Generational Disorientation and Grieving Blockbuster

By Joe LaGuardia

This past week, a Swami, Rabbi, Christian Scientist, and I (the Baptist) went to a local private high school to provide three workshops on our respective faith communities.  I know it sounds like the start of a bad joke, but we were there as part of a larger conference on “sharing our stories.”  Each of us had about 10 minutes to present who we were and our faith.

As the workshops got underway — with about a dozen or so students in each one — we realized that all our planning for telling our stories, sharing anecdotes, and providing illustrations to express our faith fell short.

The rabbi, for instance, opened by recalling a scene from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  After realizing that no one in the workshops (but one!) had heard of the book, he re-calibrated his lesson.  He referred to the hit, prime time show, Big Bang Theory instead, but again fell short.  No one (apparently under the age of 30) watches Big Bang Theory.  When he made a joke about Sheldon Cooper, no one laughed.

I tried a different tact as I wanted to explain various Baptist visions of how to live out the Gospel.  I asked if anyone knew who Billy Graham was.  No one.  I gave a brief introduction and went on with the story.  Then I asked who was assassinated that day 50 years ago–April 4, 1968.  No one knew that it was Martin Luther King, Jr.  I talked about MLK, by now assuming they never heard of him either.

The swami and the Christian Scientist did no better.  We muddled through three sessions of workshops trying our best to connect our lives with theirs.  We were miserable failures.

During the third and final session, we changed strategies and wanted to hear more from the students.  It was a small group, so we were able to personalize our discussion, so we asked the question: “What do you all do–what do you watch, listen to, talk about?”  The rabbi asked, “Is there anything that you share in common, a favorite TV show?”

The students explained that many of their activities revolved around their families–they spent time fishing and going to the beach, etc.  But when it came time to connect with peers, there were limited opportunities.  There were few common interests they shared, and that meant no common language based on pop culture.

Social media, which I assumed connected young people, only tended to keep them in an algorithmic bubble that showed them what they wanted.  Time on the phone, then, meant less time looking outwards–to books (when we gathered in a large group in the auditorium for the keynote speaker, the speaker asked who read Harry Potter–this, in front of over 200 students; only a couple dozen rose their hands, and the keynote speaker had to re-calibrate too), to movies or television shows, or to radio stations (do young people even own radios anymore?).

No shared platform means no shared pop culture allusions, narratives that frame our relationships, or foundations for a common language.  That young people don’t write anymore means that their ability to communicate beyond Tweets and posts and Snapchats at 130 characters is breaking down–or has become dysfunctional already.

Consider some of the things I read or heard recently:

  • Author Vivek Wadwha of The Driver in the Driverless Car, notes that most young people have never written a full-length letter.  To me, that means that people no longer know how to see, describe, and explore how they feel and how to invite others into their thoughts.
  • Recent reports show that a higher usage of “screen time” results in a higher rate of depression and feelings of isolation or loneliness.
  • The mystery as to why radio stations, television, and even movies are going vintage (how many have been throwing nods to the 1980s and 1970s in look, feel, and music–Thor Ragnorak for instance?) is solved: Corporations know that the over-40 crowd not only consumes that stuff more often than younger generations, we also have more money to spend!

As I spoke with those students in class, I asked them how they even found videos and music on Youtube or Spotify to figure out what to listen to in the first place.  One admitted it was all technology–the media platforms automatically feed students what they like, so why do having choices even matter?

I explained that my favorite Friday-night “date” with my wife was going to a Blockbuster video–where all of the choices of movies were set before us and no one and no robot was going to tell me what I liked!  I could easily go to the slasher-horror section as easily as the romance section, and no one was going to tell me what I was going to watch (I used this point as to why I am a Baptist, and focused on liberty during my talk in that third session).

When I asked them if they had an issue that corporations were literally running their life preferences, they said, “No, we don’t care.  We like what we see, so not really.”  I wanted to talk about The Matrix at that point, but I let that one go–for their sake and mine.

Algorithms matter.  I had a feeling that this bunch won’t make good Baptists, as we Baptists are known for having issues with authority and tyranny.  But then again, maybe that’s why my–and so many other Baptist churches–are struggling to attract young adults in the first place.  We walk on the lawn when the sign says, “Keep off Grass,” and we prefer Bibles to programs that give us the “Verse of the Day.”  We know our heroes — from Graham to MLK– and there ain’t no brand going to take their place.

I am not sure our brief time in high school provided thorough research to draw broader conclusions.  Nor am I apt to make assumptions based on anecdotal evidence.  But if my time with these young people mean anything, then all I can say is that I think that I and my ilk are doomed.  It means that, decades from now, we will get arrested for walking and dancing on the grass.

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Nurturing a Future-Looking Faith

futureBy Joe LaGuardia

In his address to the U.S. Congress several weeks ago, Pope Francis noted that young people do not have a positive outlook for the future.

“We live in a culture,” he said, “which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future.”

Although it sounds like His Holiness is exaggerating, research affirms this observation.  Young people have very little hope for the future: They marry later, bear less children, and feel that they work longer hours for less wages.

For the first time in recent history, adults no longer feel their children will be better off in years to come, according to a Pew Research survey.  That middle class income has remained stagnate or in decline the last three decades has not helped anyone’s outlook.

