You Are Here: Reflections on Gen Y, Worship, and Cultural Consumption
I spent a good part of my life wandering without a spiritual lifeline. I was lost, having climbed out of the wading pool of organized religion. Somehow, Jewish music and prayer re-opened a door that had been locked for a very long time. I found my way back, and opened my eyes to see that much of my generation had become spiritually homeless and Judaically disenfranchised. I feel strongly connected to this group because I was once a part of it; when I create art on their behalf, I create it on my own behalf as well.
A.J. Heschel once wrote, "Song is the most intimate expression of man. In no other way does man reveal himself so completely as in the way he sings." These words are incredibly wise, and they resonate with me in a personal and powerful way. To see a group singing together is to see one of the most unique and beautiful ways in which human beings share a common experience. The communal voice produces the unique sound of unity, the empowering sound of a group of disparate individuals engaged in a common, focused outpouring of spirit.
My generation consumes culture at an astounding rate, faster than any earlier generation in history. In these times of rapid technological growth, a probable causal relationship exists between this rate of consumption and the sheer volume of modern media... media which is both readily available and thrust upon us all. If we suddenly want to hear the latest Killers' track, we surf over to YouTube for instant gratification. Mine is a generation that wants for very little in terms of its immediate access to culture and information.
And so, in the established Jewish community, we are the wild card. A majority of us are unaffiliated with most types of established Jewish organizations, and are generally disconnected from the Jewish community at large. This statistic has been verified by both anecdotal and empirical data.
Here's the rub... Generation Y is mostly disconnected because of a failure by the established community to provide points of connection that are aesthetically and spiritually relevant to its cultural sensibilities.
My relationship to this group is personal... I sense their frustration, and experience the challenge of engaging them, both in worship and concert settings, on a regular basis. I write music for them; I pray with them; I drink beers with them... because I am one of them.
And so, from an insider's point of view, here's what I've learned...
The Auto-Tune era has passed. There is renewed interest in music that feels honest, even if the execution is less than perfect. We don't want sequenced, computerized arrangements. We want musicians to play and sing with emotion, and to communicate the message of the music in a way that is unencumbered by pretense and egoism.
Millenials absorb music, art, and media at an unimaginable pace. We know what feels good, what feels real... and we are turned off by inauthenticity. We want music that speaks to us; music that resonates with who we are.
Today, we continually associate musical moments with most social, private and public moments of our lives. Our daily activities are accompanied by a soundtrack that is largely of our own choosing. So, why then must the soundtrack of our lives and the soundtrack of our worship be mutually exclusive? Worship music, for much of history, has been a reflection of the popular music of the time.
If we find spirituality in a song we hear on the radio and tie its message to a piece of liturgical text, we create a point of entry for someone who is trying to come in. If we compose modern musical settings for liturgy, we create space for our generation to be prayerful in an environment that meets our aesthetic sensibilities.
Truth be told, this is not a new phenomenon. In terms of spiritual/cultural sensibilities, the story of my generation is also the story of earlier generations. Our children will not see the world as we do, because they simply will not be looking at the same world. Will we force our ideas and preferences on them, or will we allow them to develop relationships with culture that are born of their own selves?
Now, apply that question to the issue at hand. Will the organized, denominational establishment enforce its spiritual methodology on the 20s/30s generation? In actuality, I don't believe so. Organizations such as S3K have taken up the cause, and have done so with an understanding that outreach and programmatic efforts must begin with an understanding of the spiritual, social and cultural motivations that drive this demographic. They must, to put it plainly, meet us where we are.
And where are we? In a place that values tradition, but also appreciates modernity and expressive creativity; in a place that is warm and welcoming; in a place that chooses to take the most beautiful parts of the communal human experience and amplify them so they might resonate more clearly.
Sound familiar? It's the tale of generations past, and will be the story of generations to come.
At the root of this issue is a fear of change… a resistance to alternative views that continues to surface in a consistent and cyclical pattern. Ironically, our ability to adapt and to change ultimately reflects our collective humanity. Change is the end-result of a divine spark that enables us to learn with perspective, to feel with depth, and to see with vision.
We are searching for that spark.