Francis Gardom offers some reflections on the church’s mission after reading a recent church study on the spiritual life and aspirations of young people which is honest about what we have got wrong

Making Sense of Generation Y. The world view of 15–25-year-olds by Sara Savage, Sylvia Collins-Mayo, Bob Mayo with Graham Cray. Church House Publishing £12·99.

We often make wrong judgements; we are less often prepared to acknowledge we have done so. To their credit, the authors of Making Sense of Generation Y freely admit that the findings of their research into the mindset of the people aged between 15 and 25 they interviewed (hence referred to for convenience as ‘Gen-Y’) proved to be almost exactly the opposite of what they expected!

Incorrect assumptions

Jonny Baker, Mission Adviser for Youth and Emerging Church at CMS hit the nail on the head when, reviewing the book, he writes, ‘Making Sense of Generation Y is astonishing. Putting it bluntly, it suggests that many of our assumptions about young people, their world view and quest for spirituality are wrong. This has implications for the future of mission, youth ministry and the Church.’

You’re telling me! Graham Cray, now Bishop of Maidstone, spills the beans when he writes, ‘We argue that the allegedly widespread phenomenon of a growth in eclectic spiritual seeking among young people burgeoning on the back of a decline in religion, is illusory.’ Bishop Cray and his colleagues acknowledge that the much-vaunted notion of a widespread, deeply-felt, spiritual vacuum – a God-shaped hole at the heart of Gen-Y, crying out to be replenished with Christian spiritual in-fill, is based on wishful thinking on the part of the professional in-fillers.

The ‘midi-narrative’

Predictions abound, as they have for the last half-century, of a great spiritual hunger or awakening just about to manifest itself, a mission-opportunity for the Church to that generation so conspicuous by their absence from our pews. But its fulfilment remains as remote as ever. Vast resources have been applied to make it happen, or at the very least to prepare us for the event, but nothing appears to result. Think back to the Decade of Evangelism!

The researchers, once of that opinion, explain why they now believe it to have been illusory, namely because Gen-Y is enthralled, as few have been hitherto, to a Happy Midi-narrative.

Let me explain this term which recurs constantly throughout their argument. A narrative, in this context, is a way of looking at reality in terms of a story. ‘Story’ here in no way implies that it is necessarily fictitious or false. It may be either or both; but from early times such stories have been employed to explain why things ‘are as they are.’

There are meta-narratives (which claim to be the whole truth). Marxism and Christianity are two such. Each explains whence civilization has come and whither it is going. Like every good story they are structured. So meta-narratives are ones which deal with the big-time questions about life-death-and-the-meaning-of-it-all. They form the very framework of our knowledge.

By contrast there are mini-narratives, singular and ephemeral (‘What shall I do today? On my own or with a friend or two?’). With such we are not here concerned. Midi-narratives are more like daydreams. They are longer term, and ask ‘what, of right, can I expect life to provide me with in the near and foreseeable future?’ Midis look further into the future than the minis, but both are self-centred.

Their beliefs

Like many ideas, midis are often picked up, by osmosis, from a peer-group; but their most powerful source is TV soap-operas and the lyrics of pop music. The Happy Midi-Narrative is endemic in Gen-Y today; assumed rather than consciously adopted.

What does the midi-narrative tell them? Three short, easily understood propositions: 1) The central goal in life is to be happy. 2) Happiness is eminently achievable through relationships with family and close friends. 3) Creative consumption of the resources of popular culture will provide it.

Of course such daydreams are often wrecked on the shores of reality. Life, they realize, may include disappointment, unhappiness and loneliness. But these are seen to result primarily from personal failure. ‘If you’re discontented, it’s your own fault – try a bit harder!’ Significantly, the soap-opera storylines suggest to Gen-Y that when in serious trouble your family will make it their job to bail you out! ‘Spirituality,’ if it enters into their viewfinder at all, is just another form of entertainment, but to be jettisoned without regret if it ceases to satisfy.

So where does Christianity come into this midi-narrative? The answer is, nowhere. It would be hard to imagine – though I daresay some will try – a frame of thought more alien to the Happy Midi-Narrative than the Christian Gospel. With its emphasis on dependence, self-immolation, self-discipline and sacrifice, Christianity is ill-suited to fit into any discernible hole,in the life of those whose leitmotif is circumscribed by their Happy Midi-Narrative. There are, of course, exceptions. Some Anglican evangelical churches attract a significant minority of Gen-Y-ers.

Another question then has to be asked: when Happy Midi-Narrative and Gospel imperative conflict in an individual, which one is more likely to come out on top? I understand there is an uncomfortable suspicion abroad amongst clergy that many of their regular young churchgoers (of all traditions) are happily practising co-habitation without being in the least bothered by it!

Practical approach

Is there an answer? And, if so, what is it? My experience as a Street Pastor has brought me closer to members of Gen-Y than any other experience of my 40+ years of ministry.

The young people, on their way to and from The Venue (the local mega-night club) are largely from Gen-Y. Without exception they appreciate what Street Pastors do between 10pm and 4am at the weekend. Just by ‘being there,’ Street Pastors, according to the police, cut the crime rate by 70%!

Sometimes, not very often admittedly, they engage us in conversation about the more serious aspects of their personal lives. At that hour there is all the time in the world to listen. An oft-heard comment is that they are ‘glad the Church is taking an interest in us for a change.’

Well, the Church has been taking a deep (and costly) interest in Gen-Y for many years. What this book does is to call into question the effect, if any, this interest has hitherto had on Gen-Y. Its findings suggest that some novel approach may be called for. More Street Pastors, perhaps?