She was about 16, walking with a male companion of similar age, when I saw her in a department store recently. Her carefully crafted outfit caught my eye. Definitely a “style,” it couldn’t be called “stylish.” Her black pullover top matched her baggy, military-style pants, as did her cumbersome, heavy boots. The look she cultivated was “accented” by jewelry pierced through curiously creative locations about her face and head. The pièce de résistance was the pair of men’s flannel boxer shorts she was wearing, carefully arranged to extend 3 or 4 inches above her belt-line.
Although garbed in paramilitary dress and similarly decorated with metal studs about his face and head, her male companion did not manage to match her “fashion statement” for garishness.
Are they typical of the 22 million teenagers in the United States? No, thankfully, according to Sharon Begley, whose article about teens, “A World of Their Own,” appeared in the May 8, 2000, issue of Newsweek. Psychologist William Damon of Stanford University told Begley, “today’s teens may have less in common with each other than those in generations past.” Teens cannot and should not be lumped into a single category or judged by fringe extremists like those described above. Millions exhibit individuality, strong ambition and genuine values.
Despite the fact that the 22 million American teenagers cannot be depicted by a single stereotype, the purpose of the Newsweek article was to address the emerging “portrait of the millennial generation.” There are encouraging signs-and some discouraging ones.
“They are spiritual”
One of the current trends highlighted in Newsweek’s polling grabbed my attention. “They’re spiritual…” begins the drophead of the above article by Sharon Begley. She writes in the body of the article that the present generation of teens is more spiritual than their parents are. A companion article in the same issue, “Searching for a Holy Spirit,” by John Leland, reports that, “Young people are openly passionate about religion….” A Newsweek poll of teenagers found that religion was important to 78 percent of them.
Is this a positive trend or a negative one? Let’s take a more in-depth look at what is taking place in this area.
There is a definite trend among teens toward personalizing existing religions to suit their individual convictions or literally creating their own “faith.” They look for or seek to create a philosophy with which they can be comfortable. Bits and pieces of ideology are drawn from various faiths to produce a unique composite, pulling from such diverse religions as Judaism, Catholicism, Buddhism and Islam. As in so many areas of life, the Internet plays a major role in the faith of teens, providing them with what Leland calls “spiritual supermarkets.” Teens are shopping for religion the same way they shop for music, entertainment and career information-online. Christian researcher George Barna predicts that “cyberchurches” will account for 10 to 20 percent of all organized worship within the next decade (ibid., Leland).
Leland called the developing religious orientation of today’s teens a “religious smorgasbord” and says that they devise “whatever mixture appeals at the time.” Sharon Begley writes that many “put together their own religious canon as they would a salad from a salad bar.”
On the positive side of the ledger, this interest in religion has motivated teens to donate a lot of time to community service. Leland reports that as many as 60 percent do some kind of community service. That’s wonderful.
Equally positive is the fact that teens with strong religious convictions “are less likely to take drugs, have early sex, or engage in delinquent behavior”-a phenomenon that sociologists and educators call “the faith factor” (ibid., Leland).
More power to them. But, is “the faith factor” producing the desired results? Jesus put it quite pragmatically: “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.… Therefore by their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:17 Matthew 7:17Even so every good tree brings forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree brings forth evil fruit.
American King James Version×, 20). What are the “fruits” or results of the way of life teens are choosing? According to William Damon, “a significant number are drifting or worse.”
A majority or significant minorities are still practicing destructive personal habits. CDC statistics show that 48 percent of high-school students have had sexual intercourse, 36 percent are smoking and 51 percent are drinking alcoholic beverages. The figures on sexual promiscuity represent a slight downward trend, the number of smokers is on the increase and the number of drinkers is relatively the same as it has been in recent years. All of these behaviors portend relationship and health problems, bearing a phenomenal price tag for those who are soon to be the adults of the next generation.
On the subject of “power” and religion, it’s tempting to reach for the lexicon of prophetic scriptures and pull out some of Paul’s words to Timothy: “But know this, that in the last days perilous times [times of stress] will come…. [For people will have] a form of godliness but [deny] its power” (2 Timothy 3:1 2 Timothy 3:1This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come.
American King James Version×, 5).
A pastor at Wheaton Bible Church in the Chicago area related to John Leland what he had discovered by asking troubled teens, “Who do you think God is?” One teen echoed the thoughts of all with the opinion that whatever you really believe is all right. “God is whatever works for you,” summarized the teens’ perspective, according to the pastor.
