David Brooks’ recent op-ed, “The Service Patch,” makes me want to cry.
Watching young people over the past 15 years, I’ve found that Brooks -- another cultural observer of youth -- regularly articulates insights that advance the conversation. Reflecting on a conversation among Stanford University graduates about whether the blinding predominance of jobs in finance and consulting is a good thing, he names a hidden reality:
“Many people today have not been given vocabularies to talk about what virtue is, what character consists of, and in which way excellence lies, so they just talk about community service, figuring that if you are doing the sort of work that Bono celebrates then you must be a good person…When I read the Stanford discussion thread, I saw young people with deep moral yearnings. But they tended to convert moral questions into resource allocation questions; questions about how to be into questions about what to do.”
I want to cry out in frustration: “Hello Christians!? We are in the business of deep moral yearnings!” We’ve got a story that is all about questions of being and belonging, of virtue and character, of sharing and service that transforms our distorted hearts. We have all kinds of practices other than “resource allocation”: hospitality, justice-seeking, truth-telling, humility, sacrifice, reconciliation -- to name a few.
And yet, there seems to be a gap between our story (and its vocabulary of vocation and virtue) and the lives of current youth, if the Stanford graduates are any indication. There’s a deep cultural need which we actually have the resources to serve.
So, what are we doing about it?
Christians dotted across the U.S. are entering into and intensifying dialogues of deep moral yearning. Last week 50 religious leaders who have been working on vocation and young people for the past fifteen years reminded each other that Brooks’ Stanford narrative is not the only one. We gathered around “Cultivating Christian Leadership,” but the shared knowledge also offered a glimpse into just plain cultivation of living with depth and purpose.
Sociologist Tim Clydesdale, concluding a study of the Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation (PTEV), an initiative at 88 historically church-related colleges and universities, gives one view into the possibilities. Like Brooks, he sees students’ making the connection between service and a moral life. “The ideal way to engage college students is by fostering intentional, pro-vocational community among them, by tapping students’ eagerness to serve others, and by deploying the higher-level skills students work to acquire during their education (i.e., less brute labor and more designing, treating and educating labor.)” Clydesdale writes. These experiences, embedded in a culture with language to talk about issues of meaningful work, do make a difference.
Clydesdale found graduates formed in a theological vocational experience (peers of the Stanford grads in fact) construct their lives with grounded idealism (honest self-knowledge and humble self-transcendence) and “Godly grit” (resolve to join with others to use one’s life in service).
Jim Ellison of Volunteers Exploring Vocation and Wayne Meisel of Faith and Service, see these qualities mature in young people in voluntary service with faith-based organizations. Here, the journey toward depth and purpose pushes people past the impulse to simply “do good” and toward the harder practices of Christianity: sacrifice, repentance, prayer, forgiveness.
Ellison says, “People who have done a year of service have the potential to be great leaders in the church. If leadership in the church includes, and even depends on, its leaders being able to understand failure and their own limits, and to balance that reality with hopefulness, these people will be well-prepared.”
So, people, we Christians are in the public conversation about moral formation. Thanks be to God for the young adults who are talking and walking in the way of Jesus Christ -- and for the older adults who walk and talk with them. They give me hope.
Melissa Wiginton is Vice President for Education Beyond the Walls at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.