So why does the church of this generation need psychology? Why can’t we just pray and believe away all the problems of this new generation of Millennials (Gen Y) and Plurals (Gen Z)? I think there are several reasons psychology, or a focus on internal machinations, might be very important for this generation. This generation has a radically different perspective regarding the nature of relationships and reality itself than their parent’s generation, or especially of their grandparent’s generation. This article discusses three reasons that I have subjectively observed that give a reason for a greater focus in the church (and in society in general) on the mental, emotional and spiritual inner workings of this generation.
Note: the following discusses trends and generalities, there will, of course be exceptions to this, and all of the ideas discussed work in differing situations to different degrees.
Second note: First I must define at least one term: when I speak of psychology, I do not mean the popular psychology taught in universities these days necessarily – as it can be full of contradictions and humanism. I mean psychology balanced with a faith based worldview. A foundationalist approach to psychology is sort of rare these days, but that is what I think the church needs – not the subjective, whimsical, whatever-you-want-you-should-have psychology currently promoted in the secular world. To truly unpack what “Christian psychology” should look like really requires another entire blog post, so for now we will just state that the psychology I am suggesting is one that is informed by a Christian worldview. Also, when I discuss say we need more psychology, I don’t necessarily mean we need more traditional counseling type psychology, I mean we need to bear psychology in mind at every level of discipleship.
With that said, I see three reasons why this generation might need psychology, or might need a greater internal dialogue about the nature of themselves at least, more than previous generations.
1. In this generation, everyone is a public figure
The first reason is the simpler, more obvious, and potentially lesser of the three. Young people these days live in an image based world that has gone beyond any previous generation in its level of popular image creation.
In my next blog post I will discuss “person” versus “persona,” but for now it will suffice to say that with the media examples that young people come into contact with, and then with the advent of digital and then mobile communication, young people are now sort of de facto public figures. Everyone is a public figure, as everyone has a broadcast persona in addition to the normal external trappings of an image-laden society like style, fashion and socially acceptable behavior.
This generation is a generation that, to some extent at least, thinks of themselves as having a broadcast persona on their twitter, Instagram, Facebook and other social media sites. This basically puts another layer on the onion that is every person. Not only do people have the normal concentric circles defining their sense of self, now they have a digital persona to manage as well. This extra layer of the onion is often developed and valued at the expense of the internal person.
This is the lesser of the three trends I see, as really this is just an extension of problems we have seen with child actors, pastor’s kids, children born into wealth, and any other group or individual that have had to deal with issues brought about from the balancing of persona and person. In this generation every single kid with a cell phone (now grown into college student and young professional) is dealing with many similar pressures regarding their persona that Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber are dealing with (though perhaps at not such an intense level).
Often, unfortunately, such struggles end up creating a host of problems found in a performance culture like the expectation of perfection, the sublimation of perceived negatives, and eventually the acting out upon sublimated angst. So this, even though it is the lesser of the three reasons for a new need for psychology, is still a major reason that young people need to have a greater understanding of their mental, spiritual and emotional condition (a.k.a., they need psychological understanding of self).
2. The lessening of real intimacy (everyone feels very alone)
While I see the first factor as one that is “lesser,” that is not to say that it is not extremely significant. And one of the ways that it is significant is that it is a contributing factor in this second cause for a greater need for intimacy and intimate interaction (intimacy meaning deep friendship – not just sexual intimacy, of course). Young people are often so worried about their persona that they will not be truly honest about who they are with their friends or relatives, and therefore reason one exacerbates reason two. But reason two, the lessening of real intimacy in this generation, actually has several contributing factors.
The other factors that have led to the decline of true intimacy in this generation are the greater dependence on digital communication, the hurried pace of society, the numerous “para-social” relationships they/we have, the erosion of familial connections, consumerism and likely numerous other causes.
I would like to unpack every one of these reasons, but am now seeing that I will need to write several follow-up posts to really describe the nature of this problem. I will unpack the more oblique reasons quickly.
The reliance on digital communication has positive and negative effects. The positive is the ease with which we can connect with diverse people immediately (again, something that it would take an entire article to unpack). The negative effects are primarily that face-to-face communication, with its non-verbal value and values regarding “presence”, declines and things like text-based communication, a much less holistic interaction, increases with digital communication.
The second oblique reason listed above is the increase of para-social relationships. Basically this generation has actual felt relationships with media that is not real. They relate to television characters, music stars and other personalities potentially more than they relate to real people.
I would imagine that it is obvious how this might reduce intimacy in actual relationships. First, this makes many of an individual’s primary relationships false. Second, this pits everyday relationships with all of their flaws against relationships with perfectly produced characters – who are crafted even in their flaws to hold some sort of appeal. Third, this makes primary relationships non-interactive. Fourth, this places “relating” at the same level as “entertaining.” I could go on.
Basically, for all of the reasons above and likely more, this generation has less intimate relationships in general, and has less of a capacity to interact intimately with friends and family (again, note that I am dealing in generalizations and trends – of course there are exceptions to every generalization – my point is that at least in theory these realities are becoming more common).
This generation often looks great on the outside, but feels desperately alone on the inside. So psychology even in the traditional sense is very necessary in that it gives a relatively unnatural intimate relationship (counselor/counselee), but one that can have the cathartic effect those intimate, honest natural interactions can have upon the internal workings of this generation. Beyond traditional psychology though, young people need to be discipled in intimacy. Of course this is also a reason that this generation, just like every other generation needs a relationship with Jesus – a soul connection with God – but even that might need psychology to deconstruct many of the false expectations built in this new often falsely intimate culture.
