Why Young People’s Distrust in Institutions is Sometimes a Good Thing

by Faith & Life, Morals & Values, Self-Knowledge

Earlier this year, Isaac Withers was one of 300 hundred people who attended the Vatican Pre-Synod of Young Peoplespeaking with Pope Francis on the issues that his generation and younger face. Inspired by this incredible trip he has written an eight-part series of articles highlighting these challenges and sharing how we, the Church, can support and nurture this young generation. We are excited to present the sixth of his articles here. You can find the other parts of his series at the bottom of this page. 

How You Can  Help the “Hunger Games Generation” Through the Thresholds of Trust

‘Take me to church, I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies. I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife. Offer me that deathless death, good God, let me give you my life.’

That is the chorus of the song, ‘Take Me To Church’ by the musician Hozier. I remember hearing that song in my first year of university (2014) and being sort of shocked by it, but not too surprised by it. Having gone to a secular high school I was well aware of what most people thought about organized religion and the Church; that it was anti-intellectual, plagued by sexual scandals, judgemental and far from the person and teachings of Jesus. That was the general vibe, and I can hear it in the voice of this Irish musician and I can see it in the song’s music video which is about the persecution of homosexuals by a mob. The whole narrative of it being that the Church as an institution is oppressive.

However, many are noting that this distrust in institution seems to have spread to all institutions, especially among younger generations. Just how true is that and is it necessarily a bad thing?

Who Can You Trust These Days?

A big name in the world of trust is the ‘Edelman Trust Barometer’. Edelman is a global communications and marketing firm that releases an annual report on the trust people have in institutions. They do this with an ‘online survey in 28 Countries, 18 years of data, 33,000+ respondents total’; so it offers an extensive worldview. The 2017 report was their 17th annual trust and credibility survey and it had some big news.

In 2017, they reportedthe largest-ever drop in trust across the institutions of government, business, media, and NGOs. Trust in media (43 percent) fell precipitously and is at all-time lows in 17 countries, while trust levels in government (41 percent) dropped in 14 markets and is the least trusted institution in half of the 28 countries surveyed. The credibility of leaders also is in peril: CEO credibility dropped 12 points globally to an all-time low of 37 percent, plummeting in every country studied, while government leaders (29 percent) remain least credible.’ This led their president and CEO (if we can trust him) to remark that ‘The implications of the global trust crisis are deep and wide-ranging’. Want to hear the good news of the 2018 report? ‘The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals a world of seemingly stagnant distrust.’ Ouch.

Why has the implosion of trust happened? They put it eloquently. ‘It began with the great recession of 2008, but like the second and third waves of a tsunami, globalization and technological change have further weakened people’s trust in global institutions. The consequence is virulent populism and nationalism as the mass population has taken control away from the elites.’

So, it would be fair to say that this is, in fact, an issue of our time, reaching much further than enlightened thought doubting organized religion – large numbers of people are doubting all institutions.

Why is This More of a Problem for Young People?

Now imagine if the three waves of this trust ‘tsunami’ hit you over the years as you were growing up – the post-tsunami world would be normal for you. This is where we find Gen Z, or, as Norrena Hertz would want us to say, Gen K. Why? ‘I call them Generation K, after Katniss Everdeen, the determined heroine of the Hunger Games. Like Katniss, they feel the world they inhabit is one of perpetual struggle – dystopian, unequal and harsh.

In 2016, The Guardian released the results of, ‘our in-depth investigation of the issues faced by young adults’ … ‘Noreen Hertz takes a look at the lives of today’s teenagers, after interviewing 2,000 of them in the past 18 months – and finds a generation who feel profoundly anxious and distrustful.’ In her study, Hertz found that, ‘This generation does not believe that life is a meritocracy. In fact, not one teenager surveyed agrees with the statement that “society is fair and everyone has an equal chance”’.

Their levels of distrust were found to be surprisingly high. ‘Only 6% of them trust big corporations to do the right thing, as opposed to 60% of adults. … Their feelings about government are similarly negative. Only one in 10 of this generation say they trust the government to do the right thing. This is half the percentage of millennials who feel this way.’

