Today’s generation of young people is more anxious, more depressed, and less Christian than ever before. What is causing this? In the latest installment of our brand-new TGC Talks series, Chris Colquitt—campus minister for Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) at Northwestern University—explores how safetyism and fragility are hazards to Generation Z’s mental health and spiritual health.
Colquitt says the Christian gospel provides realism that challenges our fragility (“In this world you will have trouble,” John 16:33), but also hope to sustain us (“But take heart! I have overcome the world.”).
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Chris Colquitt: We talk about the emerging Generation Z as it is called if you’re born after 1996. This is you, we look and see two, somewhat concerning trends. First, we see a decline in mental health kind of across the board. Doesn’t matter what you measure anxiety, depression, suicide, self harm, they all are headed up with this generation. But along with that, we see a decline in spiritual health, a decline in religious affiliation. In Christianity, in particular, today’s generation of young people are more anxious, more depressed and less Christian than ever before. Now, there’s a Christian response to that, which says, Well, of course, if you leave the gospel, despair and fear are not far behind.
And there’s actually data to back that up to some extent, religious people do tend to be happier. But I wonder if behind these dual realities is a common cause, or at least a common contributing factor, something that makes this younger generation both find life to be harder in general, and faith to be harder as well, something that affects both our spiritual and mental health. to look into this, one of my most helpful resources and understanding this emerging generation, is a 2018 book, titled “Coddling of the American Mind”, by Jonathan Haidt, and Greg Lukianoff. In that book, they’re not concerned with the spiritual health of this generation. They’re not Christians, as far as I can tell, but they are concerned with these mental health numbers, which are quite concerning. And they look and say, How did this happen? How did we create a generation that seems to struggle in this way?
And their answer is to identify certain patterns of belief and thought that had been taught and embraced by young people today. Cell phones are certainly a piece of it, but it’s not the whole story. One of those untruths they titled The untruth of fragility, the untruth of fragility, the idea expressed in the somewhat altered Maxim, what doesn’t kill you, makes you weaker. What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. adversity, pain, discomfort, whether physical or emotional, is an evil to be avoided. This is not an opportunity for growth, this is an opportunity for harm.
And so we need to protect ourselves from it, we need to embrace safety. This idea of safety or safety ism, as they call it, is inherited from a generation of parenting techniques. The last three decades of parents have been more aware of the dangers that are out there and more willing to protect their children from them. And so children grow up less exposed to risk less exposed to harm. And then they go off to college. And they find campuses tailored to this same kind of student they find safe spaces and trigger warnings, administrators who are dedicated to keeping them from this sort of harm. What is this results in?
Well, it results in an expectation of safety and comfort. If you’re experiencing pain, adversity, discomfort in life, you must be doing something wrong. Or someone is doing something wrong to you and it needs to stop. This expectation of comfort is also a recipe as it turns out for a great deal of anxiety and despair. Because life has a way of finding us in reality has a way of breaking in and when it does, we find this world is full of adversity, full of people who don’t care about our feelings full of things that will hurt us and in the face of that raised on an expectation of comfort on a commitment to safety. The two most apparent options are anxiety, to try to keep this away, or despair and depression when we cannot. This safety ism, this fragility, in our self view, is not good for us. It makes us weaker and less resilient in the face of trials and it’s borne terrible fruit for the mental health of a generation of young people. This is what height and Lukianoff are observing and I think they’re on to something. What I want to suggest though, is that those same forces are not just hazardous to our mental health but to our spiritual health as well.
Chris Colquitt: Christianity is becoming harder and harder for this younger generation to embrace. It makes sense as Christians become a lesser proportion of the population so to the costs of believing in Christ, go up. To be a Christian as a young person today is an increasingly risky proposition, it is not safe. To embrace Christ in His gospel is to become a minority to become an outsider from the crowd, where Christianity was once held as at least respectable if not believable, the respectability is lost. And what’s worse, you’re to believe these things is not only to be wrong or silly, but to be wicked, and dangerous even to be immoral. Now, if that’s the context in which Christian belief must happen, and you’ve been raised to see discomfort, and pain as a warning sign that you’re on the wrong track. Perhaps it is no wonder that this younger generation at times finds it hard to believe.