3. This generation sees reality as chaotic, and therefore has no foundation for self
This is potentially the most difficult of the reasons to understand, but in my opinion this is the biggest reason this generation needs Christian psychology in their lives.
This generation understands the world around them as “post-modern” or “post-normal” depending on who you ask. This view of the world has no absolute truth, but beyond that this view says that the world is really basically chaos. Why would this external idea about the nature of reality (ontology) ultimately affect their understanding of self (psychology)? To understand this we need to look at how pre-modern and modern people perceived themselves and the world around them, so that we can contrast this with what we see today.
Pre-modern people, or “oral” people, had a distinct connection between themselves and material reality. If you asked a pre-modern person “tell me what a horse is,” they would likely respond, “what horse? My horse or your horse?” And proceed to describe a specific horse. Material reality was exactly what was.
In other words, this generation did not deal well with abstractions – abstract ideas like “what is a horse?” Anything that was not concrete was relegated to the mysterious, which was in turn often made concrete through religious expression. But internally a pre-modern person was who they were. If they were angry, it was because they were simply angry, or perhaps there was a direct causal reason for their anger rooted in reality. Joe made me mad. The horse kicked me. Something like that. And while there may have been deeper psychological realities acting upon the person, they weren’t even a part of the reality of pre-modern people; psychology was too abstract, and therefore wasn’t even real. Thus self was like the horse: I am what I am, and what of it? No need (or ability really) for psychology.
Then the written word came about and brought with it modernity. Modern people had a new tool to grasp abstraction: logic. They were able to describe a horse, dissect a horse and deduce all kinds of things about the horse. This allowed for a new internal dialogue to take place and people began to truly grapple with the nature of self. “I think therefore I am” and other logical constructs developed – including much of early psychology.
Humans, as they began to understand the abstractions around them through logic also delved within themselves and found the logical foundations for who they were. While this did allow for internal dialogue, rationality reigned. So if something was wrong with a person there was a direct, causal reason for that ailment, and the only trouble was discovering that causal ailment. Here we have the advent of psychology, but the nature of self was rational and logical – just like reality – I think therefore I am, and I am what I logically think. This allowed for a perceived order in the world, and a perceived order in self, and psychology was a game of cause and effect: valuable, but not necessary for self-understanding.
Now we have the post-modern or post-normal world. Reality now is linear, circular, multifactorial, and chaotic all at once (making for a greater chaos).
A young person in this new world is faced with a difficult reality. When asked, “what is a horse,” they call up the numerous concrete and non-concrete understandings of horse that exist in a constellation about them and again might ask, “what horse?” But they are no longer referring to the concrete horses that might exist or any logical extension of such horses, they are asking, “do you mean like the horse in the picture, the horse in the game, my friend’s thoughts about horses, a horse with flames coming out of its nose, My Little Pony, a centaur, the basketball game, horsepower, an allegory, something abstract that only marginally relates to a horse but now has that as a name – like a mixed drink or something, or maybe, just maybe the real thing?” The idea of a horse has become something that people can define as anything they want it to be.
So the question is no longer “what is a horse?” but it is “what is ‘horse’ to you?”
So while pre-modern people defined reality by observable, tactile realities and modern man defined reality through logic, postmodern/post-normal people define reality based on their opinions about it.
What does that mean for self?
Premodern: I am, and what of it?
Modern: I think therefore I am.
Postmodern/post-normal: I am a chaotic potentiality with any number of possible definitions based in reality, logic, chaos or upon nothing at all.
Now let this blow your mind a little: this generation often starts with internal chaos and then has to go about the task of defining themselves – alone.
Psychology, or the study of the human mind, in the church (with a Christian, foundationalist understanding of reality) is therefore necessary because we need to help this generation navigate the internal and external ontological chaos they are born into. This chaos has its positives – young people are no longer constrained by predetermined definitions of self – but it is also such a huge responsibility. Basically at some level each young person is defining internal and external reality for themselves – over and over and over again. They are all in some way sort of adrift, plucking their reality from the chaos of what is offered to them. The church has a responsibility to help young people navigate this new chaos, and while faith and cause and effect answers like, “just believe” still have a place in this new reality, so does internal dialogue; so does psychology.
I hope these theories – ideas based on subjective observation – convince you that this generation is different than previous generations, and that these differences actually do require a different approach to discipleship. Really these differences extend far outside of the church, but this post is primarily focused on the church. I will write another post with my thoughts about how this might change our interactions with this generation, but first I will leave that question for you. With this new knowledge (or a new distillation of something you might have already surmised), how do we disciple this generation? What needs to change? What needs to stay the same? How do we integrate “Christian psychology” with traditional approaches to Christian development? Etc.
My very last note: I, unfortunately, did not source this article as well as I would have liked to (or really at all). Of course the ideas of Ong, McCluhan, Chesterton, the Bible, Hipps, Tapscott, Postman and numerous other theorists/sources informed my thoughts here. Not only am I horrible with names (such an awful condition for a scholar!), I just frankly don’t have time right now to do the tedious (but wonderful!) work it takes for a properly sourced academic article. That is why this is a blog post and not a scholarly journal article. Also though, I didn’t really want to bog down the content with too much jargon in the hope that this article will be accessible for church leaders and really anyone interested in this discussion. If you made it this far, well done! Please join in the conversation about how we might address this new need within the church.
Finch works as a professor and student media adviser at Lee University. He writes about digital media, journalism and the intersection of media and faith.