One of the great ironies of this age is that the forms of institutional faith that so many see as “out of step” with the rising generation are in fact uniquely tailored to help them live out their ideals.
The current cohort of 20- and 30-somethings, often called millennials, have lofty ambitions — high ideals. But ambition isn’t achievement, and ideals aren’t actions.
As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, millennials say it’s “very important” to volunteer, but are the least likely generation to show up and volunteer. According to a 2014 report from The Council of Economic Advisers, millennials “are more likely than previous generations to state that making a contribution to society is very important to them and that they want to be leaders in their communities.” They are also more likely to say they care about the environment.
But, alas, millennials appear to lag behind baby boomers and GenXers in doing “things in their daily lives to conserve energy and help the environment.” And, in terms of civic engagement, millennials are less likely than other generations to spend time thinking about "social problems” or engaging in a "political campaign.” And voting? The median age of those casting ballots in mayoral elections hovers around 60.
It’s easy to have ideals — it’s a bit harder to live by them.
What institutions like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do for millennials, and for all of us, is reduce the vast chasm between what we say and what we do.
We want to volunteer and give back. Not only does the church have an app for that (see JustServe.org) but within each ward community, individuals of almost all ages are called upon to pitch in, to minister, to lift, to volunteer — to serve.
We want to give to those in need. Each month local Latter-day Saint congregations fast together for at least two meals. The church encourages each member to, at a minimum, take the money they would have otherwise spent on two meals and donate it to those who need assistance. These kinds of congregations and communities encourage one another to live out their ideals. To paraphrase one religious leader, the church aims to make bad people good and good people better.
Although Americans have long valued independence and autonomy, strong countervailing impulses toward collective responsibility have also helped expand opportunity and propel the nation forward. As important as one-off acts of service are to both the beneficiary and the good Samaritan, institutions can codify and channel our collective hopes into concrete actions that point our trajectory toward virtue and redemption.
Participating in the Latter-day Saint community nudges us to make pro-social choices that help improve society. In addition to endorsing civic participation over the pulpit, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encourages education, employment, and stable family formation through specific programs such as self-reliance initiatives, career counseling, relationship courses and low-cost degree programs and certificates at church-sponsored universities.
Of course, when it comes to organized religion or other similar institutions, some millennials are hardly enthusiastic about what they perceive as a long rap sheet of scandals, sins and flat-footed missteps. They argue that, with such a history, America's old-time organizations no longer measure up — they can no longer serve the marginalized and the vulnerable from a position of moral authority. But those who understand their faiths the best also know that these institutions are still acutely suited to lift and liberate, to strengthen and succor.
That isn’t to say that millennials, or those of other generations, are not right in confronting head-on the failings of the institutions around us. Holding organizations and powerful bureaucracies to high standards is an important endeavor. However, before abandoning and dismantling, emergent adults would do well to pause and sincerely investigate whether there is wisdom worth saving, resources worth recycling and salvation worth seeking.
Certainly, would-be replacements for religion and other institutions present alluring alternatives — including the promise of Promethean-like technological advancements to solve each societal ill. We are already seeing signs, however, that — though immensely beneficial in many ways — the modern mirage of megapixels is not powerful enough to solve our most profound sorrows of sinew and soul, and in some cases, may even be causing them.
While acknowledging the very real challenges presented by institutions — governmental or otherwise — the late-apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Elder Neal A. Maxwell, observed: “Yet we need some institutionalization, even in the kingdom. Random goodness is, by itself, not enough to resist the march of evil, which takes its victims without pity or remorse. … I am grateful that God has so organized us and that he has given us specific things to do. Otherwise, we would be like the lonely sharp-shooters trying to slow the advancing army of evil. Sharp-shooters can delay the enemy heroically, but such solitary souls are not the way in which counterattacks are mounted. Counterattacks must be expressed institutionally, as in the case of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
Perhaps it’s foolhardy to expect millennials or others to come around to the value of institutions such as The Church of Jesus Christ. I may be naive to think, in an era riddled with distraction and quick fixes, that the younger cohort will come to appreciate the role old and slow organizations play in moderating society and funneling our highest ideals into specific actions.
But, I can at least take heart in the thought that with the contemporary culture’s movement away from such organizations and institutions, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will increasingly stand out as different. And surely there's nothing more attractive to adolescents than being counter cultural.