Movers and shakers in our culture have not provided any solutions to turn the tide, and our faith in politicians in shaping a better future has collapsed in congressional malaise.

Some only offer the common lament, “If only we can do things like we did when I was young…”; while others provide avenues for nostalgia in order to combat our woes.  Just think of how many movies reboot previous films and genres.

Yet, nostalgia and longing for the impossible will not provide hope for the future.  Optimism will continue to allude those who are searching for answers from yesteryear.

The church, the very people of God, walk to the beat of a different drum.  We Christians need not fear the future or face it in despair, for we know the future that stands before us.

God asks that we be a community of hope and boundless aspiration, a people who tell what God’s future entails and embody the values that adhere to a future utterly bound up in God’s plan for all history.

We Christians maintain the belief that we are saved in Christ.  In turn, we are only residing in the waiting room of life, but it is a waiting room that we are to tend and keep beautiful, to make safe and welcoming for others who need hope for the future.

Christians stand in the shadow of a transformative past and a Holy Spirit that empowers us in the present, but our faith always looks ahead to a future in which Christ is pulling all things closer to that day when the Kingdom of God is fully realized.  Ours is a future-looking faith.

Our worldview does not share in the pessimism of others.  We do not fear the future as others do, for we know God is in charge and that the arc of history (as Martin Luther King, Jr. once stated) bends toward justice and grace.

Without fear entangling us, we can turn our attention to a meaningful life that is freed from paranoia and anxiety.  We can focus on justice by paying attention to the poor, caring for our environment, and being agents of reconciliation by combating violence in all its forms.

We also need to affirm that we are people with aspirations for all creation–and we must encourage our young people to aspire just the same.  This means working hard no matter the salary because we work with the joy of the Lord as our strength and the strength of the Lord as our refuge of peace.

Trust, gratitude, and compassion result from a life lived in the anticipation that God will someday make all things right, that our temporary state of dysfunction and brokenness is but a small bump in the road of God’s grand scheme of eternal life.

I think its about time that we Christians boldly step out in front of the rest of the world and declare, “Follow us, we know the way because we follow Jesus into the future; we follow a Savior who is the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

 

Young adults: Engines of today’s Church

youngpplYoung adults have gotten a bad wrap.  My generation–18 to 35 years old–goes by a variety of labels: Generation X, Generation Y, Millennials, the Entitlement Generation.  This is the generation that politicians and churches try to recruit, but often fail to reach.

Yet, these generations are also reviled.  “Kids these days,” people say, “don’t take responsibility, and they don’t know how to work hard.”

People tend to forget that times have changed.  In days gone by, you can work at an after-school  or part-time job  and earn a little money for savings.  Now, a minimum wage job pays below the poverty level; high education costs and debt stifle investments.

With a growing economy and more affordable healthcare, however, it looks like things are finally turning around for the better.

In a recent article in USA Today titled “Young Adults May Spark Economy“, Paul Davidson reported that young people–about 44% of the generation I just described–will be purchasing or renting homes in the next year.

This is great news: People are moving out of their parents’ house; employment is rising; debt and student loans are getting paid off.

The increase in young adult independence means an increase in the economy as a whole.  As Davidson noted, a growing young adults consumer market could “turbocharge [economic] growth” and send a “ripple across the economy.”

What does this mean for the church?  For one, if young adults are becoming economically empowered in the marketplace and taking ownership of an independent future, they have the potential to take more ownership in Christ’s Church.

It is said that the people who pay for and run the church are from older generations.  That is true based on my own experience: people from previous generations provide most of the leadership in church and clams in the coffers.

So let me speak boldly to my generation: It is time to grow up!  Without us, many of our churches–the very sacred places that nurtured us and raised us in the faith we hold dear–need our investments of time, money, and creative leadership.

Now that we have some money to spend and independence from debt, it is the time to get serious about church.  When jobs are prevalent, housing is stable, and debts are few, a budget that includes tithes and offerings–and a time-management plan that includes God–must be a priority.

Now let me be bold with Christ’s Church: You need to let young adults lead committees, craft liturgies and ministries that meet a diverse set of needs, and take ownership of a few things we’ve been afraid to surrender.

I’ve seen this work very effectively at Haven Fellowship Church here in Conyers.  The attendance of their young adults ministry has increased almost four-fold over the last several years, and their church found renewed vigor in crafting a vision that includes their participation.

But this only happened because the church took brave, strategic steps in getting young adults involved: They asked young adults to head committees, create new ministries, and participate in fellowship opportunities that widened the church’s welcome to other young families.

That Haven has not moved to contemporary worship with fancy technology or marketing should be noted.  Many churches think they need to become song- and tech-savvy to attract young adults; that’s not the case–young adults want to take ownership and have input; they want to feel connected without having to sacrifice what they value most: a voice in church leadership.

Of course, this assumes young adults have a voice worth listening to.  It is true that our generation needs to step up and pay their dues, work hard, and prove that churches can count on us.

We can no longer expect the church to be there for us when we’re not there for the church.

The church–and our generation–is at a pivotal place in history.  We need to stand up for the Body of Christ and keep it going; we need to lead it into a future in which creative entrepreneurship will be the church’s greatest ministry engines to meet the needs of tomorrow and the day after that.