However, Hertz did find that there was one unifying name that these teens gave when asked to name a politician they trusted: Bernie Sanders. Hertz puts this down to two factors, firstly that  he was an anti-establishment figure who shared their distrust of institutions, but also, ‘Sanders’ appeal to the young speaks to something else too: how important they consider authenticity.’

Authentic Heroes

If you can judge a society by its heroes, you can apparently judge Gen Z by… its YouTubers?

In 2015 Variety carried out a survey in which they ‘compared the 10 YouTube stars with the most subscribers against the 10 traditional entertainment stars with the highest Q score among teens, a widely recognized measure of influence by advertisers and marketers. A sample of 1,500 people aged 13-17 were again asked how these 20 personalities stack up in terms of approachability, authenticity and other criteria considered aspects of their overall influence.’ What they found was that the YouTubers won out solidly and that they filled eight of the ten spots available, with YouTube stars KSI and PewDiePie coming in first and second with only Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift coming in at seven and eight.

So what is so special about YouTubers? Well, some commentators see this as another move away from institution (in this case from traditional entertainment industries) to the authenticity of people making their own content in their bedrooms with the cameras on their laptops.

Businesses are starting to notice this shift in the influencers of the next generation too. Forbes tried to crack this trend for the business community, writing, ‘Traditional celebrities always seem to act according to their PR strategies rather than free will, and people don’t relate to them. It can feel hard to understand where a carefully staged image ends and the real person starts. And millennials deeply despise inauthenticity.’ Another Forbes piece states ‘Honest transactions, honest brands, authentic voices and experiences are ideas that marketers have been practicing with millennials for the last decade. Gen Z will turn this up to 11’.

You can even see this behavior from banks with the arrival of the ‘Goldman Sachs’ ice cream van, a Morgan Stanley Snapchat filter and a PwC coffee truck’. As younger people have the largest amount of disposable income, you can understand why the institutions they do not trust desperately want to keep them by seeming more authentic.

Does this all apply to the Church too?

These trends seem to hold true in the Church’s context too. In Barna’s survey of the UK Church in 2018, they found that there was a dearth between the good local churches were doing and the public’s impression of them, noting that ‘Non-Christians are just as likely to not know about the UK Church’s impact in the world (40%) as they are to have a negative opinion of it (41%).’

But they also statistically proved that when non-Christians have positive experiences of the authenticity of good Christian friends, it has a lasting impact.

‘Some of this antagonism toward the Church, in general, might be tempered, however, or at least set aside within the context of personal relationships with people of faith. For instance, a 2015 Barna study showed that the two-thirds of non-Christians in the UK (67%) who reported knowing a Christian were quick to associate these peers with positive traits like being friendly (64%) or caring (52%). … Non-Christians’ acceptance of individual Christians might seem at odds with a blanket aversion or indifference toward their Church, but it also speaks to the power of personal, everyday interactions that bridge faith segments.

How do we help young people with this?

One major way that the Church gain the trust of a very untrusting generation is to acknowledge that this is a slow but well-traveled path. A great study of this already exists in what is called the ‘Thresholds of Conversion’.

This study has been brought to the attention of Catholics by Sherry Weddell’s book ‘Forming Intentional Disciples’ but the theory originated with Doug Schaupp, a campus minister who had a realization whilst ministering to students at UCLA in the mid-1990s. Schaupp and his team started to find their ministry was less fruitful than it had been before, so they decided to interview those who had converted. ‘At the end of the year, we interviewed most of the 37 students to find out what kind of internal and external dynamics helped them into the Kingdom of God. What we found was that they actually all went through the same phases of growth and transformation … all thirty-seven students went through a series of thresholds or stages of conversion – five in all – that culminated in a commitment to follow Jesus Christ as a disciple.’

Weddel presents these thresholds as so (I’ve abbreviated them a bit):

  1. Initial Trust: A person is able to trust or has a positive association with Jesus Christ, the Church, a Christian believer, or something identifiably Christian. Trust is not the same as active personal faith. Without some kind of bridge of trust in place, people will not move closer to God.
  2. Spiritual curiosity: A person finds himself intrigued by or desiring to know more about Jesus, his life, and his teachings or some aspect of the Christian faith.
  3. Spiritual openness: A person acknowledges to himself or herself and to God that he or she is open to the possibility of personal and spiritual change. This is one of the most difficult transitions for a postmodern believer.
  4. Spiritual Seeking: The person moves from being essentially passive to actively seeking to know the God who is calling him or her. It is the- if you will- “dating with a purpose” stage, but not yet marriage.
  5. Intentional Discipleship: This is the decision to “drop one’s nets”- to make a conscious commitment to follow Jesus in the midst of his Church as an obedient disciple and to reorder one’s life accordingly.

