Making Sense of Generation Y

Making Sense

First published – FWS Journal 2006

Do you ever feel that you are the last to learn about anything?

I feel a bit like that when it comes to understanding our current culture.

I finally think that I have got to understand what people mean when they speak about “Generation X” – namely, those in my age group and younger, born after the baby boom (sometimes known as the Buster Generation) between 1960 and 1980 – and then the categories change!

Making Sense of Generation X

Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel Generation X: tales for an accelerated culture caricatures the sense of namelessness (the “X” identity) which many of this generation feel.  Such people are “underemployed, overeducated, intensely private and unpredictable.” There is no clear cut definition but it relates to the post-war generation of people brought up with TV’s, videos, computers; a generation with loose affiliation to class, status, wealth and social norms.

This is the generation which is just a little bit younger than me (!).  They are spiritually aware, but cautious about traditional church structures.  They can be popularised by the slogan “Jesus yes; Church no”.  They “pick and mix” their spirituality.  But nevertheless they are spiritually aware.  This is the target audience I had in mind when I wrote the evangelistic booklet Longing for Paradise. The observations which Augustine made about human restlessness are typified by the Anglican Collect for Pentecost 18:

Almighty God,
you have made us for yourself,
and our hearts are restless
till they find their rest in you:
teach us to offer ourselves to your service,
that here we may have your peace,
and in the world to come may see you face to face;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Like the woman of Samaria who Jesus met at the well (see John 4), Generation X-ers are both spiritually ignorant and spiritually sensitive.  Jesus kept asking her about her personal life (where is your husband?); she kept asking difficult theological questions about the ancient dispute between Jews and Samaritans.  But Jesus gets to the heart of the issue:

If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?  Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?”  Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life. (John 4:10-14)

There is ignorance, but also real longing in her response: “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” (John 4:15).

She is like so many of the people who come to our Alpha or Christianity Explored Courses who reveal an abiding attraction to Jesus.  He seems to offer a break from the monotony of the everyday and a sense of purpose and meaning in life.  Spiritually needy people find their thirst quenched by Him.  So, as long as we don’t expect too much attachment to structures and formats of traditional church life, we will find that Generation X can and are being effectively reached by the Gospel.

Making Sense of Generation Y

That makes sense so far, doesn’t it?!

New research published in the most recent Church House book entitled Making Sense of Generation Y (Sara Savage, Sylvia Collins-Mayo, Bob Mayo and Graham Cray, 2006) draws slightly different conclusions.  Generation Y refers to those who are currently between the ages of 15-25.  When the Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu turned up to a meeting wearing a “hoodie” a few months ago he was trying to make the point that the stereotypes about youth and adults work both ways.

For the book, Bishop Graham Cray commissioned interviews with more than 120 young people in an attempt to discover whether the generation which has been weaned on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Harry Potter and Kabbalah bracelets show the kind of spiritual awareness that Generation X’s seem to.

Like I say, I am slow picking up on these things, but it is also hard to evaluate changes in culture as they happen around you. 

Let me begin where this book begins.  The authors caricaturize Generation Y-ers as “Happy Midi-narrative”.  By this they mean

  • Midi-narrative as opposed to Meta-narrative.  In other words, for those who are in the age group 15-25 there is no overriding worldview which helps them make sense of life.  There is no collective story which helps them understand their world; we each have our own scripts.  They haven’t rejected Christianity because they find it unpalatable or even irrelevant.  Rather, they are profoundly ignorant of the claims of Christianity at all.
  • Happy, not cynical.  The goal of our existence is to be happy; it is the ultimate aim in life.  This is not a pure hedonism, but rather a quest for enjoyment and a desire to minimize the things which will make that goal hard to achieve.  Life is “basically OK”, and you don’t need God to make sense of it.

In this book, then, the authors suggest that young people today are

  • Overwhelmingly ignorant of Christian things
  • Pragmatic and Secular in their outlook on the world
  • Don’t appear to have a large spiritual vacuum in their life which needs filling
  • Value friendships above almost anything else.

 

A response?

