Irreverently yours: A message from Generation X

Perceptions aside, young Catholics are hardly slackers when it comes to religion, although they have fashioned a faith and spirituality radically different from their elders. Tom Beaudoin, himself a 20-something Catholic, tells what the church can learn from the so-called Generation X.

I AM WRITING FROM THE FRINGE,as one of the church's own and yet an outsider. You see, I work "for" the church (the institution) and simultaneously resist it. Along with several other 20- and 30-something Catholics, I helped found--and currently co-lead--a Catholic ministry to my generational peers. I am also a catechist in RCIA and help out with various other ministries in my church. I serve the institution.

At the same time, I am constantly fighting the feeling that I am serving a church that is in the process of failing a generation, that is largely unconcerned about unchurched young adults and about not only seeking justice in the world but practicing justice within its own structures, that too often seems concerned with its own survival over risking its resources to preach and live the gospel in the present. In short, I am alternately determined to serve or to leave the church many times within the space of a week (or often, a day).

Perhaps my experience is unusual. If, however, some of my experiences of almost manic ambivalence are even remotely typical of the 20- and 30-somethings who remain "in" the church, then perhaps there is something of value in what I am saying. I know the institution enjoys being a "teaching church," and it seems it is weighing in on matters of orthodoxy with increasing vigilance.

I do not mean to suggest that my peers and I cannot learn anything from the church. On the contrary, my generation is largely religiously illiterate, and we have a great deal to learn--whether in the end we accept or reject it. Still, the teaching church is always also the learning church. I am convinced that the church could indeed learn something from my generation, the so-called "Generation X." I am not qualified to speak for an entire generation; in fact, no one person could speak for a generation as diverse as ours. But I have observed some interesting theological things about our generation by attending to our popular culture, and even more, I have learned a lot in ministering to and with this generation. So I am going to try to be real, if a bit optimistic, for a few pages. While I will undoubtedly only attempt to capture one slice of us, it is an important slice.

I know it is difficult to take us seriously sometimes, particularly given the many bad raps we have been given in the press. The "slacker" label has stuck longer than we thought it would. But rumor has it that the Holy Spirit, rarely one to observe canons of propriety, occasionally hangs out with us. So: What can the church learn from us, the so-called "Generation X"? (For my Top 10 characteristics of our generation, see the list I scrawled on a Starbucks napkin.)

1. Popular culture is important.
If you are going to understand anything about 20- and 30-somethings, you have to take pop culture seriously--in fact, I'll be referring to it throughout this article.

I do not mean that you should take pop culture soberly, though. In fact, many of us have a playful, ironic, or irreverent attitude toward our favorite songs, movies, sitcoms, comic books, and so on. Perhaps this might be a better way to explain it: There is a sense in which we take pop culture religiously, as a major system of meaning for our lives, at least as important as family or church. We are often as dedicated to Thursday-night TV (Friends), our favorite rap or hip-hop artist, or a particular CD or movie as we are to any church group or even a particular weekend Mass.

Much of the meaning generated by popular culture in our lives has something of a subterranean effect on us, while other parts of it we are conscious of. This is where the church might be able to help us: by providing a sounding board, at least, for helping us make spiritual judgments about our lives in pop culture. But I'm getting ahead of myself, and I promised you and myself that this would be about what the church might learn from GenX. So what might others learn from our deep immersion in pop culture? Maybe that, amidst all its ephemerality, it bears a spiritual dimension; that it is not purely sinful, but an admixture of sin and grace, distortion and inspiration.

As rock star Courtney Love of the band Hole recently remarked to Spin magazine, "Ninety-five percent of all popular culture is pornography, [and] 5 percent creates inspiration, new aesthetic, and grace in people." She added, "I'd like to be in that 5 percent, using pop." Does the church know how to look for that (at least) 5 percent, to redeem what can be redeemed?

2. Pluralism can be a virtue.
There are lots of people--especially in the church, and occasionally from the pulpit--who think that we are a generation without values. Raised on a steady diet of adult-themed or simply amoral video games, rock idols, and movies, for example, we are incapable of judging right from wrong. You would be right to think that many of us are not quite sure where our moral values come from, except from somewhere deeply private and within, or perhaps in a highly individual, but still private, relationship with God or the universe. But that does not mean we are not struggling to make such moral judgments almost daily, and that we do not already have a fundamental moral commitment. That commitment is to the value of pluralism, which springs from our generational ethic: tolerance.