It is a very human model for bringing people into the Church and Weddel strongly states that we are not in control of this process. ‘We are dealing with the mystery of a relationship that God himself is initiating in the human heart. Let me stress that we cannot bring anyone to faith through pressure, guilt, argument or cleverness. Conversion and true faith are works of the Holy Spirit. But it is also true that we can, by our responses, help or hinder another’s journey. Responding to seekers in a way that does not accept and honor their lived experience may cause them to “freeze”.’

How Disenchantment with Institution can be a Good Thing for the Church

In truth, this has been anything but a good year for the Church in regard to rebuilding trust. From the eruption of the Chilean Church with so much corruption and sex abuse coming to light that- in an unprecedented move- all of the Chilean bishops offered their resignation to Pope Francis, to the revelation that Cardinal Theodore McCormick, former archbishop of Washington, had been accused for years of sex abuse with his subsequent (and again unprecedented) resignation from the college of Cardinals. These among other stories have led to endless articles from secular and Catholic commentators alike decrying what is going on- these stories break the trust of even committed Catholics. An article that resonated strongly with me was British journalist and Catholic convert Tim Stanley’s piece ‘Why, despite everything, I am still a Catholic’ because he makes an interesting point about the institution of the Church:

… when I signed up to be a Catholic, I joined a faith, not a congregation. Of course, I quickly discovered that isn’t sustainable. The faith and the institution are inseparable: you’ll often hear ex-Catholics say they love one but not the other, and yet if you want the sacraments, you need the priest. If you want the priests, you need the bishops. If you want to fulfill the Church’s commandments to love your fellow man, you absolutely need the congregation, too.’

That of course, is not to say that we do not establish even more transparency and consequence for these crimes within the Church, because as Stanley puts it, ‘when a sexual crime occurs in the Church it is 10 times worse’, but it is to say that Jesus came to establish a Church.

There’s an interesting line in the working document of the Youth Synod that I think sums up well how this move from institution to authenticity is a good thing for the Church. ‘Disenchantment towards institutions can also be beneficial, when it becomes open to pathways of participation and people take more responsibility without falling prey to skepticism.

And so the pressure to open up the Church moves from leaders to us. As Weddell puts it, ‘Many don’t trust God or the Church, but they do trust a Christian in their life. Maybe they trust you. You may be the bridge that one day will lead them to a life-changing encounter with Christ.’

But I want to leave you with her comment on Pope Benedict XVI (when still a cardinal) foreseeing that that Church would become a ‘mustard seed’ again, meaning smaller but passionate. She reads this idea beautifully:

‘ … then-Cardinal Ratzinger was merely reading the signs of the times, recognizing that Christendom as it has existed for the past 1,200 years (as opposed to Christianity) is well and truly dead. The pope knows that the Church must look again as she has in the past, not to institutions or societal favor but to the power of the Holy Spirit, the redeeming work of Christ, the truth of the apostolic faith, the deep personal faith of her people, profound prayer and worship, and the intercession of the communion of saints. She must look to the charisms, vocations, saints, cultural creativity, and mighty deeds that arise out of such faith – the faith that gave birth to the structures and cultures of Western Christianity in the first place.’

For Further Reading, check out:

‘The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer’

‘Think millennials have it tough? For ‘Generation K’, life is even harsher’ by Noreena Hertz

‘Forming Intentional Disciples’ by Sherry Weddell

Why Growing Up with Relativism Has Millennials Searching for New Rules for Life

4 Important Things You Should Know About the Modern Family

Sick of the Dating Scene? Here are Some Surprising Reasons to Hope

We Now Have A Generation Who Grew Up With Porn: What Happens Next?

Why Does the Most Connected Generation Ever Feel So Lonely All the Time?

Photo by chester wade on Unsplash

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