural or general responsibility or obligation to help other people…Taking care of other people in need is an individual’s choice.  If you want to do it, good.  If you don’t, that’s up to you.  You don’t have to.  Nobody can blame people who won’t help others”  (68).  Community involvement?  Good citizenship?  Optional.  Everything is optional.

Here’s something else startling to previous generations.  Precisely because everything is in transition, the individual is sovereign, and there are so many options – nothing is really worth a life of dedication and sacrifice.  “Very many emerging adults exist in a state of basic indecision, confusion, and fuzziness” (292). 

Young adults have always struggled with educational majors and career choices.  But now that struggle is the norm, precisely because nothing in their lives is certain except their freedom to choose from infinite options. “The crises of knowledge and value that have so powerfully formed their lives leaves them lacking in conviction or direction to even know what to do with their prized sovereignty…They lack larger visions of what is true and real and good, in both the private and the public realms” (294).

There’s so much more in this book worthy of contemplation.  The good news is that evangelical faith is also out there competing among the ideas, and even influencing the broader culture.  More young people across the religious spectrum, for example, value “a personal relationship with God.”  There is an openness, in my view, to the timeless message of truth that we as followers of Jesus Christ can uniquely offer – namely, that the God-shaped vacuum in the human soul can be filled through faith in Christ and a life committed to obedience and service.  With everything else in transition, that message is tested, stable, and accessible.


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