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GEN-X RISING: A new course for the new year Andrew C. Thompson, Dec 27, 2011
By Andrew C. Thompson UMR Columnist
Has Generation X risen?
Supposedly so. Or at least that’s what the University of Michigan’s Longitudinal Study of American Youth would seem to indicate (www.lsay.org).
The ongoing study has been charting a sample of 4,000 Gen-X respondents in its “Generation X Report” since 1987. In its latest release of findings, the report says that the majority of the 84 million Americans born between 1961 and 1981 are “active, balanced, and happy.”
I’ve been writing a column called “Gen-X Rising” for the past seven years. The original intent behind the column was to highlight a generational perspective on the church.
I never wanted to write only for Gen-Xers. I wanted to write for the whole church. But I wanted to do so from the point of view of Gen-Xers. I thought this approach to be important as a way to highlight the fact that the younger adults of Generation X were emerging into an age when their leadership and contributions could increasingly chart the way forward.
I’ve always felt that the unique experience of Gen-Xers vis-à-vis the remarkable advances in technology and the rising influence of pop culture over the past few decades was highly significant. Local Christian communities require a certain local cohesiveness to endure. They need the culture of “place” and the stability of strong interpersonal (and intergenerational) relationships in order to really thrive. And they have to believe that the norms and values of their own context represent the standard toward which all members of the community should strive in order to remain robust.
As a Gen-Xer who has lived through the dramatic social and technological changes of the past 35 years, I’ve become convinced that the large-scale forces at work around us have a fragmenting effect on local churches. Technology has an “individualizing” impact, as new devices and media cause people to become connected as much to screens as to other people. And the influence of pop culture is almost imperial in its ability to co-opt people and communities into a story not their own.
From time to time I’ll encounter people who think my read on the culture is a bit too critical. They’ll counter that social media actually make us more connected to one another. And they sometimes argue that the effects of globalization are making the world smaller and more intimate rather than the converse.
I understand these arguments, but I don’t buy into them. Social media and the devices that we use to engage such media are disembodied. To be a “friend” with someone on Facebook (to use one example) doesn’t require personally sharing the joys and pains of that person in any kind of face-to-face way. And to be connected with other people (culturally or economically) halfway around the world requires . . . what? Whatever the requirements, sitting with others in my living room isn’t one of them.
The University of Michigan’s study suggesting that Gen-Xers are balanced and happy seems to indicate at best that we’re adapting ourselves to new circumstances. That’s not terribly surprising. Human beings are an adaptable lot. Over time they can cope with pretty much anything that comes their way.
But the Generation X Report is simply a sociological study. It doesn’t attempt to assign value to the circumstances it is charting. It doesn’t attempt to make any kind of judgment about whether or not the evolving society is evolving into something either better or worse than what came before.
For Christians such judgments are necessary, even if they are necessarily difficult to do well. I approach this task as one who believes we must maintain a constantly critical eye to the goods that society wants to offer. I think this is simply what Christians have always had to do. We must live in the world but not be of the world, exactly because God is in the business of transforming the world from depravation to righteousness.
I bring all this up now as a way to say that I intend to chart a slightly new course in the writing I’ll be doing for the United Methodist Reporter. After seven years and around 150 individual columns, I am going to retire the label of “Gen-X Rising” as the title for my column. I’ll still write, and of course I’ll still do so from the perspective of a Gen-X Christian. But I am going to do a bit less of the cultural interpretive work as I move forward with my writing in this column space.
Instead I want to focus more on resourcing the life of local churches and the work of personal discipleship. As a teacher in a seminary where much of my academic emphasis is in Wesleyan theology and its relevance for the life of the church, I want to “take the gloves off” in terms of speaking to the Wesleyan foundation for robust Methodist discipleship.
In the end, I think it matters little whether Gen-Xers or anybody else is “active, balanced, and happy” in the culture writ large. In fact, I think endorsing such a view can have a numbing effect to the special calling that Methodists have to pursue which is—in John Wesley’s words—“holiness of heart and life.”
Think of it this way: There was a time early in Christian history when being active, balanced and happy for the regular person might have meant clamoring for bread and circuses, cheering the gladiators as they shed one another’s blood in the arena. But Christians knew that wasn’t the standard for them. They knew there was a different set of values by which they were to live.
Just so, the calling upon all generations of Christians today is not to baptize whatever culture holds out to them as worthy of embrace. It is something different entirely. And the more we come to grips with that, the more we’ll realize that loving God and loving one another require a whole new way of life.
The Rev. Thompson is an instructor in historical theology & Wesleyan studies at Memphis Theological Seminary. Reach him at athompson@MemphisSeminary.edu.