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.