The ‘youth debate’ will not go away. Recently two timely and pertinent blogs have appeared on this Board. Bill Farrelly has asked poignant and uncomfortable questions frequently on the minds of his generation, ‘why have my children and grandchildren become so distanced from the Church?’ Mark Johnson has raised the issue about the value of so much of the Church’s energy going into youth evangelisation. Both blogs have been widely read and have attracted quite a deal of comment.
For those of us who have been around long enough, it is fairly evident that about the mid 1980s a new group of young people appeared on the block and they have most emphatically made their presence felt. This is Generation Y, the much studied and analysed ‘legion of the watched.’ They are also known as the ‘Millennials,’ ‘the Echo Generation’ or ‘The Net Generation.’ They specifically and, to a lesser extent, their parents (Generation X) are the subjects of recent critical scrutiny. In 2004 ACU published an extensive and illuminating report on Gen Y. This generation is described as narcissistic, lacking drive, commitment and discipline. It might well be construed that they have been over protected, over stimulated and over indulged. Perhaps too these young people have fallen victim to potentially dangerous forms of inherited social adulation and isolation. Perhaps they are a generation which has been seduced by the mantra ‘you can be what ever you want to be’ and have rarely if ever heard the parental ‘no’ word or come to learn reasonable social boundaries or expectations. The rhetoric of ‘rights’ is often heard but that of ‘responsibilities’ to a lesser extent.
The ACU report has some very revealing statistics on Gen Y and its relationship to the world of religion. 31% identify themselves as humanists, having little or no sense of ‘God’ or a ‘higher power’ in dogmatic terms; 17% claim no belief system; 32% are unsure while 19% acknowledge faith practice. Of interest here also is that the respondents indicated very little serious interest in cults or religious side-shows. It seems that the ‘love’ promises and the prosperity gospel of rock and roll Christianity do not have a lasting attraction. These figures, however, offer the Church very clear evidence that it needs to examine both how it presents itself to the young and how it might evaluate its evangelical outreach. Bill Farrelly’s anguish and grief might in some part derive from inept Church leadership and their lack of prescience. Bill, they have, in fact, constructed splendid monuments and museums for the kids but have failed pastorally to tend their garden (John XXIII). Mark Johnson is right, I think, in arguing that the Church is poorly directing its evangelical energies at the youth. The parents are the ones who need help to understand the consequences of introducing their children to the ‘sociological’ Sacraments namely, ‘Claytons’ rites of passage: photo ops with lavish presents and parties afterwards. The spin offs of all this might well lead to odious social and economic comparisons, inclusion, exclusion and bullying. What enduring realities count for the kids when it’s all over? Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation into what world of Church community, if any? What about the long haul and ongoing commitment? Exactly the same goes for Christmas and Easter. They have long been reduced to mere ‘kid’s stuff.’ Maybe the parents of Gen Y have quietly adopted their children out to the managers of the market place.
Michael Carr-Gregg, a youth psychologist, has identified four interconnected worlds that youth call home: inner world; family world; peer world and school world. Recently he has added a fifth one, the internet world. These are the domains of youth socialisation but, ominously, about 90% of this interaction is electronic! He has come to realise that, understandably, these worlds are filled with fear, anxiety and confusion for many young people who struggle to deal with forces almost too powerful to handle. Vulnerability to exploitation and manipulation is widely prevalent and that, left to themselves, youth do not have the wisdom or wit to navigate their way safely through these worlds. Our Catholic kids are no exception here.
One of the heartening findings of the ACU study, however, is that while Gen Y has little or no time for the institutional Church its youth do relate very positively to the no-nonsense, down to earth and challenging figure of Jesus. Serendipity and dogma are lost on them but not the real Jesus of the Gospels who connects with their experience of being human. He, it seems, can speak to them and for them with persuasion and intelligibility. Maybe there has been something missing here for some time.
David Timbs blogs from Albion, Victoria.
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