NEWS FEATURE: Millennial youth generation yearns for something larger than itself

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c. 1999 Religion News Service

STUART, Fla. _ They came before the sun was up, some of them with their hair still damp from showers. About 25 of them formed a circle around Martin County High School’s flagpole and joined hands, bowed their heads and started to pray. By the time they were done 30 minutes later, their ranks had grown by more than 100.

They prayed for safety from a culture of violence that has claimed victims of their generation in places like Paducah, Ky., Littleton, Colo., and Fort Worth, Texas. They prayed for their teachers, school officials and friends. More than anything, they prayed to be a generation on fire for God.

Youth leaders and scholars say the millions of teen-agers who gathered recently for”See You at the Pole”events across the country are part of a generation unlike any before them. They are more optimistic about the future and more vocal about their faith. Raised on computers, they are savvy consumers of information.

Like their predecessors in Generation X, they remain suspicious of institutions but are not as quick to dismiss them when they disagree. While many Gen Xers yearned for authentic relationships, these teens yearn to be part of something larger than themselves. In short, they don’t want to go it alone.

Youth leaders say teen spirituality seems to be more genuine, more heartfelt than 10 or 15 years ago. And what is more genuine is more likely to last, they say.”It’s more real,”said Robert Bradshaw, 34, the youth pastor of First Baptist Church in Jensen Beach, Fla., who joined the praying teens at Martin County High School.”They’re not playing church like my generation did.” Millennials say they are ready to take on the world. So is the world ready for the millennials?

If nothing else, their sheer size is impressive. There are about 70 million Americans younger than 18. They are almost as numerous as their parent’s baby-boom generation, which makes up about 29 percent of the U.S. population. Millennials are just shy of that, at 26 percent.

Millennials are the people who are checking out your videos, bagging your groceries and filling the airwaves with the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync.

They are a generation raised on and with computers at home and in school. Nearly half _ 47 percent _ of teen-agers use a computer to surf the Internet regularly. The technological saturation has had a profound impact on this generation, experts say. They have been exposed to more information, and have more access to it, than any other generation by the time they reach adulthood.

One of the most important effects of the technology culture is the way millennials process information and make choices. The Internet offers any number of choices. Don’t like what you see? Click a button and move on. Researchers say the attention span of millennials has been so shortened that it’s hard for them to keep focused on much of anything.

And it’s affecting the way they approach spirituality. Sister Jude Ruggeri, director of youth and young adult ministry for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Palm Beach, Fla., said it can be a challenge to ask teens to invest time and energy in an ongoing spiritual evolution.”They literally are used to instant responses,”Ruggeri said.”And we live in a throwaway society. If it’s broke, we don’t fix it. We get rid of it. We’re trying to teach them to change that. They need long-term commitments.” There is also a more philosophical, hard-to-document change in culture that has influenced the way millennials see the world, and how they approach their faith.

It’s called”postmodernism,”a philosophical shift in the second half of the 20th century. At its core, postmodernism is a rejection of rationalistic scientific reason. Faith, with postmodernism, has become more experiential, more personal and harder to explain in traditional terms.

Faith is no longer what the church says it is _ for many, it’s whatever they feel it is.

Generation X was really the first group to embrace a postmodern mind-set in matters of faith. But millennials have come of age in a faith culture dominated by postmodernism. Faith and spirituality are served up in a”spiritual marketplace”with a little bit of this, a little bit of that. What may not have been acceptable for their parents is kosher for millennials, in part because who’s to say what’s right or wrong?”They are being raised in a time where there’s much more spiritual influence everywhere,”said Mark Oestreicher, the general editor for the Teen Devotional Bible, recently released by Zondervan Publishing House.”They’re not just more open to new things, but their assumptions assume a spiritual marketplace.” Part of what defines millennials is not what they are but rather what they aren’t. Oestreicher said it’s common for each generation to be a reaction to the one that came before. Millennials are as much a rejection of Generation X cynicism and baby-boom individualism as they are anything else.”They want to be part of something larger, they want to leave a mark,”Oestreicher said.”They believe they can make a difference. Xers don’t believe they can make a difference because they were told for so long that they couldn’t.” In addition, millennials are less likely to reject an institution or a tradition they may not entirely agree with. Youth leaders say teen-agers are looking for stability and security, and are finding it in institutions and organizations that have not really changed.

They’re also delving into traditional practices rejected by many of their parents and members of Generation X. Religious leaders say they’re finding teens are becoming more conservative and instead of looking outside for meaning, they are trying to find it within the institutions they already know.

Brian Singer-Towns, editor of the new Catholic Youth Bible (St. Mary’s Press), said teens are leading movements that have embraced ancient practices, such as saying the rosary and conducting all-night prayer vigils to venerate the Communion host.”For them, what’s old is new,”he said.

And it’s not just Christian youths who are breathing new life into established traditions.”I wouldn’t say that I see a lot of experimentation with spirituality,”said Sam Fisher, international director of the Jewish B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, which represents about 30,000 Jewish teen-agers around the world.”They’re not wandering as much. Security and safety are very important to them, and they’re looking in what’s familiar, what they know.”DEA END ECKSTROM

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