When I started doing youth and college ministry in the late 90’s, there was a lot of talk about post-modernism and its affect on young adults and faith. One of the key factors of this discussion was the tendency of many (not all) teenagers to compartmentalize their faith. The conversation centered on the collective habits of a generation (mine: Gen-X) who would take their faith on and off as the situation called for. Teenagers would show up on Sunday or Wednesday and act one way, but live lives outside of church that didn’t line up with their faith.
To be sure, the idea that people live out their faith unevenly is, in itself, nothing new. This was a lot of what Paul was talking to the Corinthians about in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians. You could even make the case that Jesus was hitting this hard in the Sermon on the Mount, and in His dialogues with the Pharisees. Inconsistent faith is part of what it means to live with a sin nature.
But what we were seeing in Gen X-ers was unique in that it was happening wholesale. This seemed to be a trend impacting a lot of Christian young people. Teenagers were attending church. Going to youth camp. Engaging in worship. But could very easily (shockingly so) set this aspect of their identities aside as they lived their Monday-Saturday lives. The issue of compartmentalization in young people was discussed in youth ministry journals, workshops, and books throughout the late 90’s and early 00’s.
So how does this set up where we find ourselves today?
I write this post as someone who is deeply engaged with teenagers, youth culture, and youth ministry. I have been working with students and student ministers day-in and day-out for the last 16 years or so. And I have noticed something in the last couple of years that I think is significant when it comes to teenagers and the compartmentalization of their faith.
I think there is a "new compartmentalism" emerging. It seems to me that the tendency for teenagers to compartmentalize their faith is as strong as it has ever been. With one important distinction: They don’t inherently grasp why this is a problem.
What I remember about the late 90s and early 00’s is that, when faced with the issue, teenagers by and large saw the problem. They understood that being a new creation in Christ, someone whose identity was wrapped up in Christ, meant that you embraced the new life and let the old life die. For good. In all areas of your life. Were they perfect? Somehow more holy than today's teenagers? Of course not. But they seemed to understand the disparity.
Here’s what I am encountering as I disciple teenagers (including my own children), and engage with youth workers across the country. Many teenagers today live extremely compartmentalized lives. But not only do they not seem to grasp the issue with this, it almost seems like it is an ideal way to live.
Oftentimes when I point out, as I have had the occasion to often over the last couple of years, that we have to view our faith holistically, many young people get a little squirmy. To think that they would be the same person on IG, and musical.ly, and Snapchat as they are at Summer Camp or Sunday mornings . . . well, it feels like this seems odd to them. My sense is that it feels unnecessarily restrictive.
I wonder if the segmentation of teenager’s lives, that is enabled and empowered by the connectivity of social media, has created an environment where the compartmentalization of faith is actually a value, a survival skill to cope with a rapidly changing cultural landscape.
I don’t know for sure. But what I know is that the disconnect is real (at least I think it is) and it has serious implications on the faith of our young people. Our culture values authenticity in people and brands and institutions. As much as anything, we are drawn to entities whose actions line up with their stated identities. And we are repelled by those whose actions do not. My fear is that we’re seeing a new compartmentalization that puts teenagers in the position of being inauthentic in their expression of their faith. Not only does this have negative side-effects on the brand of their personal faith, but it deeply impacts their ability to lead people to meaningful faith in Christ.
To be sure, when you make critiques of any generation, you paint with a broad brush. I personally know many teenagers and young adults who live authentic, holistic faith lives. But I do believe as I survey the next-gen ministry landscape, that this is an emerging trend. I believe it’s our responsibility to call it what it is, and lead our young people to embrace a faith-life with Ephesians 5:1 as the goal for every aspect of their lives.