At one level we would want to say: there is nothing new under the sun.  Hasn’t the credible lives of Christians always been the most persuasive aspects of the faith?  Most post-modern apologetics which I have read emphasize reasons for hope (1 Peter 3:15) over reasons for faith (as in the classical apologetic style).  In other words, credible lifestyles (lived with gentleness and respect) accompanied by an engaging and articulated reason for living attracts people.  Nevertheless, reasons are reasons and, whilst Generation Y do not have a fully formed meta-narrative into which to place meaning, it does not mean to say that they won’t respond to the Christian one when it is clearly and winsomely articulated.

The report observes

There is no reason why Christians should assume a young person’s experience of a happy Ideal will automatically become a part of a transformative spirituality.  [Clubbing, action films, music] on their own do not catapult young people into a search for God.  These ‘good times’ are an end in themselves.  This does not mean these experiences are trivial.  Rather they are key to a Generation Y world view in which this world and all life is meaningful as it is.  Young people’s under girding Happy midi-narrative is a celebration of this world, rather than an anticipation of the next. (p.123)

The authors of the report suggest that Generation Y articulate no inherent search for ‘something more’.  There is no ‘god shaped gap’ to fill.  But this does not mean that there are no pathways into their world.  Surely the positive response is to say that we should be talking more about the attractiveness of God and eternal life than we sometimes do.

It is staggering to discover that religious awareness and church going returned to near normal by Christmas 2001 despite a 30% increase for the month or two following the 9/11 World Trade disaster.  For modern people, the “pie in the sky” either doesn’t taste or is bound to be stale when they get there.

Pushed or Pulled?

C.S. Lewis was surely right when he wrote

If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.  We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum, because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.  We are far too easily pleased. (C.S. Lewis The Weight of Glory and other Addresses. New York: Harper Collins. 2000: p.26).

There is a magnetism which works for Generation Y.  But perhaps they have not heard the real hope of Glory, joy and fullness of life which the Bible promises.  Maybe they haven’t met the earthiness of transformed Christian lives and banished forever the cardigan, ‘sandals and socks’ images of modern Christians!

Do you know what I mean?

There is a whole vocabulary used by young people which needs to shape the way we communicate with them, you know what I mean?!

If images and videos and movies and adverts shape the way Generation Y make sense of the world, then, I wonder whether we could help to move from the midi to the meta-narrative through their slogans.  The authors of the report are right: ‘We live in an instant culture which cannot be reached by instant missionary tactics.’

The slow-rebuild of a meta-narrative takes time.  It includes a retelling of the key themes of the faith interacting with modern examples.

Wattsup?  Yes, sin.  But how does the retelling of this bit of the story work?  Surely it must essentially include the experience of broken relationships.  The stories of the Bible resonate.  On the one hand, this generation has more experience than any before of the breakdown of ‘nuclear family’, through divorce, under aged pregnancy etc.  But at the time they resonate strongly with the extended family.  Aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings mean everything to them.  The age old stories – most poignantly illustrated in Luke 15, perhaps – echo with dysfunctional families longing for unconditional love, and hungering for significance. 

Get a life?  Generation Y is fascinated by the compelling, inconclusive and complicated storylines of soaps such as Eastenders.  Not least, they are glad that their life is not so bad!  We need to find ways to tell the meta-narrative (Creation, Fall, Redemption, the End) in such a way that they can see themselves in the plot-line.  They have a strong empathy with stylized characters – good and bad.  So it is not only the ‘bad news’ that is told in story, the good news must be too – and lived out in credible lives so that Generation Y can see ways in which their confused and complicated lives fit into the story.

Conclusion

There is nothing new here.  I don’t feel that we should be overly intimidated by the way in which young people articulate their outlook on life.  Is there less spiritual awareness?  Probably.  Does that mean that the Gospel is no longer their greatest need?  Of course not.  Do we need new techniques to reach Generation Y?  Probably not.  What we do need is imaginative relationships which help young people see the credibility of Christians and the Gospel.  In this respect, there is nothing new.  But there is a huge challenge to reach a whole generation that is remarkably ignorant and doesn’t know it or care.  We must rise to the challenge.  We can promise them true happiness, but only when they see themselves in the meta-narrative of God’s story; a story which has its beginning and end in Him.

Simon Vibert

Summer 2006

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