Much of what I learned about grit and resilience was learned on the rugby pitch in University. Three key deceptions are proposed by Lukianoff and Haidt as weakening the next generation in their book Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation For Failure: “The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings. The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.” In the game I learned, if it doesn’t kill you keep playing, feelings won’t win you a game, and after the game your opponent ceases to be an opponent and returns to being a fellow rugby player (take them out for a beer and tend to their wounds). If only the church were as civil.
While Lukianoff and Haidt focus on how the nurture of today’s youth contributes to a shifting and arguably weaker university climate, the western church seems to be missing the opportunity to influence the emerging generation altogether. In an effort to ensure people are ‘saved’, the church nurtured a dichotomous discourse which grouped people as either ‘Christians’ or ‘non-Christians’, a specified version of Lukianoff and Haidt’s “Us versus them”. Such a construction has multiple problems for the emerging generation including an oversimplification of identify, who has the power to define these terms and draw the community boundaries and has the unfortunate consequence at the extreme, of vilification of the outsider.This construction may be an uncomfortable contributor to the tendency towards the current ‘Us/Them’ polarization.
A problematic further development is the re-construction of the American white evangelical ‘Us’ identity as persecuted by ‘Them’ . This victim mentality has multiple unhealthy effects. It minimizes the experience of people who are actually on the margins and whose safety is compromised. An important distinction here: laws permitting something you disagree with is not persecution, a law insisting you do something you disagree with may be. A group advocating for same-sex marriage is not persecution. Legislation requiring you to marry someone of the same sex when you don’t want to, would be. “Speech is not violence. Treating it as such is an interpretive choice, and it is a choice that increases pain and suffering while preventing other, more effective responses.” The church is culpable in coddling when the gospel narrative of suffering becomes synonymous with a difference of opinion. Have we perhaps picked up the narrative of suffering in the gospel artificially so we don’t have to see ourselves alongside the rich young ruler who was asked to give all that he has away so he could follow Jesus? When Paul wrote “but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” he was talking about physical punishment and execution not heated discussion.
This attitude in particular has had a significantly negative impact on younger generations. “Many Millennials and iGeners distrust religion because they believe it promotes antigay attitudes.” “Us vs them” hyper-polarization has led an entire generation to see themselves as a tolerant “us” while other generations are the intolerant “them”. In particular
“More young people now associate religion with rigidity and intolerance—an automatic anathema to a highly individualistic and accepting generation. “I feel like some of the worst people, who are the most bigoted and closed-minded, are religious,” wrote Sarah, 22.” This perception is exacerbated in a growing “‘call-out culture,’” in which students gain prestige for identifying small offenses committed by members of their community, and then publicly “calling out” the offenders. One gets no points, no credit, for speaking privately and gently with an offender—in fact, that could be interpreted as colluding with the enemy.”  When grace gets misapplied by sweeping criminal offenses under the proverbial rug, the church becomes even more offensive to iGen.
So how might the church strategically respond? I might suggest we be open to renewing our primary discourse and eliminate unhelpful binary language. Personally I feel a high level of discomfort when people include me in their ‘we’ when expressing an opinion about biblical interpretation. I encourage people to own their understandings, which accommodates and respects the need for individualization of iGen, and invites ownership for other generations. “iGen’ers don’t want to be told exactly how to live their lives and what to believe—but that can be a strength, because if they come to beliefs themselves, they might be more likely to keep them.” However, communal identity remains critical if the mental health challenges of iGen are to be addressed through face to face relationships. The construction of this community might be better centred around the image of a common journey, process or goal. “We” are here because ‘we’ are seeking God. “[T]he more you emphasize common goals or interests, shared fate, and common humanity, the more they will see one another as fellow human beings, treat one another well, and come to appreciate one another’s contributions to the community.” We might nurture the community into ever greater resilience by affirming both the difficult calling of following Jesus AND the enabling power of the Holy Spirit. Angela Duckworth’s research suggests that grit is best forged in youth under conditions where mentoring adults are both demanding and highly supportive. “The greatest challenge in developing brave leaders is helping them acknowledge and answer their personal call to courage. Courage can be learned if we’re willing to put down our armour and pick up the shared language, tools, and skills we need for rumbling with vulnerability, living into our values, braving trust, and learning to rise.” Creating an environment where conversation and honesty nurture an appreciation for difference might begin to heal a generation born into extreme polarization. It is important to recognize the church as distinct from academia . While Lukianoff and Haidt recommend practicing the art of debate in order to understand different positions, and the church has a history of embracing this practice, Zemke observes “It’s competitive and excludes those unskilled or disinterested in argumentation. It also worsens existing conflict, rather than quelling it since there is always a winner and a loser.” For these reasons it would be wise to move away from such formats and towards acts of teamwork, active listening and cooperation. Engaging iGen will require risk and a willingness to fail and try again. But perhaps even the invitation can model resilience. As a bonus, might I suggest a friendly rugby match?
1. Greg Lukianoff and Johnathan Haidt, CODDLING OF THE AMERICAN MIND: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation For Failure (S.l.: PENGUIN BOOKS, 2019), (Kindle) 2.
2. Emma Green, “White Evangelicals Believe They Face More Discrimination Than Muslims,” The Atlantic, March 10, 2017, , accessed May 16, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/03/perceptions-discrimination-muslims-christians/519135/.
3. Lukianoff and Haidt 96.
4. Romans 5:3-4 NIV.
5. Jean M. Twenge, IGEN: Why Today’s Super-connected Kids Are Growing up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood and What That Means for the Rest of Us (New York: Atria Books, 2017), (Kindle) Loc 1905.
6. Jean M. Twenge, IGEN: Why Today’s Super-connected Kids Are Growing up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood and What That Means for the Rest of Us (New York: Atria Books, 2017), (Kindle) Loc 1939.
7. Lukianoff and Haidt 71.
8. Twenge Loc 1939.
9. Lukianoff and Haidt 258
10. Angela Duckworth, Grit:The Power of Passion and Perseverance (New York: Scribner, 2016), 212.
11. Brené Brown, Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts (New York: Random House, 2018) p 71.
12. Lukianoff and Haidt 248.
13. Diane Zemke, Being SMART about Congregational Change. (Create Space Independent Publishing 2014.) (Kindle) Loc 1526.