As a high school theology teacher, one of the first things I sought out to teach my young students was how much God loves us and how much he longs for us to love him back. This should have been a relatively easy undertaking. I mean, this is “Sunday School 101” kind of stuff, right? There are songs about it. I soon learned, however, that there exist some major roadblocks—namely, that being in love is now seen as a bad thing by many young people today.
There exists a growing trend among young adults where experiencing feelings of love for another is something to be avoided at all costs—just like the common cold. In her groundbreaking book iGen, Jean Twenge explains how the iGeneration’s verbiage to “catch feelings” for another person equates the feelings of love to a disease that one would rather not have. (I strongly recommend this book for anyone who works with or parents members of the iGen.)
Twenge explains that, according to members of the iGeneration (roughly ages ten to twenty-two), to be in a loving relationship with another person would draw one’s attention away from focusing on themselves. She writes, “In general, relationships conflict with the individualistic notion that ‘you don’t need someone else to make you happy—you should make yourself happy.’” In droves, iGen’ers are repeatedly rejecting the idea of being in loving, committed relationships in favor of focusing on themselves—their success, their happiness, their safety, and their health. The battle cry of the iGeneration, to “love yourself,” has become so ensconced in the culture, that the threat of “catching feelings” for another person leads many members to swear off romantic relationships altogether. The problem is that many replace committed relationships with fleeting, sexual “hookups” (noncommittal sex) in the interest of being seen as “wild and free.”
Sound pretty bleak? Well, there is a silver lining. Twenge’s research found that, while many young adults will say that they want to be unattached, roughly three-quarters of the iGeneration actually do want to be in a loving, committed relationship. Twenge concludes, “The average iGen college student thinks he is the only one who wants a relationship, when most of his fellow students actually do, too. . . . There’s this disconnect between brave narratives about what they think they should want and be doing and what, in a way, they do want.” So while the culture might be pushing young adults away from pursuing loving, committed relationships in favor of self-gratification, something deep within them is still craving true love and connection. How Augustinian of them.
Now, to be fair, Twenge was not talking about the iGeneration’s relationship with God per se. She was referring instead to their romantic relationships with peers. However, her findings have real and serious implications for us as evangelists. How can we encourage young adults to enter into a loving relationship with God if their culture is telling them that experiencing feelings of love for another is akin to catching a disease? If we want young adults to (forgive me for this) “catch feelings” for God, how can we best support them? In what follows, I offer a few solutions.
“Love yourself” by loving God
Rather than fight the culture, how can we use the inward-looking perspective of young adults to our advantage? A popular analogy used by the iGen refers to the inflight safety guidelines we see in many modern airplanes. In the event of an emergency, when the oxygen masks deploy from the ceiling, you should put your own mask on first before helping others do the same. It makes perfect sense to a culture focused on self-love, self-care . . . self-preservation before all else. However, in that terrible scenario, we are still deeply reliant on something: oxygen. Our self-preservation is based on the presence of oxygen: what keeps our hearts beating, our brains functioning, what keeps us alive. Self-love cannot take place within a vacuum—it requires us to take in what we are dependent on for survival. In order for us to truly help ourselves, don’t we then need what keeps our soul alive? God’s love is just like that oxygen, except even more necessary: it sustains our very being—our body, mind, and soul. To truly focus on self-help, the iGeneration should be turning to God as a form of self-care and self-love. As evangelists, we need to carry this message to our young adults: A relationship with God isn’t something extra, something that takes the focus away from oneself. It is the very thing that sustains you, that keeps your soul alive and healthy. By being in that loving relationship with God, young adults can find the ultimate and sustaining form of self-care.
Raise up and honor examples of loving relationships
If we are to challenge the iGeneration culture-applied stigma of committed relationships, young adults need to witness functional, committed, and loving relationships in the real world. Specifically, they need to see the joy those individuals receive from being in a relationship but also how they are able to maintain their individualism and independence. Instead of worrying about their lives being diminished by loving relationships, they need to witness how their lives can be augmented by loving others and God. In a world dominated by reality TV dating shows, songs that objectify and oversexualize women, and apps focused on noncommittal hookups, young adults need to be exposed to true and genuine examples of loving relationships. This can be done by identifying individuals within our community and inviting them to share their experience. Married couples, men and women religious, decades-long best friends . . . we can find these relationships within our own communities and use them as examples available to our young adults. If these individuals can openly and honestly speak to the young adults about the joy they find through their relationships while still maintaining their self identity, it could make a real difference in breaking down the iGen’s fears of “catching feelings” but also give them real and beautiful examples to emulate.
Create opportunities for cultivating relationships
No, I’m not talking about the Catholic version of Tinder (alas, someone has already cornered that market). Instead, we need to be offering young adults well-thought-out, intentional, and meaningful opportunities to form relationships with one another and with God. Despite being hyperconnected to people online, the iGeneration remains woefully lonely in the real world. This, in turn, has a devastating negative effect on their mental health and happiness. Human beings were created to be social . . . in the real world, not just through their smartphones. As evangelists, catechists, youth ministers, pastors, and parents, we are called to help these young adults establish and grow real-world, loving relationships with others as a path to forming their own relationship with God. Retreat programs, youth and young adult events, even parish or school-sponsored events with no catechetical or religious angle can serve as opportunities for young adults to meet and form relationships in the real world. Relationships formed in these settings can open the door to deeper, loving connections with God.
Conclusion: Risking relationship
The fear of “catching feelings” originates largely out of a fear of the unknown: Will I get hurt? Will I lose myself? Will I be happy? There is a lot of risk incurred when entering into any relationship (let alone one with God), and the iGeneration is keenly skeptical when it comes to taking chances—especially when their own happiness and health are at stake. As evangelists, we need to work diligently to assuage those fears and preconceived notions about relationships that have become characteristic of the culture. This is no easy task, but with faith, dedication, patience, and grace, we can compel young adults to take that risk.