Relevant… to Whom?
THE AUSTRALIAN experience of entering the new millennium has given rise to a number of studies examining the nature of society Down Under. In particular it seems that everywhere people are talking about the differences between the generations since World War II, and what we can expect Australian society to be like in the next twenty years.
Much has been written of the “Baby Boomers”, those born in the late 1940s and 1950s . In his book “Generations”, Hugh Mackay, the most popular Australian psychologist and social researcher, says of them:
“By their sheer numbers, they have cut a swathe through Australian society, transforming the institutions of primary, secondary and tertiary education; creating a ‘youth market’ in fashion and music, and drawing attention to ‘teenagers’ as a distinct subculture; dramatically expanding the car market, the travel market and the leisure market; and presiding over the decline of formal religious practice.
But the real significance of the Boomers is not just that there are so many of them: it is that they disrupted the established pattern of cultural baton-passing from one generation to the next . . . The phrase ‘generation gap’ was coined for them.”
The parents of the Baby Boomers (whom Mackay calls the “Lucky Generation”), had a tough start – the Depression of the 30s and the War – then a dream run in the unprecedented prosperity of the post war years. Their children came into the world during the most optimistic period of Australia’s history, and being proudly protected by the Lucky Generation from anything resembling the hardships they themselves had to grow through, the Boomers grew up believing that they could have and do just about anything.
But, as Mackay says, there was another side to this. The Cold War cast something of a shadow across an otherwise unbridled optimism. And then there was Vietnam. In Mackay’s view the result was to cultivate a smash and grab generation that believed in short term satisfaction, but that was not well equipped for considering long-term issues. They are the “me” generation; characterised by Mackay as the “stress ” generation, desperately trying to convince themselves that they are fulfilled following a kind of self-centred adolescence that has lasted well into middle age.
Their children (the generation born between 1970 and 1985), are the “options” generation (or ‘Generation X’). The world into which they were born was one in which
“everything is always changing; everything is relative; everything will have to adapt to the next situation that arises . . . Their experience . . . has taught them one big, central lesson: keep your options open. Whether you are thinking about a course of study, a job, a sexual partner, a political party, a set of religious beliefs, or even whether they’ll be home for dinner tonight, they have decided to remain as non-committal as possible, for as long as possible.”
Mackay contrasts the “voracious impatience” of the Boomers to have everything now with their children’s “ineffable patience”. The children may be pessimistic about the future in general, but they often believe themselves to be “cool” enough to “pick the moment” for commitment.
Mackay’s book is about those three generations. But there is a new generation emerging? the children of “Generation x”, born since 1985, and already beginning to deliver its own set of surprises. And, although it would be irresponsible to generalise too much, there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that large numbers of these children are rebelling against the flow of history that Mackay outlines.
Certainly those who work with children and younger teenagers speak of a growing seriousness about and responsibility for the future, a widespread acknowledgment that a “spirituality” is desirable, and even a search for “principles” and rules by which to live, born of a sense that “relationships in community” are important.
The last generation to be in church in any numbers at all was the Boomer generation; it is a matter of record that in the 1950s and 60s Sunday Schools were huge, and youth groups prospered. But most of the Boomers were keen to shrug off Christian morality which, to them, conspicuously stood in the way of their search for instant gratification and cheap thrills.
Why did this happen? I think that Peter Jensen hits the nail on the head in his recent address to the Anglican Church League in Sydney. He attributes the enormous success of the 1959 Billy Graham Crusade in Sydney to the fact that the majority of Sydneysiders were still “nominal Christians”. The Crusade made a huge impact on Sydney, and on many who are now leaders in a whole range of different Christian traditions.
Jensen points out, however, that the evangelicals had to develop a different approach in the early 70s, because by then the vast majority of our friends and neighbours were no longer even “nominally Christian”. This is an important point. It is obvious that the parents of the Boomers had, by and large, clung to moral values derived from the Gospel, even though most had drifted from any practice of the Faith, any real understanding of Grace, or even any sense of spirituality. The Boomers themselves were bright enough to understand the derived nature of Christian morality. If the Gospel and the Faith are not true, they proclaimed, then “morality” is a matter of opinion.
Australian churches have done it tough since the 70s. Even where things appear to be healthy, appearances can be deceptive. Anglicans are often envious of the large crowds that appear to fill Roman Catholic churches in this country. A Roman Catholic priest, however, pointed out to me recently that although his parish church is filled with 800 people twice on Sundays, it must be remembered that the same church was filled five times each Sunday just twenty years ago! And it is even reluctantly admitted by pastors of those mega charismatic and pentecostal churches seemingly full of people in their teens and early twenties, that the proportion of young people who eventually drop out is alarmingly high.
Of course, we still have clergy trying to adapt the church to the 1960s! Charismatics and liberals alike often seem to pander to the “me” generation of Boomers by making them and their experiences rather than the Lord Jesus the focus of church life. (We remember how at the very time when some Boomers were just beginning to reach out for ‘spirituality’ and ‘transcendence’, the liturgical churches decided to increase their ‘relevance’ by making worship and prayer more cerebral an exercise than it had been in any period of church history!)
But what really interests some of us now is how we relate to the children of ‘Generation X’. While the liberals claim to be fashioning a Church that is just right for those young people, there is increasing evidence that in a reaction to the spiritual and moral vacuum of their parents and grandparents, they are looking for the kind of spiritual connectedness that can be found in classical Christianity. In the city in which I live, the fastest growing Roman Catholic groups are the (officially approved!) Latin Mass communities. They are teeming with young people, children and babies worshipping with devotion and enthusiasm, and taking time to learn the Faith. (Indeed, one even meets parents who came to faith as a result of children insisting that they at least be allowed to “try” church for themselves!)
From his quite different background, Peter Jensen pointed out that in order to reach today is young people we had to “address the secular challenge by providing flourishing Bible-based, gospel-centred, people-nurturing churches in as many places as possible. We need to be both prayerful and intentional; trustful and planning.”
It is unfortunate that in Australia this kind of vision and strategy (and excitement) is seldom found in Anglo-Catholic circles, which seem content to shrink. One of the great contributions that Forward in Faith is making at the grassroots level in the handful of parishes we have here is to renew us in all that it means to be truly catholic and evangelical at the same time; and to lower the average age of our congregations! It is so important for us to interpret the signs of the times and then to respond prayerfully, creatively, and faithfully to those who are increasingly open to God.
David Chislett, SSC is Rector of All Saints’ Wickham Terrace, Brisbane in the diocese of Brisbane.