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Students today accept traditional beliefs

The Common Ministry at Washington State University is shifting its approach to campus ministry as it recognizes generational differences between the current “millennial generation” and previous generations.

“There are marked differences among the World War II generation, the baby boomers, Generation X and today’s millennial generation,” said the Rev. Gail Stearns, who has worked at Koinonia House, the ecumenical campus ministry in Pullman since the end of what she considers “the Generation X era.”

Understanding dynamics shaping people in a generation helps the ministry gear programs for leadership development.

Gail Stearns
Gail Stearns

“The millennial generation is discovering spirituality and exploring religion in new ways,” she said. “In fact, they are more interested in both.”

Generational identity, Gail pointed out, is more than age.  It’s more about self-perceived belonging in a generation, shared behaviors, a common location in history and shared experiences of cultural events.

Boomers are those born from 1945 to 1965—from Truman to Kennedy years, including the Korean War.

Xers were born from 1965 to 1985—Johnson to Carter years including the Vietnam War.

The millennials were after 1985—from Reagan to Bush years—including the wars in Iraq, Kosovo and then Iraq again.

Some generalizations about the three generations, Gail said, include:

• Boomers grew up in a time of affluence, the Cold War, “ask not,” Pax Americana and “I have a dream.”

• Xers grew up during stagflation, the Great Society, Vietnam protests, limits to growth and malaise.

• The millennials grew up during a long booming economy, “kinder, gentler,” and family values.

Gail said Tom Beaudoin’s book. Virtual Faith and the book, Millennials Rising, by Howe, Strauss and Matson point to other generational differences:

• Xers who were latch key children— who came home and watched TV because both parents worked—consider suffering part of belief.  Individualistic, some were into experimentation and the drug culture.  Many distrust institutions, including churches.  Many accept ambiguity and discover through experience the nature of the divine-human interconnection.

• Among millennials are fewer latch-key children, more home-schooled children, and many involved in sports or dance as team activities.  Many are highly scheduled.  As the focus of marketing, they feel loved, special and sheltered.

“This high-achieving but stressed generation is confident, team oriented and conventional,” Gail said. “So they find belief in groups, accept the content of belief and express faith in social values, hopefulness and tolerance of differences.

“Their lives have been informed by the Columbine shootings, Oklahoma City bombing, war in Kosovo, Princess Di’s death, the Clinton impeachment, Rodney King riots and the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

About 80 percent want to have a good paying job and good relationships with their parents, Gail added.  About 57 percent want to marry, 38 percent want children and 28 percent want to own their own business.

“The same percent look up to their parents.  In school, they had curriculum that emphasized teaching to tests, group projects, community service and citizenship,” she said.  “They did large amounts of homework and watch four or more hours of TV a day.”

Their lives have been surrounded by technology, setting them in a virtual world, she continued.

“It’s often hard for them to distinguish between the virtual and real worlds,” Gail added. “They communicate immediately through instant messaging, email and cell phones, rather than face-to-face.  With cell phones, they are a call away from doing something spontaneous with a friend.  Violent video games are part of their experience, too.”

Some religious themes of the generations include:

• Xers know suffering, accept ambiguity and consider experience key.

• Millennials are likely to be attracted into churches, accepting the content of belief and seeking leadership as teams.

“Previously, each year we had to ‘reinvent the wheel’ for the next generation, asking students what they thought we should do, including them as part of the decision team,” Gail said.

“The rise in some evangelical churches fits with students’ desire to be told what to believe; but students are also curious and often want to grow beyond what they are told.  At K-House, we let people question and discover their own beliefs, rather than telling them what to believe.  Several who have been with groups that told them what to believe were lost when they began to question those beliefs.  So they came to us and started to ask their questions.

“Many of them do not know who God is,” she said.  “So our role is to help them deepen their faith at a point when another group said they were losing faith.  We have had profound faith discussions with these students.”

During a presentation at the 40th anniversary of K-House in the fall, Father Tom Caswell, who recently worked with students at Eastern Washington University while serving St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Cheney, said he found at Newman Center many students who were conservative about church, wanting piety, prayer, individual faith experiences and clarity of beliefs.

The Common Ministry, Gail said, offers a variety of programs to meet students where they are in this new generation.

On Thursdays, Inspire offers dinner, a praise and gospel band, and discussions on basic Christian beliefs for students.

Tuesday theology discussions and Sunday evening Taizé worship responds to students who ask deeper questions or want to slow down and experience the mystery of God, she said.

Pop culture permeates students’ thoughts through quotes from movies, theme songs and video music, said the Rev. Robert Hicks, a United Methodist pastor who serves with Gail as campus minister at WSU.

“Pop culture supplies endless opportunities to connect with students and create metaphor bridges to connect to theology and faith.  This generation wants to heal, not burn institutions.  They want to enter institutions in order to make the world better.  Churches that draw in this generation will be healthy,” he commented.

Churches using technology to communicate with students will draw them, too, Gail said.

She added that with technology and noise of iPods, cell phones and videos, the silence in Taizé worship appeals to students.

“It’s an exciting time to work with people away from home, seeking answers to: Where is God?  What do I do to deal with reality?  Maybe God is bigger than I previously believed?”

Taizé services are held Sundays at 7 p.m.—March 5 and 26—at the Community Congregational United Church of Christ, 525 SW Campus Dr. in Pullman. They use an intimate room that has good acoustics for the music.

For information, call 332-2611


By Mary Stamp, The Fig Tree - © March 2006