Millennials and Christian Vocation

The Barna Group is fond of the topic of Christian millennial migration (have you noticed?), and recently released a report specific to the topic of vocation.

As the summary explains:

In particular, 84% of Christian 18- to 29-year-olds admit that they have no idea how the Bible applies to their field or professional interests. For example, young adults who are interested in creative or science-oriented careers often disconnect from their faith or from the church. On the creative side, this includes young musicians, artists, writers, designers, and actors. On the science-oriented side, young engineers, medical students, and science and math majors frequently struggle to see how the Bible relates to their life’s calling.

This is particularly urgent because nearly half of Christian teenagers aspire to careers in science and nearly one-fifth are interested in creative professions. The Barna study showed that faith communities can become more effective in working with the next generation by linking vocation and faith.

Although it’s encouraging to hear that millennials are actually aspiring to careers—no offense, folks!—such disconnect and confusion among Christians makes me wonder what they are aspiring for in the first place. If the Christian life is a constant, daily struggle, and our daily lives are highly consumed by professional interests and “career” activity, what does it mean for us to divorce the two?

It would seem that either one or the other would suffer—either our Christian walk or our professional career—but when I survey the landscape of “Generation Y,” the confusion seems to be impacting both.

As AEI’s Arthur Brooks has demonstrated through extensive research, our professional lives are most fulfilling when there is a sense of value creation and earned success, and although it’s certainly possible to find some kind of temporal, earthly “happiness” by pursuing certain careers or accomplishing certain goals, for the Christian it is essential that any sense of value creation and earned success be tied to the right source and the proper ends (i.e. God and his will).

As I’ve asked time and time again: “value” and “success” according to whom?

As David Brooks noted earlier this spring, the answer is becoming more and more about me than we, and as I proceeded to emphasize at the time, the even deeper issue is whether it’s more about me than He.

As Brooks summarized:

If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-Span these days, you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture. But, of course, this mantra misleads on nearly every front…

…Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life. A relative suffers from Alzheimer’s and a young woman feels called to help cure that disease. A young man works under a miserable boss and must develop management skills so his department can function. Another young woman finds herself confronted by an opportunity she never thought of in a job category she never imagined. This wasn’t in her plans, but this is where she can make her contribution.

Indeed, if we are pursuing obedience to God—if we are actively listening and discerning the voice of the Holy Spirit and weighing our actions and motivations against the authority of the Scripture—we will not only be “looking outside,” but we will be looking in the right direction.

As for why this is happening—why Christians are failing to see the Christian side of daily “professional activity”—Dylan Pahman of the Acton Institute offered his own reflections, noting that part of the church’s problem is that it has become prone to mimicking the world rather than distinguishing itself from it.

For Pahman, we have become more focused on material bait than spiritual weight (my own little rhyme—don’t blame him for the cheese):

As a Millennial myself, I found the study especially fascinating. The approach when I was a teenager was that the bigger the sound system or video screen or the more “alternative” sounding the music, the more likely a church was to keep us around. Maybe I am not a good representative of my generation as a whole, but I remember finding this approach especially shallow and even a little insulting. I wanted a deeper faith, something that stands out from the world around me, not something nearly indistinguishable from it.

This is certainly true in some cases, but even for the churches who use modern tools effectively and appropriately, the problems are sure to persist. Even when modern churches aren’t shallow and passive, they are often clumsy and remiss when it comes to matters related to vocation and whole-life discipleship. The more difficult and persistent obstacle, as I see it, is faulty thinking on the spiritual side, even when it touts supposed depth.

For example, two books have been released in recent years that have garnered significant praise: David Platt’s Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream and Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical(my review of Platt’s book is here). Both criticize the shallowness of the modern church and both call us toward a (supposedly) better, more Biblical spiritual life (branded as “discipleship”). Both are wildly popular among millennials, and although each comes from a different theological perspective (one better than the other, to be sure), both also fail to illuminate a holistic, appropriately integrated and fully Biblical approach to business, vocation and Christian mission. Both fall into the temptation of unproductive, unsatisfying quasi-legalism, rather than embracing the challenge of going where the Spirit leads us (even if it includes a large salary).

The result: a form of spiritual escapism from our day-to-day socio-economic activity—a full-throttle rejection of the material world, rather than a pursuit of appropriate Biblical engagement therein.

Some of this has to do with confusion about economics. Some of it has to do with confusion about self-interest, sacrifice and the relationship between the two. But most of it, I’m sad to say, has to do with confusion about the direction of the Gospel itself: namely, a belief that Jesus called us to batter and bruise ourselves for no productive purpose other than letting the world know we have done our part.

Even when we are most sincere and the least self-congratulating in such activities, this plainly amounts to what Oswald Chambers aptly describes as “deciding the place of our own martyrdom.”

As Pahman duly indicates, the issue goes deeper than the latest tacky attempt at material integration by the church, but indeed, it goes even deeper than that. The frequent misalignment of our many comforts isn’t the only symptom of the church’s confusion. So is our actual critique thereof.

A proper approach will not come from trying to bucket Christian action into this specific “job” or that, but from exploring our more fundamental disagreements between an approach that promotes collaboration, productivity and earned success—reconciling each through radical obedience to God—and one that seeks to sacrifice everything for the sake of nothing.

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