I picked my daughter up from youth group one night and asked her how they spent their evening. “We played lots of games, had some snacks and a bible study.” I smiled and said, “sounds like fun, what was the bible study about?” Switching radio stations from my country music to something with the latest pop songs she replied, “um, we read the story about Samuel and Eli and talked about hearing God’s call.” My daughter paused, distracted by the initial chords of a song she didn’t like and after switching radio stations again continued saying that the youth pastor, “asked us what we imagined God created us for and what he wanted us to do with our lives.” Her words hung in the air as an iPhone was swiftly connected to the car and a new song started. “You know Dad,” she said pensively, “that was the first time I can think of when anyone in the church asked me questions like that. You know, like that God might actually be trying to show me what to do with my life.” I drove on in a bit of stunned silence. First of all, I was so pleased that our youth pastor was asking questions regarding vocation of the youth. Second, I felt like a terrible dad (again) for not having had this specific conversation yet with my teenage daughter. No wonder preachers’ kids have such a curious reputation.
On that drive home from youth group, I heard the Holy Spirit whisper, “pay attention, this conversation is important,” like a ticker tape running through my mind. Where do we create space for youth in the church to dig into the question of vocation, I wondered? The generation coming up behind the Millennials is experiencing a world of gospel and culture challenges unlike anything we’ve seen before. As psychologist Jean M. Twenge writes in her book, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, “The waning of private religious beliefs means that younger generations’ disassociation from religion is not just about their distrust in institutions; more are disconnecting from religion entirely, even at home and even in their hearts.”
While iGen’s parents, known as Gen Xers, may have been (in the words of Vancouver author Douglas Coupland), “the first generation raised without religion,” many were still aware of a fading memory of Christendom. Today, Gen Xers are often referred to as “dones,” when it comes to their belief and involvement in the Church. But this new generation, born between 1995 and 2012, are living examples of what sociologists call the “nones,” meaning no Christian memory and no biblical literacy. They live not narrative-driven lives that help connect with the Christian arc of salvation from creation, fall, covenant, Christ, church and one day consummation; rather, they live episodic lives focused on the immediate goals and needs before them in what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls, “the imminent frame.” While Millennials have often been referred to as “spiritual but not religious,” Twenge’s research concludes that the iGen cohort “are actually less spiritual as well as being less religious.”
Twenge concludes that iGen’ers are less religious and less spiritual, “publicly and privately, and strikingly different from previous generations when they were young. The move away from religion is no longer piecemeal, small or uncertain: it is large and definitive.”
A CALLING FOR THE CHURCH
Yikes, it’s not like we didn’t already have enough to worry about as parents of this upcoming iGen before reading that. This news is surely alarming for those of us trying to raise our children to have a deep and transformative relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We rightly attend to our children’s justification through baptism and raise them to know the living God made known in Jesus Christ through Sunday school, camp, vacation Bible school, youth group and any other number of programs. If we’re honest, however, we knew deep down that Sunday school and endless rounds of Veggie Tales videos would not suffice for proper catechesis that leads to sanctification, so today we wait, pray and watch for the Holy Spirit to move in our young people’s lives. Will they exhibit growing faith and confirm the baptismal vows we made on their behalf, moving with the Holy Spirit’s power from being covenant members to professing members of Christ’s church? And if we pray that confirmation will not be seen by them as graduation out of the church, then we need our young people to have a much deeper understanding of their vocation as a disciple of Christ. Indeed, just as God gathers his people for worship, and equips them through Word and Sacrament, so too does God send us as missionary disciples out into the world. But to what end? For what purpose? Friends, school teachers, sports coaches are all speaking into the lives of our young people giving them guidance, advice (solicited or otherwise!) and direction on what to do with their one life. How might the church more effectively lift up the theological understanding of vocation in the lives of our youth?