Christians go to college and find themselves asking this question, is it supposed to feel like this? Is it supposed to be this hard, I must be doing something wrong. To embrace Christianity Today requires a certain strength and independence, a certain resiliency. That simply is not as much in the water as it once was. This is a challenge to the faith. The untruth of fragility is a challenge both to our mental and spiritual health. If this is a discouraging reality, it is. There is a glimmer of hope there is an opportunity because even as this culture of safety places roadblocks to faith, there’s a door open on the side of door of opportunity for the gospel in the lives of the students of these young people.
See, a whole generation now is entering into young adulthood and with it, they are being mugged by reality, a reality that this world is not the world they thought it would be. People hurt their feelings. Jobs are difficult bosses are unfair relationships, break. And the face of this, we are asking ourselves a generation of young people is asking themselves, am I doing something wrong? Is it supposed to feel like this as opposed to hurt like this. And in that moment, that moment of the heart that perhaps you are in right now, if you were a young person, I was there. As a young person, we have several options.
One is the option that seems to be the prevalent one which is either to live a life of fearful anxiety that seeks to control our world and avoid this pain or life that cannot and despairs at that cost. But there’s another option, the option the gospel offers us the option of a better story. A story that gives us a real ism about this world, but it gives us it with hope. It’s not the old person scolding us to tell us to buck up and get stronger. But it does give us a real ism. Jesus at the end of his earthly life, speaks to His disciples in the upper room and the farewell discourse recorded for us in john chapter 14 to 16.
And the very last thing he says before he prays and goes to the cross, the very last thing he says to His disciples is this. John 16:33, “in this world, you will have trouble. But take heart. I have overcome the world.” In this world you will have trouble But take heart I have overcome this world. A generation of young people and millennials and Gen Xers and boomers needs to hear this reality as we daily confront a world that is hard. A world that hurts us more than we think it should. Jesus with a realism that is true says in this world, you will have trouble. Brothers and sisters if life is hard. You’re not doing something wrong.
You’re just living life in this world in this world. You will have trouble both for your faith and on On account of this fallen world in which we exist in this world, you will have trouble. Christianity offers a realism without which we will be disappointed again and again and again. But it does it together with a hope, without which we could only despair. Because Jesus has not finished the sentence with in this world you will have trouble he goes on to say But take heart, I have overcome the world there is more than this.
Brothers and sisters, your desire for safety and comfort is not wrong. It’s just not yet. We long for a place where all we made right we long for a place where tears are no more. We’re just not there yet. But Christ and coming to this world and walking through the suffering of this life, redeemed for us a place in that world and secured it for us. We all need to hear this good news. A generation of young people needs to hear this good news life. And faith in a fallen world is not safe, and will not always be comfortable. Life is full of thistles and thorns, death and decay, sinning and being sinned against. It’s going to hurt. And in this world, if we seek to walk with Jesus, that path will be marked by loneliness at times, by opposition. By suffering by those quiet thoughts that other people are having about you. In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart. Jesus Christ has overcome this world.
If you taste these things, you’re not doing something wrong. You’re doing life. And the gospel of Jesus Christ frees us to live that life with joy and hope without despair. This is how Paul in Second Corinthians four can say the things he says. recounting what is no doubt a very difficult life for the Apostle Paul. He says this. We are afflicted in every way but not crushed. perplexed but not driven to despair persecuted, but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed. afflicted, but not crushed. Does that sound possible.
So much of our lives, so much of our parents lives. I’m now a young parent, so many of my life is spent trying to spare my children to spare ourselves from affliction, so that we might not be crushed. This is the culture of safety that we live in. And yet Paul says somehow there’s a way to say I am afflicted, but not crushed. And the only way we can say that is if we look to the one who was crushed on our behalf and it was secured for us that safety and comfort for which we long. We talked about the untruth of fragility. And it is untrue in one sense, but it’s true in another brothers and sisters, you are fragile, you are weak. You cannot do it. And this world will hurt you. But you are not weak in Christ. You are not fragile in Jesus.
There is a strength and resilience that is available to you in the face of the cross. The faith in the one who was fragile and weak on our behalf, so that we might know that even in this world as we have trouble. Jesus Christ has overcome this world and all that it brings with it that we might hope and live lives of joy not only enduring the afflictions we find in this life, but even running into the fire of affliction for the sake of love and a pattern of our Savior. This is good news brothers and sisters. May you trust in Jesus and find the strength in him. Amen.