Millennials and faith, or, why using social media doesn’t mean you’re self-obsessed
There’s been a lot of hubbub in the blogosphere about Rachel Held Evans’ piece “Why Millennials Are Leaving The Church.” Of the different responses and reactions I’ve read, one response by Hipster Christianity author Brett McCracken caught my eye. Titled “How to keep Millennials in the church? Let’s keep church un-cool,” I took issue with the condescending tone it took towards other Millennials. The article assumes, broadly speaking, that Millennials are self-centered, fickle, and want to change the church solely to fulfill our own desires. Moreover, its advice to millennials to basically shut up and listen to their elders I find insulting and problematic.
Evans’ original piece encouraged church leaders to get into communication with their youth, saying
“I would encourage church leaders eager to win Millennials back to sit down and really talk with them about what they’re looking for and what they would like to contribute to a faith community.”
What Evans’ describes is church leaders and members starting some sort of dialogue , and millennials are seen in as actively interested in the church and wanting to contribute and help building community. McCracken characterizes Millenials a a much more negative light, writing that
“Perhaps instead of perpetuating our sense of entitlement and Twitter/blog/Instagram-fueled obsession with hearing ourselves speak, we could just shut up for a minute and listen to the wisdom of those who have gone before?”
UGH. But it continues.
“Are we really to believe that today’s #hashtagging, YOLO-oriented, selfie-obsessed generation of Millennials has more wisdom to offer about the church than those who have thought about and faithfully served the church decade after decade, amidst all its warts, challenges and ups and down?”
Let’s put aside the fact that yes, millennials can and do have some good ideas to contribute to the church. I do take umbrage with the fact that McCracken is talking down to millennials in the piece. But really, I am so tired – SO TIRED – of hearing how social media users are vapid and shallow and only care about hearing their own opinions. McCracken isn’t not the only one guilty of this assertion; no, this problem is much, much more widespread in published media, and I am quite sick of it. Yes, there are plenty of shallow people on the internet and beyond, as Jean Twenge’s work indicates. And yes, social media platforms can be used to perpetuate their own self-obsessions. But those platforms are primarily made to SHARE thoughts, ideas, art, entertainment, education, and so much more, WITH OTHER PEOPLE. Users can publish their thoughts and actions immediately with social media platforms, not to mention all the creators in the world can take utilize the platforms to help share their work. This massive overhaul in how we consider community, commerce, and relationships is a NEW THING, and typically because of this, it’s often scapegoated as THE problem of today’s generation.
Nevermind how wonderful it is to be able to share ideas, encourage artistic support, organize movements for social justice issues, and much more using social media. Let’s focus on how shallow people must be for taking so many pictures of themselves, because, you know, this is a new behavior that wasn’t technologically possible before, it must be problematic!
This isn’t to say social media platforms don’t have their problems either, but picking on social media and its users is such an easy target because of its associations with the youngest generation, and it’s frankly unfair. Social media is a tool, and like any tool, it can be used and abused in a variety of ways. I understand that McCracken isn’t criticizing social media itself, but the combination of ‘this generation is self-obsessed’ + ‘this generation uses a plethora of new media platforms for their self-obsession’ = ‘#YOLO generation is vapid and shallow’ is a broad unfair characterization of both the generation and new media, and I find that it crops up here. It’s a tangled web of overgeneralization that I wish was dealt with more insight in media today.
But aside from the condescending attitude towards his own generation, aside from perpetuating new media scapegoating, McCracken telling millennials to shut up and listen to the older generation is just another way of saying “quit questioning the tradition, just accept it.” The idea that millennials speaking to their church leaders or tradition to affect positive change or challenge growth, or contribute SOMEthing to the community, doesn’t appear for consideration, as it does in Evans’ piece. Suffice it to say that postmodernity complicates things. A LOT of things. And the plethora of voices discussing and debating faith likely need to be engaged for the institution of church to help other people. It’s not about fulfilling whatever banal request congregants have. It’s about serving as sources of wisdom, guidance, and organization for the congregants’ faith journeys.
I have other qualms with the article. I have trouble appreciating McCracken’s comments about consumerism, because the rhetoric ultimately ignores the deep pluralism among all the various denominations and faith journeys. The buttressing of orthodox tradition in the article contributes to that as well. But I’ll end here by saying that as a millennial with a Bachelors degree in Film and Media Studies, and interacts daily with a variety of forms of social media, I’d appreciate a little more respect for myself and others trying to explore faith and share thoughts with my friends, family, and the world. And if the church assumes that their disinterested, media-saavy congregants are merely self-obsessed, they likely aren’t giving them the respect they deserve.