Looking for a religion without God
Their view is wrong. God is a real Being, and He offers invaluable guidance that is not discernible unless we come to know Him personally and listen to what He has to say. The ancient prophet’s message speaks clearly, “Seek the LORD while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near.… ‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ says the LORD. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts’ ” (Isaiah 55:6 Isaiah 55:6Seek you the LORD while he may be found, call you on him while he is near:
American King James Version×, 8-9)
The direction our heavenly Father provides is as specific as what parents should say to guide their children. Therein lies the problem-parents haven’t been fulfilling that responsibility.
In too many cases, they aren’t a real presence in the lives of their children. Teens spend 20 percent of their waking hours alone and 9 percent of their time outside school with friends, according to data from the 1999 Alfred P. Sloan Study of Youth and Social Development (ibid., Begley). You do the math. Little time is spent communicating with or even in the presence of parents.
As noble and as wonderful as it is that teenagers are “spiritual,” it’s sad and sobering that they do not want to know God or too many specifics of what He has to say about how they should conduct themselves.
Leland quotes a teen who says, “I believe there is a higher power at work in my life, but I do not have a name for it. When I pray I do not ask a god [sic] to make everything all right. Instead I ask myself to be strong” (ibid.).
Wow, what an incredible contradiction in thought!
Turned off by what they know of religion, many are looking for spirituality without God. I applaud those who’ve perceived the paucity of most organized religions, but for them to seek spirituality without seeking God is like trying to breathe without oxygen.
I can appreciate the frustration and disillusionment that drives the teens’ search for a different religion, but they’re courting disaster, not the Divine. The book of Proverbs, written to guide young people, counsels, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Proverbs 14:12 Proverbs 14:12There is a way which seems right to a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.
American King James Version×). Remember the prayer recorded above, in which the teen looks to himself instead of to God.
Are these teens “denying the power of godliness”? Yes, I believe that they are. They have chosen the right objective, but not the right course to it. But I do not fault them. We must ask why teens are directed and motivated the way that they are. In many cases, it’s because the present generation of leaders-public figures and parents alike-have denied the power of godliness.
Teens creating their “salad bar” religious philosophies are offended by and reject what they have witnessed in the present adult generation. Many teens are plainly fed up with not being fed or led in spiritual matters. William Strauss, coauthor of The Fourth Turning, reported that “teens had harsher opinions about the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal than any other group” (ibid., Begley). Disillusioned equally with the behavior of their leaders and the inability of their parents and other adult mentors to declare wrong to be wrong, teens have chosen to be more moral than their adults are. They have sought to develop a sharper definition of right and wrong than today’s adults have.
It’s today’s adults who have denied God
Whose fault is it that teens are creating a flawed spirituality? Don’t today’s adults, including many parents, share culpability? Any adults willing to take leadership positions, but unwilling or unable to be role models for life, share responsibility for the fact that the up-and-coming generation is creating a nonspecific, “salad bar” spirituality that actually hinders itself from knowing the true God.
Compare the entire generation to a teen in a troubled home. It’s commendable that a young person growing up in the home of an alcoholic parent or parents sets his/her will to exercise self-control and never abuse alcohol. Similarly, it’s commendable that young people growing up in this morally skewed society set their wills to choose a moral and spiritually-based lifestyle. But it is infinitely preferable that young people are reared, guided, loved and nurtured in a home by fathers and mothers who are excellent role models. And similarly, it is infinitely preferable that the future generation of parents and leaders would be able to follow a healthy pattern of behavior and moral values demonstrated by the lives of today’s parents and leaders.
“Do as I do” is better parenting than the implied message for today’s teens: “Whatever you do, don’t do what we have done.”
Should we be positive about the future generation? As Sharon Begley concludes her article, “Every generation has a chance at greatness. Let this one take its shot.” I’m all for them and pleased that there are so many positive examples! But are we saying that hope for the future generation is based solely upon its rejecting and rising above the failings of the present one?
What a sad commentary that is on today’s leaders and parents.
A moving prophecy in the 18th chapter of the book of Ezekiel speaks to the hope that today’s teens have for the future. Dealing with a debate about whether children must pay for their parents’ sins, God assures them that a son (or daughter) can look at the lousy example set by a parent and determine not to repeat it. God promises to honor such a mature sense of duty, and says that He does not hold children responsible for their parents’ errors.
Again, more power to those teens who set their mind to know and obey the true God.
What will become of leaders and parents in today’s adult generation? Everyone will answer for his or her behavior. “The soul who sins [and does not turn from it] shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4 Ezekiel 18:4Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sins, it shall die.
American King James Version×).
The message of the prophecy is not to condemn, but rather to urge those who sin to turn from it. “But if a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed…he shall surely live; he shall not die” (verse 21).
So, we find in this prophecy a strong message of hope-for adults and teens alike…depending upon what each chooses to do. WNP