Wednesday, April 27, 2011

I Love Me!

I was having a conversation earlier today with my Youth Pastor and my Children’s Pastor about ministering to different generations, and how difficult that is. Then my cousin, Connie Denbok, another pastor, posted a link to an article that spoke to some of those differences. It was a New York Times article by John Tierney called “A Generation’s Vanity, Heard Through Lyrics.”

The article was not very flattering at all. It spoke of the trend of youth culture away from community and towards selfishness and narcissism. This quote gives the basic findings: “Dr. DeWall and other psychologists report finding what they were looking for: a statistically significant trend toward narcissism and hostility in popular music. As they hypothesized, the words “I” and “me” appear more frequently along with anger-related words, while there’s been a corresponding decline in “we” and “us” and the expression of positive emotions.”

So, according to these psychiatric professionals, there is a trend among our youth and young adults to think of the world through a very ego-centric lens. As John Maxwell would say, we’re all tuned into the same station – WII-FM (What’s In It For Me?) My question is twofold, is this true and why? Of course, I realise, as do the authors of this study, that we speak in general terms. There are exceptions to every rule.

There have been some interesting studies done over the years about generational differences. Every marketing firm uses the characterizations and preferences of the different generations to develop their marketing strategies. The most common generations we deal with are:
Traditionalists - Born between 1925 – 1945
Baby Boomers - Born between 1946 - 1964
Generation X - Born between 1965 – 1980
Generation Y / Millennials - Born between 1980 – 1995

Each of these generations have very different influences. Traditionalists, for example, lived through either or both of the Great Depression and World War 2. Because they've known real hard times, they have a tendency to prefer stability over risk and to shun debt in favour of living within their means. They also tend to trust authority and value loyalty.

Their children, the Boomers, experienced the surge in the worldwide economy after World War 2, the growing impact of television and inter-continental travel, as well as incredible technological advancement. They also saw the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement lived out in their living rooms through TV. Because of all of these influences, Boomers tend to be optimistic, competitive and questioning of authority.

The next generation, Gen X grew up with MTV, Video Games, Personal Computers, and often alone. In their time the divorce rate tripled, both parents were often working and many were latch key children. This group is known for their skepticism. Because of continued advancements in communications, they are eclectic in their beliefs, blending different belief systems. They also tend to be resourceful, self-reliant and adaptive to change.

The generation spoken of in the article is largely made up of the Gen Y/ Millennials. These guys (North Americans) have grown up with a cell phone or blackberry in their hand. They've played every video game system out there. They've also witnessed the rise of terrorism and 9/11, and the increasing concern over the environment. They tend to be more of a realistic generation. They are globally concerned, value diversity and change, flexibility and recognition.

To speak now to the question(s) raised by the article. Is it true that they are narcissistic and selfish, and if so, why? Leaving behind the anecdotal evidence we all could use, what are the factors that could contribute to this? I think there are many. For one, there's the spotlight we've placed on the issue of self-esteem. As psychologist Lauren Slater writes, "Based on our beliefs, we have created self-esteem programs in schools in which the main objective is, as Jennifer Coon-Wallman, a psychotherapist based in Boston, says, 'to dole out huge heapings of praise, regardless of actual accomplishment.'"

We've also eliminated competition in many of our children's sports. There's even a push on now to stop keeping score in children's hockey games, because we may hurt the self-esteem of the losing team. According to Slater and others, there's a growing body of evidence that people with low self-esteem will not necessarily become the underachieving failures we thought. In fact, many with low self-esteem actually turn this to their advantage. They try harder. In fact, "the discrepancy between high self-esteem scores and poor social skills and academic acumen led researchers like Nicholas Emler of the London School of Economics and Roy Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University to consider the unexpected notion that self-esteem is overrated and to suggest that it may even be a culprit, not a cure."

Another factor to consider is an almost limitless exposure to media. They have grown up with the world at their disposal: music, movies, internet, information..., all on demand. When we get what we want, when we want it, and we're told we deserve it, doesn't it follow that we grow to believe the world does revolve around us? I think it certainly is true that many of today's musicians have bought into this and are promoting the "I Love Me" doctrine.

Yet, I've also seen another side to this generation. I've seen many with a very real desire to make a difference. Many of today's youth seem to be looking for a cause to believe in. I think that this is one of the greatest challenges of the church - to present the counter-cultural Gospel of Jesus Christ to a new generation and call them to rise above the trend towards selfishness and to truly make a difference.

How do you counter a lie? Obviously, with the truth. Jesus Christ claims to be the truth, and calls us to join Him in changing the way the world operates. His Gospel, lived out, will turn the world on its ear. Do you want to be great in God's Kingdom? Serve. See Mother Teresa or Sandra Tineo if you want an example. Do you really love God? Fight injustice. Follow the lead of men like Martin Luther King, Jr. and William Wilberforce. Are you tired of dysfunctional families? Love your own. Jesus changed centuries of ingrained prejudice and respected the personhood of women and children. Follow his example.

The truth is, regardless of the generation in which we were born, all of us are deeply flawed, but God loves us anyway. Each of us must choose how we respond to the love of God extended to us. The proud reject God, believing that they don't need Him; but God is drawn to the humble (James 4:6). The Bible tells us that there's really nothing wrong with loving ourselves - as long as we love God first. His love enables us to love ourselves and others. When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, here is what He said: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." (Matthew 22:37-40)

The world is a messed up place. It's easy for us to turn inward. But, as John Andrew Holmes said, "It is well to remember that the entire universe, with one trifling exception, is composed of others."

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