Selfies

Millennials advocate radical freedom and that’s good. But the shadow side is the devaluing of community.

By John Chandler

In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, columnist Charles Blow interprets Pew Research on Millennials (North Americans ages 18-33). Unsurprisingly, he details some of the now-tiresome broad brushstrokes of their political and socioeconomic mores: they are, generally speaking, poorer, digitally native, less trusting and patriotic, more supportive of gay rights and bigger government. Factoring in that they are not yet old enough to hit some of the triggers toward conservatism (marriage, children, mortgage), 57 percent still say that they are “becoming more liberal on social issues” such as legalizing marijuana, permitting gay marriage as a matter of civil rights, relaxing immigration barriers and government-guided health care.

Perhaps the most interesting trend Blow describes is the “selfie” gene. He writes, “All in all, we seem to be experiencing a wave of liberal-minded detach-ees, a generation in which institutions are subordinate to the individual and social networks are digitally generated rather than interpersonally accrued. This is not only the generation of the self; it’s the generation of the selfie.”

I am less interested in the “liberal-minded” description, as I believe age and life experience tend to temper that toward the median. The more noteworthy trend, in my observation, is the “detach-ee” or selfie one.

Half of Millennials describe themselves as political “independents.” Percentages of Millennials identifying with either Republican or Democratic parties are decreasing. A record 29 percent are religiously disaffiliated, many vocally and publicly so. Combine this with the fact that this is the most racially diverse generation in American history — 43 percent of Millennials are non-white — and you have the makings of radical American individualism played out in the political, religious and social spheres.

If you are over 33 and all of this scares you, well, it has scared every generation, who always tends to look at “the younger generation” as detached, alienated and anomic.

But we who are Baptist have a unique voice and opportunity in the face of this generation. First, as inheritors of an Anabaptist tradition that distrusted the cozy church and state, we can validate with Millennials the role of prophetic conscience. No one should stand up for institutions which have let them down.

But we also have a prophetic word to speak to Millennials, and that is this: it is one thing to speak of radical freedom and the rights of individual conscience. But the shadow side of these good things is the devaluing of community and a failure to contribute to the social structures that do something about what’s wrong in the world. In a word, this is selfishness.

The church needs to be worth joining for Millennials to opt in. But Millennials simultaneously need to be accountable to part of the true communities of faith that can change the world. Selfies can’t pull that off.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.