Running Scared: My Response to a Baptist Pastor on the Millennials

It’s not often that Vox gives a voice (which is what they’re supposed to do) to a Baptist, but one John Thornton, Jr., a youth pastor in North Carolina, has written an intriguing article about why millennials are so anxious and burnt out these days.  As a college professor who teaches in a state which is more Baptistic than North Carolina (more about that later,) I get to teach many of those millennials who are handed off to me after their youth pastors are done with them.  He’s said some things that need to be said, although my solution to the problem may differ from his.

Let’s start with the good part: I basically agree with his core thesis, which runs like this:

About a year ago, I decided I wanted to find out more about their lives. I’d heard from parents, teachers, and friends with children that kids today live increasingly busy and stressful lives compared to previous generations. I wanted to know not only what that looked like but how the kids themselves felt and thought about it. What I discovered gave me a good deal of pause about the world kids live in today and what it’s doing to them.

We hear a great deal about “snowflakes,” especially at the collegiate level.  I don’t think that’s justified.  What we have is a generation that’s running scared, one which has so much uncertainty under the surface that they really want to shut out anything that might upset the apple cart, including free speech, due process, etc.  If we want to get to the root of the problem we must understand what it is.  I think that the current anxious state of the millennials stems from four trends in our society that are driving their angst.

The first is the collapse of stable families.  The family is the first institution, one that antedates the state, and it’s the first one that we are exposed to as humans.  To live in a society where a family unit can collapse just because someone take a notion to find self-fulfilment is enough by itself to inspire anxiety.  Now the state exercises unprecedented power to interfere in the life of the family, inducing more uncertainty.

The second is the impact of environmentalism as a religion, and American environmentalism in particular, which regards the human race as unwanted and profligate intruders in the pristine wilderness they envision we started with.  That’s a major shift from the Christian concept that we are the pinnacle of creation, charged with the responsible stewardship of God’s creation.  The message today to all of us is that we don’t deserve to be here, although those who proclaim this the most loudly are in no hurry to lead the way to the exit.  Put another way, we have transitioned from being the GOAT (current usage, Greatest Of All Time) to the goat (my mother’s usage, the capricious barnyard animal that butts or the human counterpart.)

The third is our deteriorating economic underpinnings.  Thornton gets this:

Between 30 years of stagnant wages, the rising costs of housing, health care, and education, and a recession just as many of us graduated from college, it’s no wonder that millennials are on course to do financially worse than previous generations, just as Gen X did before us.

To this I would add our national debt, which has passed the point of no return.

The fourth is the warp speed advance of technology, which both creates and destroys careers.  This is amplified by the fact that, instead of buffering our people from the downside effects , it seems to amplify them.

Thornton sums up the result of all this:

While many of us who work with kids don’t want to name the likelihood that the generation behind us will do even worse than us, it’s hard not to see that we communicate it to them regardless. These kids aren’t even being told that the point of all the work and the stress is a better life — they’re being told it’s necessary just to survive.

So we come to the great questions the Russians like to ask: what is to be done? Thornton isn’t much at answering this, but his description of how our schools are approaching the problem is worth the read.  From his description of that “solution” it seems to me that it too is part of the problem.

The United States has gone on so long and been so successful that it has lulled its people into a false sense of security.  That only amplified the tendency of people to drift through life and just go along with the culture.   One of the things that separates people at the top of society from those at the bottom is the fact that the former tend to be more goal-oriented, which requires people to think ahead.  What the schools are trying to do is to push the ethic at the top down.  The problem is that they’re going about it the wrong way.  They’re trying to instil a careerist and corporatist ethic with an emphasis on socialisation, which gives them (assuming it works) a motivated workforce that won’t challenge the existing order.

What they need to do is to teach our people to think, and let their innate desire for personal improvement to take them where they can go.  Traditionally that’s done through the arts, but it can (and should) also be done through the sciences, especially mathematics.  It’s interesting to note that this is done in places like China, Russia and Iran, where the state is stronger and has the means and the will to keep the existing order in place.  That’s the risk: if you teach people to think, they will discover the extensive cognitive dissonance they are presented with and try to do something about it.  The current Exhibit A for this is France, where a people educated with that Cartesian logic realise that things aren’t working out as they thought they would or should.  Macron, taking a leaf from the B-school types in the Anglophone world, will try a managed debate in the context of a managed democracy, but whether that will work in France is still an open question.

Getting our school system changed in this way is a long and difficult process, filled with opposition from those who benefit from the current state of affairs.  But let’s consider this from another angle: what should Christian churches do in the face of this anxiety level?  I think that’s the question that Thornton, as a youth pastor, would like to get answered, and I would say that it is for me also.

Let me start by replicating a brief post I did three years ago:

From The World of Mathematics, this quotation from the British mathematician Augustus de Morgan:

I commend my future with hope and confidence to Almighty God; to God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, whom I believe in my heart to be the Son of God but whom I have not confessed with my lips, because in my time such confession has always been the way up in the world.

Jesus Christ is still the “way up” in eternity.  But de Morgan’s problem of confessing Christianity as a way of worldly advancement has pretty much been solved both here and in the UK.  The sooner we come to grips with what that means, the better.

The basic problem we have in Evangelical Christianity is that it has been sold as the “way up” in this world.  DeMorgan lived in an England where membership in the established church was either a necessary or facilitating way to obtain positions and status in society.  It’s ironic that the Baptists, who strived to disestablish the same established church in places like North Carolina (and succeeded,) would eventually turn to make being a respectable religion a key part of their appeal.  And those who came behind the Southern Baptists have followed suit in one way or another.

But now Christianity’s appeal to be the “way up” in this life as a prelude to the next doesn’t work the way it used to, if it ever really worked at all.  And that’s the way it should be.  Jesus Christ did not come into this world to affirm the careerism that was and is endemic in the Middle East and now on these shores.  Instead we need to be presenting Christianity as an alternative to the careerist rat race that’s set before us, that ultimate happiness in this life and the next doesn’t come from checking off our bucket list or getting the dream career or even “changing the world” (and you should always be careful whom you’re shilling for.)  Most importantly of all, we need to make it clear that being a Christian will cost you.  There are things you may never get to do, schools you’ll never (or shouldn’t) go to, and positions you’ll never take.  But the joy of following Jesus daily will more than offset those losses, that joy buttressed by the fellowship of other Christians.

That’s what the New Testament sets forth.  Are we prepared to live it?  That’s the question in front of us, and we need to answer it quickly.

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