These questions that emerged in the drive home conversation with my daughter, both spoken aloud and those bubbling up in my head, led me to design a high school vocational discernment retreat at our west coast theological college. St. Andrew’s Hall is the Presbyterian Church in Canada college on the campus of The University of British Columbia. With financial support from the Atlanta-based Forum for Theological Exploration, we hosted 32 teenagers evenly split between the Greater Vancouver region and Vancouver Island during spring break last March. An even mix between young women and men, the group represented the diversity of this region with more than 50 percent of participants being Korean, Chinese or Taiwanese Canadian. Through the Centre for Missional Leadership at St. Andrew’s Hall, students and faculty hosted the teenagers over several days on campus with activities including daily worship, faith formation activities (prayer, spiritual disciplines) and lots of fun including field games, a movie night, campus-wide scavenger hunt using their smartphones, and a trip to the new UBC swimming pool. Oh, and side trips to Starbucks – the unofficial west coast sacrament.
In addition, every day there were multiple guest speakers from faculty of local seminaries speaking in “Ted Talk-like” formats on a variety of topics including “Faith and imagination,” “Prayer and possibilities,” “How do we know what God wants?” “Living in Christian community,” and “Discernment in our daily lives.” These speakers responded ably to the thoughtful questions posed by the teenagers, as they went deeper together on the theme of God’s call on their lives. Often these talks from seminary professors strayed more towards testimony as the teens’ questions pushed speakers to name why Christian faith was core to their identity and decision-making.
AN iGEN EXCHANGE
Alongside these guest speakers, we also included a three-hour rotation of seminary students to hang out with the teens, giving them evidence of the depth and breadth of those preparing to lead Christ’s church in the future. This diversity included young women and men studying for the ministry who were born around the world from such regions as Asia, North America, South America, Africa, Europe and Australia. This diversity was noted by the teenagers in their end-of-program evaluation, giving them a sense of the global breadth of Christ’s church as well as being able to help the teens imagine themselves as Christian leaders from a variety of different backgrounds.
One of the most successful moments of encounter with the teens was on a Wednesday evening after our free college soup night, which feeds around 150 thrifty and stressed graduate students in our residence. We had the teenagers remain in the hall after cleaning up. Local pastors were invited to spend time talking with the teenagers about their personal call to faith in Jesus Christ. The way we did this was to make the teenagers the interviewers in a “speed dating” model that gave the teens a set group of questions to ask the specific leader in front of them for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, a bell would ring, and they would have to move and find another pastor to interview with the same questions. The result was a rich sharing of God’s call and faithfulness, and the teens seemed to like their role as interviewers of these Christian leaders. Many even went “off script” and asked other questions of faith as the night progressed. They became, in the language of Vancouver missiologist Alan Roxburgh, “Detectives of Divinity.”
The retreat attempted to equip teenagers with specific Christian practices to help them remain in communication with God regarding discernment long after the event was over. Specialists visited campus and led the teens in practices such as prayer walking, Lectio Devina, mini-examen, journaling and walking a nearby labyrinth. The teens specifically mentioned engagement of these practices in their final evaluation as some of the most helpful aspects of their time together.
In the end, the event succeeded in exposing the teenagers to a deeper understanding of vocation, opening them up to new ideas about discernment and broadening their horizons on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. In the evaluation, 79 percent of participants responded positively to the question: “Have you caught sight of where God is calling you?” A further 61 percent were confident in seeing where God was calling them; 18 percent were open to God revealing their path, even if they didn’t know what that was yet. Additionally, there were a handful of participants who could already articulate a clear sense of call to being a minister, chaplain or missionary.
I share these reflections by way of encouragement for readers wherever you find yourself across the country. There are iGen teens and young adults in your churches and communities trying to figure out, like every generation before, what to do with their lives. Unlike previous generations, however, iGen is facing a unique set of challenges and influencers at a much earlier stage from technology and social media to environmental crisis and employment uncertainty. Intentionally exploring the essential question of vocation with youth and young adults helps them turn, by God’s grace, from dilemma to doxology adding their voices to those who have gone before us in the words of the psalmist, “from generation to generation we will proclaim your praise.”