Few generations talk as passionately about doing good in the world as the one currently emerging on the scene. College students and twenty-somethings are concerned about injustice in the world. They want to eradicate poverty, embrace green technology, fight the spread of AIDS, provide education to the disadvantaged, restore civility in public discourse, and put an end to oppression. President Obama’s message of hope and change in the 2008 campaign resonated so strongly with 18-29 year olds that they turned out to the polls in historic numbers and voted 2-1 for Democrats.
The same is true in the church where this generation has embraced the social justice aspects of the Christian faith with a renewed fervency. While a previous generation may have seen a committed Christian as one with a near-perfect Sunday school attendance record, the current generation sees a committed Christian as one who sponsors a destitute child in Africa. They see the church as a force for good in the world and want to see it increasingly involved in not only spreading the gospel but in helping the poor, healing the sick, cleaning up the environment, and securing the rights of the oppressed.
But there is a fly in the ointment, so to speak. While this generation talks the talk of doing good, they do not walk the walk. Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith in his book Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults concludes that while this generation views volunteering and giving as good things, they are largely good things for someone else to do. He writes:
…nearly all assume that volunteering and financial giving are simply unrelated to their current existences, but perhaps will become more important at some future time in life. Someday, when they have a lot more time and money than they do now, they may begin to volunteer and give money to good causes.
Only 34% gave $50 or more in charitable donations and only 40% volunteered for some kind of non-required community service in the past year. Needless to say, fifty dollars and a few hours a year isn’t exactly a serious level of engagement; which makes the failure to reach it even more revealing.
Many claim they cannot give because they don’t have any time or money to spare, but they will in the future. But are we really so broke? If you make $4,000 in a year, you are in the top 20% of world wealth. If you make more than $11,000 a year as an individual, you are above the U.S. poverty line. Thus, the problem is not a lack of money – we are richer than the vast majority of the planet. As for the hope you’ll have more time and money in the future, the reverse is actually true. As family and work responsibilities increase, time and disposable income decrease. It turns out that owning a home, raising children, advancing in a career, and growing old actually make more demands on a person’s time and money, not less.
What is the real reason this generation does not actively give and volunteer? Smith also writes in Souls in Transition that most young adults’ life goals sound like this: “finish education, get a good job, marry, have children, buy a nice house with a yard, raise a family, become financially secure, drive reliable cars, enjoy family vacations, enjoy family relationships, maybe have a dog.” Thus, it is essentially selfishness; not an unbridled pursuit of materialism or pleasure but a modest, secure life one can fully enjoy. We don’t give, not because we don’t think it’s important, but because we haven’t yet achieved what we truly desire. Our failure to give time and money to what we know to be worthy causes is rationalized by promising we will when the finances are stable, work slows down, school is paid for, and we finally get that iPad we’ve been needing.
This is sad in culture, but tragic in the church where 18-29 year olds are notorious for being unreliable and uncharitable. Jesus said in Matthew 6:21, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” If this is true (and I’ll assume it is), where are the hearts of this generation? If I find money for a new computer, designer jeans, and an appetizer at an upscale restaurant but have no money to give, and if I find time to hang-out, watch sports, and achieve level 60 in World of Warcraft but have no time to volunteer, the answer is obvious, even if it isn’t to me. The idea of sacrificing some aspect of our ideal life to give our time and money to something greater isn’t even in the equation.
One of the most challenging passages for this generation can be found in 2 Corinthians 8:1-4
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints.
If their extreme poverty overflowed in generosity why can our light poverty not do the same? When my wife and I were in seminary, the grace of God at work in our lives enabled us to give away roughly 10% of our income. We could not afford cable television, our furniture was hand-me-down, and Arby’s was a fancy meal. Yet after considering what Christ had done for us, how could we do less and not make some small, ultimately insignificant sacrifices for something much greater?
This is a generation easily excited about causes and doing good in the world. What would happen if we got equally as excited about making sacrifices of our modest, secure, enjoyable lives to give time and money to actually doing something about it? Giving and volunteering after we someday achieve our goals is selfishness and idolatry. I have fallen short, but I can do better now. We can do better now.