Is the Millennial Generation "Pre-Moral?" Print
Written by Sherry   
Wednesday, 16 September 2009 09:10
A couple of worthwhile pieces regarding evangelism this morning:

Busted Halo (the Paulist site for young adults) is running a intriguing piece on every Catholic's nightmare: doing street evangelism in downtown New York city. It runs the gamut from Youth With a MIssion "prayer stations" (what an interesting idea!) to a liver transplant survivor who works the subway every day from 7 am to 10pm and wears a sign that says "Jesus saves from Hell".

The interviews with these committed evangelists are fascinating and Busted Halo treats them all with respect.
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And there is a really thought provoking article over at Christianity Today on preaching to the Gospel to "I-Gens". (I-Gen is a new term to me, but it means "emerging adults" and refers to the older half of the Millennial generation, 18 - 30). The subtitle says it all: "Reared on self-esteem and impervious to guilt, the next generation needs good news that can break through their defenses."

Simply fascinating and very important for us to hear in light of the plummeting marriage, attendance, and RCIA rates among young adult Catholics. (For more on that, read my recent blog series on Whither RCIA?)

The article acknowledges exceptions to the overall generational trends: "One important caveat: not every American twenty-something is like this. In fact, many emerging adults have been reared into a world vastly different than the self-esteem culture. Some gravitate, instead, toward an Augustinian perception of the self and find their own contemporaries annoying." Which sounds like a pretty accurate description of the majority of the small minority (10 - 15%) of millennials who actually attend Mass on a weekly basis.

But the overall description of twenty something emerging adults (including the 80% of I-Gen Catholics who seldom or never darken the door and the 75% of Americans who are non-Catholic) is just plain jaw-dropping.

"One of the most insightful elements of Mann's book is whether iGens feel guilt. For a person to feel guilty, that person must have a sense of morality. But morality requires a potent sense of what is right and wrong, and it needs a powerful sense of what is true and false. Contemporary culture does not provide the average iGen with a profound grasp of what is right and wrong apart from the conviction that assaulting the self is clearly wrong.

Yet deciding to stake one's life on Jesus and the cross requires a sense that we are wrong, that we need Jesus, and that his saving death and resurrection can become effective. Mann claims that iGens are neither moral nor amoral. Instead, because of trends like the self-esteem movement and the impact of relativism, he concludes that iGens are pre-moral. Mann suggests that they do not feel guilt as much as they feel shame for not achieving what they are designed to accomplish.

This realization has helped me see that Jesus is the place to begin with iGens. In fact, we can make this more precise: Jesus as lived out by a credible witness or through a community that makes Jesus real. This is not Jesus as revealed by institutional religion or churches, but Jesus seen in the lives of genuine compassion and commitment to something that transcends the superficiality of modern and postmodern culture.

Dan Kimball wrote in his book They Like Jesus But Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations that what turns off iGens about the church is that it's too organized, political, judgmental, chauvinistic, homophobic, arrogant, and fundamentalist. But Kimball's research uncovered that iGens like Jesus. This is solid footing for gospeling iGens.

More evidence for starting with Jesus comes from the "Images of Jesus" personality profile designed by the North England Institute for Christian Education, and is republished in my book, The Blue Parakeet. In the assessment, a person records answers to personality questions about himself or herself ("Do you suffer from the nerves?") and then answers the same questions about Jesus ("Does he suffer from the nerves?"). There are no right answers. The intent is to determine how high a correlation exists between self-image and Jesus-image. Among iGens the answer is a loud Yes! This test shows that nearly everyone conforms Jesus to their self-image. A startling affirmation of what Jean Twenge discovered: iGens—surprise, surprise—have a robust enough self-image to think Jesus is just like them.

If this generation likes Jesus, and if iGens have the chutzpah to think they are like Jesus, then let's start with Jesus.


(I guess I have to say this or the conversation is going to bog down in the most predictable of manners:

Remember - this is not just a description of post-Vatican II Catholics. It is a description of an entire generation of Americans- the overwhelming majority of whom are not and have never been Catholic. They have never attended Mass - in any rite, in any language. Most of them have never heard of Vatican II.

This is so much bigger than us and our completely predictable insider baseball. Can we shake ourselves out of our well worn mental ruts and, for once, consider the culture at large - outside the Catholic Church?)

If this is an apt description of millennials as a whole, what does this mean for the Church's fundamental mission of evangelization? How do we reach out to this generation?

Comments?