Nell Goddard writes: When I asked a group of people (on Twitter, because I am a millennial) ‘Why should young people (18-30s) engage with theology?’ I got a variety of answers. From ‘It helps us understand more of who God is, who he says we are, and how we relate to the world’ to ‘Engaging with theology is engaging with God’ to ‘It shapes the outworking of our faith in day-to-day life’, there seem to be myriad reasons people think theology is important.
What I was surprised at, however, was that none of the answers I received were specific to 18–30s. That’s not to say they were incorrect – theology is for everyone, and rightly so. But for a question specifically focussing on why young people should do theology, there was little mention of what they in particular might have to offer theological discourse in the 21st Century.
Theology is, at root, a contextual discipline. It involves looking at both the world in which we find ourselves, and the Word from which we seek guidance – what John Stott famously called ‘double listening’. The questions of ‘where and how does theology fit into my generation? Where and how does it fit into the world in which I find myself?’ are profound and important, perhaps all the more important for the millennial generation as they find themselves in a world radically different to the one in which their parents grew up.
That’s not to say that older generations cannot or should not reflect on the world in which they, too, now find themselves. But the life and upbringing of millennials has contained a whole collection of experiences and factors which shape the way we might reflect theologically as opposed to prior generations. We bring a new perspective.
We (the millennials) are the ‘digital natives’, the #MeToo generation, the ones for whom the phrase ‘emerging adulthood’ was coined. Unlike our parents’ and grandparents’ generation, who frequently had a ‘job for life’, and who could afford to get on the housing ladder early on, this new generation of 18–30s has no set path towards adulthood. We are stereotyped and ridiculed in the media, blamed for ruining everything from the traditional automotive market to marmalade, and nicknamed the ‘snowflake generation’.
We are also a generation that prize integrity and authenticity in leadership. We are politically engaged, and we are deeply concerned about climate change and social justice. We are entrepreneurial risk-takers, and we tend to value experiences over possessions. We have a lot to offer the world.
Communicating with this generation, however, is said to be notoriously difficult. ‘Adulting’, ‘baes’ (primary or secondary), and being ‘woke’ are concepts broadly lost on those above the age of 30 (35 at a push!). We – in some ways at least – have created our own language. After all, pretty much every 18-30 has a story of their mum/grandma/uncle using ‘LOL’ as ‘lots of love’ rather than ‘laugh out loud’ on a text. To those outside of this generation, the language can be confusing and difficult to follow.
But Christian millennials speak this language. We’re fluent in it. It is our native tongue. We are just as much a product of our culture and our generation as the non-Christians around us. And we can communicate genuinely with our peers – in language we all understand.
This need to communicate is especially important as millennials are probably the first majority un-churched generation this country has seen in hundreds of years. 70% of UK-based 16-29 year-olds identified as ‘no-religion’ in a report entitled Europe’s Young Adults and Religion, based on data from the European social survey 2014-16. 59% never attend religious services. 63% never pray. Most of us, therefore, are deeply religiously – and likely also theologically – illiterate.
But we’re still human. And, in the oft-cited words of writer and university lecturer David Foster Wallace, ‘everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.’ What we worship forms us and influences how we interact with the people around us. This is just as true for today’s 18-30s as it is for anyone else.
What do we worship? Well, that depends where you look and who you ask. The advent of social media has exposed our narcissistic tendencies: we worship ourselves. The rise of dating apps has increased the chances of casual, no-strings-attached sex: we worship physical pleasure. The growth of instant communication has revealed our laziness, and fed our impatience: we worship instant gratification.
This is where theology comes in. Theology matters because it redirects our worship. It realigns it. It always has. It offers new perspectives on the age old questions of ‘who am I? What am I here for? What’s the meaning of life?’, which are being asked in new ways by a generation who live in a constant state of tension and flux.
As philosopher and theologian James KA Smith writes: ‘we all – whether naturalists, atheists, Buddhists, or Christians – see the world through the grid of an interpretive framework – and ultimately this interpretive framework is religious in nature, even if not allied with a particular institutional religion.’ In a post-truth world, engaging with Christian theology means getting know the One who is Truth himself. Communicating well-thought through, clear theology from a Christian perspective may enable us to draw people to God in a winsome, non-threatening, and potentially life-changing way.
It matters that young people do theology because they can translate it for and to a generation who are longing for answers, a generation formed and buffeted by multiple conflicting worldview, a generation whose identity is semi-permanently in flux, a generation whose very souls are up for auction on a daily basis.
More than that, however, theology helps us not only to think about issues as they arise, but to understand the underlying reasons behind these developments. Our Christian faith calls us to think theologically about the whole human condition, the character of the creator God, and the outworking of his intervention in the world. Theology offers us a deep understanding and a new perspective on both the very old and the very new cultural issues of our time.
So, what are some of the cultural issues of our time?
Theology Slam, a new competition to find the most engaging young voices thinking about the contemporary world, has chosen 12 key topics relevant to everyday life and asked 18-30s to comment on how they intersect with theology. Ranging from ‘Mental Health’ to ‘Political Tribalism’, from ‘Disability’ to ‘#MeToo/Time’s Up’, the competition seeks to encourage young people to think critically and theologically about some of the big questions of our time.
How does the gospel of unconditional acceptance by God speak to our consumerism? How might a Christian anthropology engage with the #MeToo movement? Where does speaking the truth in love fit in a culture of political tribalism? What does the doctrine of the incarnation have to say about Artificial Intelligence? (How) does original sin feed into the way we engage with the latest Netflix series?
The Theology Slam team, made up of representatives from The Community of St Anselm, Church Times, SCM Press, and the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC), are inviting applicants to submit a 500-word piece on one of these topics, accompanied by a short video explaining why this particular area is of interest to them.
Come midnight on December 7th, applications will close and the Theology Slam team will pick three finalists, who will be given half a day of free public speaking training, and asked to prepare a 7-10 minute talk on their topic. This will then be delivered at the Theology Slam Live Final in March, where four esteemed judges (Professor John Swinton, Dr Eve Poole, Mark Greene, and Revd Dr Isabelle Hamley) will give feedback, questions will be taken from the audience, and then the Theology Slam 2019 winner will be crowned.
The topics available for discussion and reflection are:
- Theology and Mental Health
- Theology and #MeToo/Time’s Up
- Theology and the Environment
- Theology and Artificial Intelligence
- Theology and the Gig-economy
- Theology and Social Media
- Theology and Migration
- Theology and Political Tribalism
- Theology and Netflix
- Theology and Good Disagreement
- Theology and Disability
- Theology and Consumerism
Further details are available here.
It is vitally important that young people do theology. The Theology Slam aims to encourage young adults in this pursuit. It hopes to equip them for fruitful and relevant discussion wherever they find themselves in their daily lives, and to inspire the wider church to listen to up-and-coming young voices as they combine an understanding of the world with a deep love of the Word.
Nell Goddard is a Writer at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, author of Musings of a Clergy Child: Growing into a faith of my own, and part of the Theology Slam 2019 team.
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