We--and those younger than us--represent the leading edge of America's ever-increasing ethnic and cultural diversity. Many of us have grown up with, or discovered in our young adulthood, real sexual, racial, religious differences--and struggled to accept them without prejudice. Many of us also have friends across a spectrum of identities: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Native American, Black, Asian, Latino/a, lesbian, gay, straight, Republican, Democrat, independent--and this is just the beginning.

What this means for the church, and for our spiritual lives, is that a great many of us will be skeptical of--or simply refuse--any talk about a God who is present narrowly in only one community, only one religious tradition, amidst only one race, or who is manifest in only one sexual identity. We know, almost intuitively, that if God is really God, this God is not bound by the walls of one church or the biases of one culture.

3. We work with what we have, to do more with less.
Remember that a great many of us grew up fending for ourselves in day care or as latchkey kids. We were forced to find meaning where we could, which contributed to our emergence into a quick and untutored sort of adulthood. Along the way, we managed, according to cultural critic Douglas Rushkoff, to develop a weird set of survival skills. He writes that our generation has an uncanny "ability to derive meaning from the random juxtaposition of TV commercials, candy wrappers, childhood memories, and breakfast treats." While this may seem a bit sad to those older than us, just remember that previous generations have had their own symbol system that was influenced by pop culture. Just think of silent movies, family radios, or the Kennedys in the White House, who were, recall, before our time.

So in the absence of stable familial, church, or social structures, and living our early years in the depressed 1970s (although my parents both worked, I was on a free-lunch program and we lived in government housing), we have learned to do more with less. That does not mean we are, as a generation, in poverty--far from it. It does mean that we are more of a stripped-down generation: no big civil-rights movements for us, please (a warning to church liberals that we are skeptical that big change is around the corner, or even possible). We will volunteer locally, short-term, where the benefits are immediately visible. And because we are still paying off exorbitant student loans and credit cards, we will do more with less--like $4 coffees and nice computers instead of a big house in the suburbs.

Of course, the ultimate spiritual example of "more with less" is our attempt to fashion our own spirituality at arm's length from religious institutions. We are, by and large, a scrappy lot.

4. Suspicion of institutions can be a good thing.
I know that this will be a difficult thing for many church leaders to stomach, but I am not just trying to offer a subtle self-justification here. One of the most frequent ways that religion is invoked in our popular culture is when it is suspected of some sort of distrustful or soul-damaging behavior.

This is not just an invention of a few pop-culture mavens who are trying to brainwash my generation: it resonates with a generation-wide experience of bad religion, of condescending ministers, and institutions that try to thwart rather than foster real religious inquiry and tolerate dissent. This is one reason, by the way, that you do not see hordes of GenXers flocking to church-reform movements; we are very suspicious and doubtful that any real structural change is possible.

One of the biggest pop songs of the past year was Sarah McLachlan's "Building a Mystery." It is a song shot through with irony about the impossibility of really "building" a mystery.

She is critical of a man who "lives in a church," making not so much his own mystery as his own self-delusion, his own mystification. Suspicion of institutions can be a good thing: It resonates with some of the most prophetic voices of our tradition. The prophets of Hebrew scripture and Jesus himself all had their deep suspicions of institutionalized religion. Jesus' cleansing of the temple remains a relevant story for innumerable numbers of Catholic churches today.

Perhaps older Catholics should take seriously the prophetic dimension of our suspicion of institutions. Many of us recognize that the church is a means to God, not an end in itself. The form of idolatry of which we are most suspicious is ecclesiolatry--treating the church as an idol. (This does not mean we do not have idols, that will have to be another article about what we might learn from the church.) It was the great Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas who wrote that "the prophet [is] the person least capable of becoming an institution." Perhaps the church can recognize that this tension between the prophetic and the institutional is also a part of their own "institutional" tradition.

5. Family is a matter of shared commitment, not shared blood.

Have you ever seen the television show Friends? OK, so I hardly ever watch it myself (I am not a sitcom kind of guy), but I know enough about it to know that, for all its superficiality, it is telling the story of a different sort of family, a style of family appealing to many in my generation. The main characters have no blood relationship but are joined together out of an agreement, lived as much as verbalized, to be committed to being with each other.

The same sort of generational family-values exercise happens in the quintessential GenX musical Rent, but with even more ethnic and sexual diversity. As one woman said to me early on in our GenX Catholic ministry, "What I really need is a community, a family, to whom I can be responsible and who will really expect something of me." To learn a little about our expanded definition of "family," just look at the definition of family at the heart of our own scripture. Just look at Jesus.

At every turn, when his own immediate family, his blood relatives, were commended to him, he chose instead to associate himself with another more powerful family: those who are his disciples. "Who are my mother and sisters and brothers? Those who hear the Word of God and do it." It seems as if my generation's sense of family and the sense of the New Testament are similar: Family is community around a common spiritual purpose and commitment.

