Benjamin McNutt: Young people don't lack commitment

They just may not commit to what you want them to.

Late summer saw a wave of interest and worry over America’s younger populations.  Robin Marantz Henig’s recent article in the "NY Times," “What is it about 20-somethings? ” ignited the online blog and magazine world. A young author named Brett McCracken published " Hipster Christianity: When Cool and Church Collide" that "Christianity Today" will feature on its next cover. Kenda Creasy Dean’s book "Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church" hit the shelves back in June and Tony Jones has blogged through the book since its release. The topic’s net social effect reaches across generations. Baby boomers love it because they love to worry about their kids (and when to expect grandchildren). 20-somethings love it because it gives them another reason to blog about themselves.

Much of the popular buzz reflects on recent sociological and psychological research. Psychologist Jeffery Jensen Arnett’s work suggests the possibility of a new stage in human development -- the emerging adult -- and has cognitive research to back the suggestion . Sociologist Robert Wuthnow’s book "After the Baby Boomer’s: How Twenty-Thirty Somethings are Shaping the Future of American Religion" explores how the cultural shifts in post-baby boomer generations impact religious communities.

The complexity of the cultural phenomenon seems to fuel a sense of doom among Christians about the next generation. There’s widespread fuss that teenagers lack a sense of commitment to anything and that 20-somethings won’t grow up.

As someone on the higher end of this age bracket, I’m not sure these two accusations are quite right. I don’t discount the psychological or sociological research. The pop-culture drive to dissect generations into letters of the alphabet may be irritating and reductionist, but that doesn’t make the science behind it illegitimate. I do worry these fears may frame how congregations approach the younger populations in their community as they think about future lay members and pastoral leaders.

As for the concern over why 20-somethings won’t grow up, Anna Kamenetz is right. Delayed adolescence has less to do with shirking responsibility in order to “find oneself” and more with social economics. To “grow up and get a job” these days requires more education that takes more time and more money than it did for previous generations. This is also true of theological education. Denominations no longer foot the bill for seminary the way they once did. Granted, the rising cost of education is complicated and connected to a whole web of social and economic factors, but the bottom-line for 20-somethings considering ordained ministry remains the same. Why would someone with talent and gifts put themselves into $30,000 of student loan debt to pursue ordination in a denomination they’re being told may not exist in 20 years? You can’t blame them if they kindly choose to pursue other endeavors. They’re just acting on the value of responsibility you taught them.

What’s interesting about the other accusation -- that youth lack a sense of commitment -- is that it’s wrong. Teens and 20-somethings commit to all kinds of things; just not the things we’d like them to. You can get a 20-something to work in an orphanage in Uganda or start a community garden or help undocumented immigrants navigate life in the U.S., but you can’t get them to sit in church for an hour on Sunday or lead a bible study. Teenagers commit to their Facebook page. You might think Facebook is a voyeuristic time-suck (I do too), but spending 40 hours a week at something -- voluntarily -- is still commitment. Just not the kind of commitment churches would hope.

One of the largest employers of Duke undergrads fresh out of college is Teach for America. These grads sign up for a two-year teaching stint in some of the most difficult and socially complex contexts in U.S. public schools. True, some of them may be padding their resumes.  But I bet plenty of them do it because they believe in the work enough to commit their future to it.

Instead of harping about how kids these days lack a sense of commitment or 20-somethings delay growing up, denominations and Christian institutions should ask themselves what they can learn from organizations like Teach for America. Instead of wondering why young adults don’t commit, they may want to ask what generates commitment in the first place. Because it hasn’t disappeared with this generation.

Benjamin McNutt is a recent graduate of Duke Divinity School.