One GenXer on reaching Millennials, guest post by David Gordon

[dropcap]I[/dropcap] have known David Gordon longer than either of us care to admit. He was in the student ministry when I was on staff at Hebron Baptist Church (Dacula, GA) in the 1990s. As a high school student and young adult he was often involved as a camp counselor/intern during the summer months. Now he’s married with a cool set of twins, but David’s biggest claim to fame is introducing, with Jason Britt, “The Bugaloo Song” to middle school camps. Their version was much better than the original.

After he jumped into a Facebook comment stream a few weeks back, I asked him to write some thoughts about the Millennial generation from the perspective of a GenXer.

Millennials-Part 1 of 3, “How are Millennials Related to Religion and Culture?”
by David Gordon

I’m not an expert. I’m not a researcher with statistics or polls to back up my beliefs. I’m the last of the Generation Xers (according to the technical definition, I guess there are Xers 3 years younger than me, but let’s not get technical). Moreover, I’m an Xer who grew up in a Southern Baptist Church made up of suburban Baby Boomers and Busters. I went back to college at the age of thirty for a Secondary Education degree, so I’ve spent the last six years I’ve been immersed in a culture of college-age peers and high school students. I feel like I’m in a unique place to observe the differences between my parents, my peers, and my students. All of the ideas in these posts are simply my opinions, but I do feel that they’re informed opinions from someone who’s been able to observe all of these groups in their natural habitat.

As a high schooler growing up in the Northeast Atlanta suburbs 20 years ago, “Christian” was synonymous with “moral.” I’ve seen Boomers and Busters use these terms interchangeably on social media, mainly in reference to the United States as a “Christian” nation or political figures mirroring their “Christian” ideals. For Generation Xers like me, the term took on a different connotation: as counterculturalism gained traction, “Christian” became a term equivalent to “square” in the generations before us. Although there were exceptions to the rule, Christians were the Socs and nonbelievers were the Greasers (to borrow an analogy from S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders). In the ebb from the high tide of the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and all of the other Politi-Christian organizations of the Eighties, not being a believer meant for Xers that you had been freed from the constraints of institutionalized, mainstream morality (mostly in the form of legalistic restrictions: Don’t Drink, Be Abstinent, Just Say No, etc.). New forms of media (specifically MTV, to be honest) made this movement towards relative morality and Epicureanism (the search for pleasure above all) more widespread than former movements like the Hippies of the Seventies, and unlike the Hippies, many of whom were able to reconcile their lifestyle and at least some form of religion, Xers saw religion as the enemy rather than the institutional morality associated with it.

Millennials

This leads us the curious case of Millennials. Their parents (probably early Xers) have a higher probability of being non-believers than past generations. They’re past a society where people are “social Christians,” claiming Christianity without engaging in any of the practices associated. They’re highly morally driven, although these morals are more driven by Do (charity, social justice, any number of causes to get behind) rather than Don’t. For them, Christianity has been boiled down to a word synonymous with “middle-aged, stuffy, Republican, legalist” rather than “moral.” Anecdotally, in the High School classroom where I currently teach and in my college classrooms (I went back to school at 30) I heard students frequently ask others if they were “religious;” I never heard someone ask one of their peers if he or she was a Christian.

We are increasingly becoming a post-religious society, and teens and young adults have only known this reality. They can’t remember a time when the majority of Americans self-identified as Christians, they don’t know Ralph Reed or Jerry Falwell, or when civic activities were opened with prayer rather than a “moment of silent reflection.” In this way, they are the first generation of Americans living in a society that resembles what has been a reality in Europe for the better part of a half-century. Francis Spufford, a British fiction author, wrote a book called Unapologetic as a means of reintroducing Christianity to Brits. From his preface to the American edition:

In Britain, where I live, recent figures suggest that about 6 percent of the population goes regularly to church, and it’s a number that has drifted steadily downward over the past few decades, while the average age of churchgoers has just as steadily trended upward: presently the average worshipper is fifty-one years old. In the United States, by contrast, the equivalent figure (from 2006) is 26 percent of the population, with a youthful, rosy-cheeked age distribution. That’s not all, though. Some surveys, tellingly, reveal that a further 16 percent of Americans claim to be regular churchgoers. From the British perspective this second statistic is even more startling and alien than the first one. The idea of people pretending to be regular churchgoers because it will make them look virtuous— or respectable, or serious, or community-minded— is completely bizarre to us. Here in Britain, it is more likely that people would deny they went to church even if they actually did, on the grounds of embarrassment, for embarrassment is one of the most powerfully motivating emotions in British culture and it now wraps religion round snug and tight.

