Does Our Generation Ignore Morality?

How our generation is embracing relationships—at the expense of ethics.

Today’s twentysomethings, who grew up in a world of pluralism and moral relativism, are displaying those same tendencies, according to a recent study by the Barna Group. “I feel like young adults today have seen the harm that comes from a black-and-white stance toward morals,” says Bethany Scroggins, 22. “So maybe we’ve moved too far in the situational direction to avoid being like our parents. We can see that Jesus didn’t condemn the woman [at the well] who had five husbands. Telling people who sin that they’re going to hell doesn’t do us or God’s kingdom any good.”

This attitude is reflected in the Barna study, which surveyed 7,000 adults over a period of three years, quizzing them on 16 areas of moral and sexual behavior and 16 perspectives regarding morality and sexuality. An article summarizing the study’s findings, published on Barna.org, zeroed in on the vast difference between “Busters” (people born between 1965 and 1983) and members of the baby boomer generation or those older than them. In 12 of the 16 behavior areas and on 13 of the 16 perspectives, Busters’ lives and ideas took a less conventional—some would say less moral—turn than their older counterparts.

“People’s moral profile is more likely to resemble that of their peer group than it is to take shape around the tenets of a person’s faith. This research paints a compelling picture that moral values are shifting very quickly and significantly within the Christian community as well as outside of it,” David Kinnaman, Barna’s president and strategic leader, comments.

More than two-thirds of Busters surveyed said they believe cohabitation is an acceptable behavior, and almost half of them had no problem with homosexuality, compared with half of older adults in the first instance and 25 percent in the second. According to the article, Busters were “twice as likely as their parents’ generation to use profanity in public” and 10 times as likely to download or trade music illegally online. 

Why the shift among Christian young adults? Why the willingness, even eagerness, to accept beliefs and practices that our parents, grandparents and the Church roundly condemn as wrong?

Part of the shift can be traced to the history of the last few decades and the current political climate in America. “Since the Cold War ended, we don’t have a single clearly defined ‘enemy’ in the United States,” says Richard Beck, professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University. “We’ve become much more of a pluralistic society.” All-inclusive rhetoric has become the order of the day in America, Beck says, as has measuring moral actions by “what works for me.” Today’s young adults, the demographic that fills Beck’s classes, have grown up hearing that different beliefs, actions and lifestyles are not wrong, but just that: different.

“We’re the children of the people who threw off the hierarchy,” says Seth Shaver, 23. “We were raised by people who bucked the system. So that’s part of our psyche—we resist the system. Our parents’ generation saw the hierarchy as oppressive, and they saw the rules about [sexual and moral] purity as an order from the hierarchy. If you throw out the hierarchy, there are no rules [about] purity.

“I think our generation is more relationally minded than principle minded,” Shaver adds. “Sometimes principles get in the way of relationships. We haven’t quite figured out how to hold onto our [moral] priorities and still respect those of others. And our generation wants relationship so badly that sometimes we’ll throw everything else out to get it.”

Kinnaman’s and Shaver’s insights may help explain why only three out of 10 Busters surveyed—as opposed to nearly half of pre-Busters—said they view moral truth as absolute. This disparity sheds some light on the broader difference between the generations, regardless of faith or church affiliation. However, the lives of Christian Busters, many of whom believe in absolute truth and live by firm ethical standards, often end up looking quite different from those of their parents.

The middle is a difficult place to be, whatever the context. But Kinnaman sees several sparks of hope for Christian young adults who feel the calling to live there.

“I have a great hope that this generation’s loyalty to friends actually could be their saving grace,” he says. “It becomes a point at which we can continue to be Jesus to people. Accepting our friends as Jesus would accept them, and not having any kind of agenda for them, could be a way for us to see some spiritual resurgence.”

“Broken” aptly describes this generation, many of whom come from broken homes and families, and have struggled with emotional and spiritual emptiness. For people who are empty and searching, a set of rules simply isn’t going to cut it, which, to Kinnaman, provides yet more reason to hope.

“[Christian leaders] have made this point of emphasis on the ‘do nots,’ rather than people’s response to God,” he says. “And the whole scope of Scripture is about our hearts’ responsiveness to God’s leading. If we were to reorient our teaching around that concept, that would start to change the way our generation thinks about God.”

That change, if it happens, may come slowly. “A lot of people want a ‘quick fix,’” Curry comments about living life as a Christian. “They don’t want to pay the price of walking through the wilderness with God. That’s key to people wanting freedom. We have to hate the sin in our lives, and we have to want [the life] it’s keeping us from.”

As Christian young adults seek to love and live in relationship with people whose actions often conflict with their principles, perhaps a new set of rules—rules for life in the middle—will emerge. Instead of a rigid list of “thou shalt nots,” perhaps these rules will be “thou shalts”: Thou shalt be merciful. Thou shalt love the world and its people, though they are often unlovable. Thou shalt stand up for justice and try to offer hope to a depressed world. In short, thou shalt live as Jesus lived and walk as He walked.

If Christian young adults can begin living by these new absolutes, dealing with the tension between relationship and principles, the rest of life—including sticky ethical decisions—may eventually fall into place. The statistics on gambling, drinking and sexual behavior might shift back toward conventional morality, but that will not be the point. The point will be the lives of those in the middle: still principled, but welcoming, transparent and full of an honest desire both for morality and for relationship.

