The iGeneration is living in a culture of excess. But what they lack is what they need the most: Christ and his Church Emily Stimpson OSV Newsweekly
Some call them the iGeneration. Others prefer Generation Z, Pluralists or post-Millennials.
Sociologists and marketing experts have yet to reach a consensus on what to call the children of Generation X — today’s teens, tweens and tots. But they have picked a start date for the newest emerging generation: 1997.
They’ve also identified a few defining characteristics: They are perpetually plugged into technology, they pride themselves on being socially conscious, and they’re the least religious generation in American history.
For the Catholic Church in particular, that last bit of news is cause for concern.
As a 2010 study by the Barna Group found, the religious practices of the average American teenager have rapidly declined over the past decade, with the religious practices of Catholic teenagers declining significantly more than that of their Protestant peers.
More specifically, Catholic teens today are less likely than Catholic teens in 1997 to attend church, Sunday school or small-group meetings. They’re also less inclined to pray, donate money to their parish or read about their faith and far more reluctant to talk about their faith with those who don’t share it.
What explains the continued decline in religious belief and practice among today’s Catholic youth? Who is this rising generation? And what can both parents and parishes do to arrest the free fall in belief that increasingly defines the iGeneration?
Our Sunday Visitor put those questions to some of the most experienced and effective youth ministers serving the Church today.
What they believe
In his 2005 book “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers” (Oxford University Press, $17.95), Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith coined the term “moral therapeutic deism” to define the religious beliefs of today’s typical teen.
Nine years later, the Augustine Institute’s director of youth ministry and evangelization, Jim Beckman, says the term still holds true for teens in general and many Catholic teens in particular. As Beckman explained it, moral therapeutic deism combines the vision of God held by deists of old (a far-off God, removed from his creation) with the moral relativism of the post-modern world.
“The idea is that we need to be good people who live good lives, but the definition of ‘good’ is vague,” Beckman said. “It’s more oriented around feeling good than being good.”
Likewise, with staggeringly high numbers of teens rejecting the idea of absolute truth — one recent study by Protestant apologist Josh McDowell put it as high as 93 percent — most believe it is up to individuals to determine what defines “feeling good.”
“You could almost say they’re moral individualists, rather than moral relativists,” said Brian Kissinger, who has spent 10 years serving as a youth minister in Pittsburgh and northern Virginia. “They’re completely comfortable holding conflicting ideas in tension with one another.”
That applies to their friends’ ideas, with the members of America’s most diverse generation accustomed to spending time with those who hold different religious, political or cultural beliefs.
And it applies to their own ideas.
“You see teens who proclaim traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs at church, then act in a completely contrary way when they’re at school or out on Friday night,” Kissinger said.
“Teens did that 10 and 20 years ago too, but we saw it as being two-faced. Now, there’s not even an awareness of the disconnect.”