As impossible as it may seem for many Americans to imagine a society in which people would be embarrassed to admit they attend church, this is exactly the environment in which many Millennials find themselves. Claiming yourself a Christian entails implicitly admitting that you are anti-abortion, pro-guns, anti-homosexual, pro-war. No, not all Christians believe these things, but many of the most vocal do, and that’s all that matters. Claiming to be a Christian no longer carries any intimation of hope, faith, or a desire to see Christ’s kingdom come; we did too good of a job burying the lede over the last three decades in order to push forward a political agenda.

Information access

The greatest difference between Millennials and the generations before them is the importance of information. I’m a part of the last generation who had to go to the library to do research for a school paper; young people today have grown up in an age where the internet has always existed. They can access information in a couple of minutes from their pockets that would’ve taken generations before days or week to even find, much less process. When I returned to college, I had an assignment in a freshman composition class in which we read and responded to Anwar Accawi’s essay “The Telephone,” in which Accawi recounts the installation of the first telephone in his Lebanese village and its impact on the daily life and culture of the village. An eighteen-year old student next to me remarked that he didn’t understand the point of the essay. I suggested that he compare the author’s experience to his own experience when he got his first mobile phone: the added freedom, the connectedness, etc. The young man told me that he’d had a mobile phone since the fourth grade.

I responded, “What about when you got your first smartphone?”

“It was a smartphone.”

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to state that the invention and proliferation of the internet is the most significant cultural change since Gutenberg’s printing press. The printing press was one of the largest contributing factors of the Protestant Reformation, as it allowed for the widespread dissemination of information. No longer did information have to be doled out on a “need to know” basis by the clergy; the translation and dispersal of the Bible thanks to the printing press and the work of Luther, Wycliffe, and others allowed for the Word to be put in the hands of the laity. This not only affected Christianity, but all fields of discourse, such as politics or economics or social issues. There was still a level of work involved though: one had to be literate, had to know where to find the information, how to process it; some amount of labor was still required for one to inform themselves. Information became currency, and those who knew how to find it, how to disperse it, how to wield it, could use that information powerfully. Where the printing press made information valuable, the internet has made it worthless. Give any Millennial a high speed connection and thirty minutes and they can be informed on any topic. Not only can they give you the dominant opinion on a subject, but also the dissenting one and the arguments against both. For their generation, the importance of information has been replaced with a need for experience. Defining a subject is too easy and too available; Millennials must touch it, smell it, “taste and see.”

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Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

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  • KR Dial

    These are great observations. I’m 46 and I converted to Christianity from pluralism when I was 23. I’m a southern white woman. This matters because I was converted by a southern black woman. This matters too. Growing up I was convinced that Christianity, racism, and lack of passion were the essence of the faith (the only church I attended was boring, all white, and had a former slave balcony.) So, when I met a legit, on-fire, Holy-Spirit filled, talked to Jesus in our office, prayed under stress, just plain nice, sung praise songs in the morning, gave Jesus credit for every blessing kind of Christian, I realized I had no idea what Christianity was or that some people were actually enthusiastic about it. My point is that passion always works. Being really excited about being saved is actually irresistible. Joy is attractive. But conversions are harder now. Why? One reason is the excellent job the world has done at convincing us that embracing the biblical prohibition against homosexuality is equivalent to being racist. With the Lord’s guidance, our country was led in a prayer- soaked movement away from racism under Dr. MLK Jr.–Then when the Christian right was busy “burying the lead” (Baptists) and sacrificing Biblical literacy for “grace over holiness” (most other evangelicals) the World got real busy creating the greatest barrier to belief it could muster. Convince America that a person is born gay just like a person is born black, so it can’t be a sin, therefore the Bible is wrong and can’t be trusted, and any person that believes such things is hateful. Now, elect a President that will preach this very doctrine and you’ve got yourself some VERY hard soil. Not impossible. Always worth the effort. But hard.

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