63 Comments

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Anonymous commented…

It's a difficult subject. Establishing individual moral boundaries always creates space for judgment to fall against people who are different. But it doesn't have to be that way. Becky, I believe I understand what you are saying. I have the beauty of free will.... to choose my living and experience the manifestation of my choices and then make changes as I desire. It is not my place to determine another persons morality or judge the path they are choosing. It is never my responsibility to change anyone else. If you think someone is wrong, offer them up in prayer...let God have it. When I approach people and situations from the perspective that I need to "change" them, I accept the position of God. However, when I choose to see Christ in the eyes of ALL people I encounter, I open a door for God to move and allow Him to create change in Me as well as others. It's a stronger, more powerful approach. I have one responsibility in this life, to make myself completely vulnerable to my God so that all of my living is governed by Him. For me, that began by surrendering ALL beliefs, laying down my right to be right and my need to understand. I have a beautiful 18 year old agnostic, daughter and two best friends who are buddhist. I engage each relationship in complete vulnerability. I have no agenda, no rights, nothing but the LOVE of CHRIST as my common ground. He loves us all equally. I carry His light knowing I may be the only opportunity God has to move in their lives. When they look at me and talk with me nothing matters except that they see Jesus. That can't happen if I THINK I need to DO anything except love them. It's God's job to change and convert. It's my job to LOVE and ACCEPT and be willing to be changed myself. We all respect one another. I pray over them and with them and they all accept me because my motivation is truly love....not fear. This is a great article. As history proves over and over again, we go to extreme's to find balance. As Christians we know...God is always in control.

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Jason commented…

Becky, your way of thinking is what this article is all about! "What's tight for me is right for me"? Really? So, can I get women drunk and have sex with them? I mean, if it's 'tight with me' then it's right? What is your standard for morality? There just has to be a standard. Everyone knows that, they just won't admit it. The logic doesn't hold that morality is subjective.

The main problem here is a person's unwillingness to put themselves under the authority of Christ and by default, Scripture...that's it-no more complex than that. It's people doing what they want to do rather than what God has revealed what is best for us and what will work best within the framework of how he designed things to 'work'. And as they sin, the rift spreads, and 'darkened thinking' becomes the result.
(Romans 1:21 - For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened).

And by the way, Sampson was an Israelite Judge under a Nazarite vow, so that is a horrible example...as was the example in the article about Jesus not condemning the woman, since after he forgave her, he gave her the admonition to "go and sin no more." That's pretty plain if ya ask me. Her sins were forgiven, but NOT approved of.

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Audra commented…

Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. Proverbs 12:18

This book blessed me so much as a new believer many years ago. Please do not insult it.

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seventh-day adventist commented…

nice....thanks for the post

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Jason commented…

Yes our generation is definitely without a moral standard. Abortion isn't really murder; homosexuality is just a form of love; To mis-speak is the new way to lie (as is to mis-represent); everything must be politically correct and the list goes on.

So here are my 95 Theses-- abbreviated down to a much lower number...
1) Jesus is coming back
2) He is not as "overlooking" as we think though He is very forgiving
3) You have to want that forgiveness
4) You have to want that forgiveness (and Him) before you die
5) Abortion is murder
6) I don't care if you know a guy who's dating a girl who's sister's best friend's cousin got raped; I hurt for them that they were violated and a man ruined their image of what the love of a real man should be, but that doesn't make an abortion okay. If it's too painful to keep the child, let a barren couple have the child in adoption (all your expenses will be paid), but abortion is still murder
7) Jesus loves the homosexual, though the church doesn't often, but don't give me some line about how it was a culturally or contextually relevant statement in Leviticus or in Romans about homosexuality and how it doesn't apply anymore. You're making excuses for your sin, just like I make excuses sometimes for looking at things on the internet I shouldn't look at OR eating to excess sometimes or all the other things I and everybody else do and make excuses for.
8) In my dictionary the pre-fix "mis-" seems to be missing. From now on please use only concrete terms. Replace "mis-spoke" with "lied"; mis-represented with "deceived"; mis-appropriated with "stole" and don't let me ever here the former out of your mouth again. And no I don't care how many times you hear those words at a Congressional Ethics trial on C-SPAN.
9) America and Americans will be judged for our extreme excesses. I have no idea if God has a problem with somebody having a nice house or a second beach house (just share those things)! What I do know is that God has a problem with wasteful spending. If your car costs more than my house (and my house is not a borrowed porta-potty) then there is a problem here. Oh and if your car looks like Cruella Deville would drive it you squandered your money (Rolls Royce). If your cable bill costs more than my family's grocery bill, you have squandered money that should be sewn into the kingdom. 7 children could have food, water, clothing and schooling for what you spend each month to watch Gossip Girl and your watch every game sports package.
10) Your job is to pray to high heaven that the Holy Spirit changes the hard hearts of our generation and opens their ears to more than what tickles them. It should come as no shock that we are in this predicament; it was prophesied in the Bible. Our generations hearts are hard and no preacher is going to change that without the Holy Spirit at work first. So know where your power comes from and get in the game.
11) If you don't feel a conviction to start this praying NOW then you don't believe points 1-10 and I can't help you; your heart is hard.

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