YOUNG PEOPLE AND HOPE
We've celebrated remembrance day this week, and I've found myself pondering various photos I've seen: it hasn't been the bloody battles, but the photos of normal everyday people leaving their normal every day lives to go to war; some so young they are barely adults, leaving family and friends behind, some leaving young children and spouses behind. I think it's the thought of their lives being ripped apart, their future extremely uncertain, and many not returning, and those families having to make do without their loved one.
In “The selfie generation”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBmMJMKo5h0&t=2496s, Rabbi Jonathan Sachs talks to some generational thinkers about the world our young people are growing up in, and then gets reflections from a group of 6th form students (16-18 year olds).
One of the contributors is Jean Twenge, an author and professor of psychology at San Diego State University. She talks of how this generation is the most physically safe, but mentally fragile generation. Very few of us have ever been threatened with war, medicine has improved astronomically, and we are very safety conscious in every area of our lives, and no-where more so than with our children. We are at a point where we take safety for granted, in fact mostly we go through life presuming that we will be safe and have every need met. It is only when illness or accident breaks through this that we see that this is not the case.
But through this are we happy? Have we got a strong sense of wellbeing? What Jean has found, and what I see in many of the young people I work with is a resounding no. Despite being safer and more secure, people are fearful of the future and how life may work out, it has become normal to live with long term anxiety, and depression and mental health problems are escalating. Combined with this, young people are less confident, are not optimistic, have lower self esteem than the previous generation, and their hunger for love and friendship has also reduced. Ouch!
What has caused this? Lets look at the narrative of our world the young people have grown up with:
World events mean that the future is distopian: we are on the cusp of irreversible climate change that will change society; the economy has been shrinking, and young people struggle to get jobs (and even when they do they won't be able to get on the housing ladder); the war on terror and political uncertainty mean that change is likely and it's not necessarily for the better.
Without other voices to make sense of the world, this is pretty bleak. We see the outworking of this: the future is uncertain, so if they are going to “make it” and have anything like the standard of living they have enjoyed growing up, they need to succeed; not just do well, but excel above there peers. Failure is not an option.
So where does this leave us as Church? The narrative of the world is pretty grim, but the narrative of God's work in the world is hope: we are on a trajectory to the new heaven and the new earth; our future is secure. Whatever happens in this world, we can look forward to that.
In the youth ministry, we try to come back regularly to this hope, to our security in Jesus, and to God transforming our hearts and minds; making sure these themes are reflected in all we do to point people to Jesus. It also provides a wonderful opportunity in our schools work to talk about anxiety, the future, and point to a hope we can depend on. Wellbeing has become a need that schools are looking for support on, and one that young people seem extremely open to discussing and working on. What a wonderful opportunity for us to serve our community!
Another outworking of the climate is that young people are scared of failure, and they need to earn God's love by succeeding. Obviously our gospel speaks deeply into that: God isn't looking for high achievers, and we don't need to impress Him: He is overjoyed by us. I was chatting to a group of teenagers recently who said that they felt that the fact God loved everyone totally meant His love was nearly meaningless: it wasn't special to anyone. This is a challenge to how we communicate God's love, but also a wonderful opportunity to discuss how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.
In summary, the climate our young people are growing up in has changed the culture hugely, it has changed how young people relate to the world they live in, and also how they relate to Jesus and to church, but the good news of Jesus is still as relevant as it ever was, and still brings transformation and change to a people who are as aware of some of their needs as ever.