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Relationships and experiences—not absolute truth—are the moral compass for a new generation.

"Morality in America is going down the tubes." Have you ever heard someone offer this pessimistic conclusion? You are hardly alone. The vast majority of Americans are concerned about the moral condition of the country. But is there cause for alarm? After reviewing data from more than 7,000 interviews—representative of the nation's population—my conclusion is yes. Moral fragmentation is, indeed, a growing part of our culture—perhaps more than you might imagine. However, there is an interesting twist to this that gives me hope for the next generation. (I'll explain in a minute.)

First, though, let's look at the morality of Americans these days. Interestingly, one aspect of the problem is that the nation's citizens have difficulty agreeing on what a "moral" life should look like—much less how to make ethical decisions. But, perhaps most importantly, the morality gap is widening between those over the age of 40 and those in their 20s and 30s (a generation I will refer to as busters).

We analyzed 16 different areas of moral and sexual behavior and found that busters' lifestyles took a less traditional—that is, less "moral"—path than their predecessors on 12 of those 16 areas. The study also explored 16 different perspectives regarding morality and sexuality, finding that busters' views are less conventional than older adults in 13 areas. In none of the 32 facets were busters more likely to possess a traditional moral position.

Fluid Sexuality. In five decades, Americans' ideas and practices related to sexuality have been overhauled. Busters show much less sexual restraint than their parents' generation, as underscored by these monthly activities: Busters were twice as likely to have viewed sexually explicit movies or videos, two and a half times more likely to report having had a sexual encounter outside of marriage and three times more likely to have viewed sexually graphic content online.

Are these differences just a function of the supercharged sexual appetites of youth? That's possible. However, busters' attitudes also defy sexual convention, which has nothing to do with hormones. For instance, more than two-thirds of the generation said that cohabitation and sexual fantasies are morally acceptable behaviors, compared with half of older adults. Most young adults contended that engaging in sex outside of marriage and viewing pornography are not morally problematic, while only one-third of pre-busters agreed. Almost half of busters believed that sexual relationships between people of the same sex are acceptable, compared with one-quarter of older adults. Attitudes drive behavior, and the buster generation readily embraces—and practices—sexual freedom.

Generation Rude. Beyond sexual boundaries, busters are also putting a new stamp on relationships. They must learn to navigate relationships that exhibit less civility, respect, or patience. For instance, busters were twice as likely as their parents' generation to use profanity in public, to say mean things about others behind their backs, to tell something to another person that was not true, to do something to get back at someone who hurt or offended them, to take something that didn't belong to them and to physically fight or abuse someone.

Lifestyle choices. Busters were more likely than older adults to say that in the past month they had used illegal drugs and had gotten drunk. Also, young adults—especially 20-somethings—were 10 times more likely than older adults to download or trade music online illegally. The lifestyles of young and old were indistinguishable in a few ways. Out of the 16 areas of moral behavior, adults across the generations were equally likely to have given someone "the finger" while driving, to smoke, to buy a lottery ticket and to place a bet or gamble.

Reframing decisions. Busters are also redefining how they decide what is right and wrong. Nearly half of all those over the age of 40 said they view moral truth as absolute, but only three out of 10 busters embraced the concept. Two-thirds of those over 40 said humans should determine what is right and wrong morally by examining God's principles; less than half of busters felt this way. Instead, nearly half of busters said that ethics and morals are based on "what is right for the person," compared with just one-quarter of older adults.

Busters—both inside and outside the church—are embracing a pragmatic, individualized form of decision-making. What are the implications?

First, it is not helpful to dismiss the problem as "more of the same" moral experimentation that boomers experienced. This is a common response to the data and it makes no sense. Sure, there is nothing new under the sun, but are the struggles of busters less significant because boomers tried it first? Many boomers flouted convention, but busters are taking maverick morality to mainstream status. The questions that some boomers began to ask have now become the dominant perspective of busters.

Second, it is not helpful to attack the buster generation for its moral condition. When a generation is not listening to Christian leaders, we only diminish our message by turning up the volume or frequency of our critique. Instead, tenable responses to the generation include compassion, deep relationships, loving conversations, guided experiences, suggested reading and biblical counseling.

Third, realize that the compass for buster decision-making is friendships and experiences. This is a potential danger as they literally determine right and wrong based upon what seems fair, right and true in light of their perceived loyalty to peers. But this also represents a key to influencing busters: peer-to-peer relationships. You have to help them help each other.

Fourth, the strategies that affected boomers are falling flat among busters. Young adults do not want to hear monologues about moral regulations. Earning access to their hearts and minds means that you have to understand each person's unique background, identity and doubts.

The world of buster morality can be confusing, shifting and discouraging. But, here is that bit of good news I promised. Not only does God care about this generation, research leads me to believe that busters are more transparent about themselves and their struggles than boomers. This is partly because it is easier to admit to things when few things are perceived to be wrong. But transparency also stems from the buster mind-set that eschews posturing and deflates notions of self-importance. They feel more "real" by admitting their complexity.

How does this relate to buster morality? Scripture makes it clear that when hearts are pliable, God can break in. Perhaps the boomer generation has it all together; but then again maybe they do not even realize the depth of their need for God. Busters do not pretend to have it together. And my hope is that this will allow busters to welcome a high priest who can sympathize with their weaknesses. After all, God does His best work in broken people.


David Kinnaman is president and strategic leader of The Barna Group, Ltd. in Ventura, California.


Morality: A Pocket Guide


One of the most disheartening aspects of the research was how deeply those within the church have been affected by the redefinitions of boundaries. People's moral profiles are more likely to resemble that of their peer group than the tenets of Christianity. This paints a sobering picture that moral values are shifting very quickly and significantly within the Christian community as well as outside of it. Here are two snapshots of this trend:

Behavior. On eight out of 16 behaviors, the profile of born-again busters was virtually identical to that of non-Christian. Born again busters were less likely than their non-Christian peers to illegally download music, to smoke, to view pornography, to purchase a lottery ticket, or to use profanity. However, young believers were actually more likely than non-believers to try to get back at someone and to have stolen something.

Values. The attitudes of buster Christians usually resemble their peers, rather than their predecessors. For example, just 33 percent of older born agains believe that cohabitation is morally acceptable. However, among born-again busters nearly twice as many (59 percent) agreed, representing a majority of young Christian adults. Among non-Christian older adults, 65 percent concurred, while 80 percent of non-Christian busters felt cohabitation was acceptable. We found the same thing related to gambling, sexual fantasies, abortion, sex outside of marriage, profanity, pornography, same-sex marriage and the use of illegal drugs.

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