6. Humility is the center of all ministry and teaching authority.

I think that any encounter with my generation, a generation so skeptical of or downright indifferent to religious institutions, should take the church back to a foundation point of its own self-understanding: The church exists not for its own sake but as a sign of God's reign through love in this world toward the next, preached and lived by the church in humility and service (which should not be confused with cowardice or cultural retreat).

My generation was raised in an era of, to say the least, diminishing religious expectations: The decline of mainline Protestantism was well underway during our upbringing, and the rise of fundamentalism is recognized by most of us as a foolhardy attempt to turn off one's mind in the face of life's real ambiguities.

Nevertheless, images of fallen televangelists and deadly church liturgies dance in our heads. This is why I think Jesus- and Christ-related themes are so surprisingly prevalent in our popular culture--look at "What Would Jesus Do?" accessories, for example. On some level, we suspect that Jesus was both more radical and more humble than many of those today who minister in his name. Learning from us a bit of humility as the guarantor of authentic ministry is not giving in to a generational dysfunction; it is instead returning to the model of Jesus as the teacher who refused all triumphalism. Those ministries that I have seen succeed with my generation invariably are described by similar words: frank, authentic, real, open, humble.

7. There is a need for generation-sensitive Catholic ministries, especially for GenX.

One of the most important, practical things that the church can learn from us is our need for ministry in a "generational space." This is a space wherein all the learnings above can be practiced: a church of humility, creating new spiritual families, refusing to take itself deadly seriously, creatively engaging our popular culture as both a source of sin and a starting point for grace, and where Catholic Christianity in the great plurality of all its expressions (Irish, Italian, African American, Latin American, and so on) are explored.

In short, I am talking about a ministry that is fundamentally catholic, that is, "according to the whole" of the diverse, pluriform Catholic tradition. That the church is frequently resistant to learning about this need for a generational ministry is quite evident to me. How many times have I heard from pastors, religious-education directors, or youth ministers, "There's no real need to worry about Generation X. They'll come back to us once they get married and want their kids baptized."

This is a shoddy theology of ministry and a poor way to build the church of the 21st century, a church for which we are all responsible. Surely Pope John Paul II's call for a new Catholic evangelization means we should think about building ministries that are sensitive to the needs of the generational differences in the church.

Both anecdotal and emerging social-scientific evidence suggests that my generation is not in any hurry to come back to the institutional church on a regular basis, even after marriages (which we are deferring on average into our late 20s). I refer to the need for GenX ministry that is a "generational space" because what I do not mean by GenX ministry is typical "young adult" ministry.

Too often young adult Catholic ministries are (a) de facto singles groups or (b) operating on some universal "young adult" model that is not sufficiently sensitive to the needs of our particular generation.

Instead, I envision a generational ministry that moves along with the generation as it ages. In other words, 20- and 30-somethings would not "graduate" from GenX ministry when they turn 35. Instead, the ministry continues to serve them as they age, so that GenX ministry 10 years from now will be to those who are 30 to 45, just as a baby boomer ministry in 10 years might service those who will be 50 to 65 years old.

If I have learned anything from being part of a team that administers a Catholic GenX ministry, it is this: certain questions will only emerge in a generational ministry space when the symbols and images of the ministry are drawn from the generational needs of the participants. Evangelicals are much better than Catholics at recognizing these generational needs and preaching and practicing the gospel in generation-specific language and media. Indeed, much of what I have put into practice in GenX ministry I have learned from my evangelical brothers and sisters.

But generational ministry is not separatist. Particularly for Catholics, it should be intimately linked to the rest of the churchlocal and universal. Just as certain questions will only emerge in a generational space, certain answers will only be found in a mixed-generation space, the larger church.

Despite my frustrations with the institution, I dare to hope that the Holy Spirit will be present, if we can but teach and learn from each other.

Talkin' 'bout my generation: The top 10 things that make us a generation
10. For Catholics, John Paul II is the only pope we've known

9. Latchkey childhoods common

8. Computers are our second language

7. Experience of divorced/blended families

6. "I'm spiritual, not religious"

5. Lived ambiguities about our identities, our families, our future

4. Suspicion of or indifference to institutions

3. The '80s: our coming-of-age decade

2. Deep immersion in popular culture

1. We resist being named or categorized as a generation

Tom Beaudoin is the co-founder of Xairos, a GenX Catholic ministry at the Paulist Center in Boston, and author of Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X (Jossey-Bass, 1998). This article appeared in the April 1999 (Volume 64; Number 4) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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