Chatter about Millennials (Generation Y) seems to be running amuck these days. At the risk of adding more heat and less light to an already angst-filled discussion, I offer the following…
Each generation has, I believe, a besetting sin or two. (Full disclosure: Born in 1955, I am a Boomer…no, not an “aging boomer,” just a Boomer.) Many Boomers succumbed (after all the “Hey, You Want a Revolution” hype) to a monstrous capacity for acquisition. Following the “Greatest Generation,” which had conquered various forms of totalitarianism and provided the baseline for Western society’s post-Depression stability, Boomers went out to conquer wealth. And, by and large, they succeeded (albeit, with huge segments of the population not equally enjoying wealth’s effects). Trading alienation for avarice, Boomers, as a group, constructed and enjoyed a massive acquisition project.
Churches, in their attempts to reach the Boomers, saw fit to tap into the Boomers’ consumer mindset with “Seeker Sensitive” worship services and church forms tailored to the “What’s in it for me?” approach common to the Boomer era. (Yes, I know, Seeker Sensitive language is no longer in vogue.) The era of the Mega-Churches, with their attendant “Mega Amenities” arose to feed off of (and, yes, to some degree, feed) this consumerism. This leads me to conclude that the Besetting Sin of the Boomer era was (and is) Materialism. Wanting more and “needing” more led to, well, more (or at least the appearance of “more”–even though at least one flagship Boomer/Seeker church has since discovered that appearances were deceiving and the actual depth of biblical engagement was less robust than thought).
Be angry with me if you will, but know that I too have Materialistic Boomer bona fides and that I too have been in search of “more is better” attached to the next promotion, raise, or bonus (in both their secular and sacred manifestations).
I recognize that I speak in sweeping generational language and that generalizations are, well, generalizations. I know that there were/are many Boomers not beset by Materialism; I know that many Boomers have given their lives in faithful service to Christ and humanity. And I know that, even now, many Boomers are seeking to redeem their Materialistic years by energetic volunteer service in a variety of venues. The fact that so many Boomers now seek to flee from avarice to altruism is, I think, itself evidence of Materialism as our Besetting Sin.
Along the way, Boomers gave birth and those who had given birth gave birth and thus we arrive at the Millennial Generation (a.k.a., Gen “Y”—by the way, the “Y” is not a question; though in a moment we will see how it might be more characteristic of Millennials than previously thought). Those born from roughly 1981-1982 (depending upon your Millennial expert) leading up to those born around 2004. The oldest Millennials are now in their mid to late 20s or early 30s. And they are everywhere. Read the Christian publications (the books and the magazines and the blogs and the IMs and the Facebook posts and texts and the Tweets and…well, you get it). Never, in this writer’s opinion, has a generation been so thoroughly parsed–and loved it so much.
We read that they are looking for authenticity and hunger for deeper spiritual ways and want to be part of intergenerational conversations characterized by “reverse mentoring” (oxymoron candidate, anyone?). As an aside, teaching grandpa to Skype does not rank alongside helping someone who has been wounded by life find their way through the mess to wholeness. Being tech savvy is not the same as being wise. Tweet that.
Millennials are special. They are not special in the way every human is special: created in the image of a loving and grace giving God; uniquely designed; called by God to Himself through Christ; gifted spiritually to serve the Body of Christ; and, in Christ, destined for eternity in the presence of God. Nope; they are, well, “extra special.”
They know everything (while in faux humility denying that they think so); they don’t think much of anything that has come before (hence the “Y”–not the genuine question, “Why?” but a perhaps more dismissive, “Why would I consider inherited wisdom?”); they are the innovators who know how to do life and ministry in ways that previous generations just don’t get. They are extra special. They have cast about for health and vitality in the church forms that surround them and have found them deficient at just about every turn. Those churches are not missional enough or emergent enough (I know, these terms too fade in relevance–have you noticed the short shelf life of contemporary originality?) or hip enough or deeply satisfying enough or service minded enough or green enough. Enough.
Millennial leaders abound. Many ministries have given themselves over to those uniformed in open-collar plaid shirts, tousled hair, and rumpled jeans precisely ripped at the knees because those who are extra special will show us the way to the promised land of authenticity in life and ministry. (I write this while wearing the Boomer uniform: buttoned down shirt [no tie] and Dockers–but I do like plaid–even though my brilliant wife is not a fan.)
I suppose all that is as it will be in a Western cultural atmosphere that values new and young above nearly everything. But, does it strike anybody else as odd that those who hunger for deeper and more authentic expressions of Christian faith tend to dismiss the possibility that pretty much everybody over 35 can’t possibly lead the way there?
“Never trust anyone over 30.” Boomers grew up believing that to be true and later discovered that the generation preceding them (that “Greatest Generation”) had notions of service and selflessness that the Boomers had run past too quickly (and therefore missed) in their quest for more stuff. Boomers too left the institutionalized expressions of Christianity, went off on their own, and later returned when “life” broke in on them and they needed “life that is truly life” to navigate their way through the inevitable disappointments of Materialism.
So then, what is the Besetting Sin of the Millennials? I believe it is Narcissism: an intense self-focus (an intra-generational infatuation) that has the potential to mislead them into thinking that the entirety of human wisdom is confined to some kind of Generation Y mind meld (I know, Boomer cultural reference).
Writing about C.S. Lewis, who chose to study and teach the classics of English Literature, Alister McGrath said, “[Lewis’s] point…is that the study of the past helps us to appreciate that the ideas and values of our own age are just as provisional and transient as those of bygone ages” (C.S. Lewis–A Life, 168). Lewis said it thus, “All that is not eternal is eternally out of date” (The Four Loves, 166). Teenagers from the time of Cain and Abel have thought they knew it all; the difference with many Millennials is that they seem to carry that notion well past its natural expiration date.
This probably sounds like the bitter rant of an aging (even though I told you I wasn’t) Boomer. It’s not. It is a call for some critical self-reflection on the part of both Millennials and those of us who may have too readily jettisoned the responsibility incumbent upon more seasoned leaders to cultivate genuine maturity in Christian leadership in those who must be there for the Church’s next season.
For, in the end, we are, I believe, the same. Despite our generational propensities, we all hunger for authenticity and humility and compassion in our leaders. We all yearn for genuine connection in the Body of Christ. We all seek Larry Crabb’s “Safest Place on Earth.” We all sense the shadow of shallowness that seems to have been cast over much of Western Christian life. We all know that to be truly in love with Jesus means reaching for depth in understanding of His Word and His Ways–and then attempting to live that understanding. We all know that “felt needs” are often just symptoms of aching chasms of genuine need to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We all know that we will do better when we listen with a teachable spirit to the saints who have gone before (both generationally and historically).
I am ready to hear from my Millennial Brethren and Sisteren.