Thursday, September 2, 2021

A Cure for Cynicism

This article appeared in the Waverly Democrat newspaper, Waverly, IA, on September 2, 2021.

I admit it. I’m a bit of a cynic. As a member of Generation X, cynicism is the air I breathe. Gen X is the so-called forgotten generation. We were the first latch-key children as our parents both worked out of the home and we were typically alone after school. In addition, no-fault divorce resulted in increasing numbers of broken marriages and families. Gen X grew up under the specter of the Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction if either the United States or Russia, or maybe Iran or China, decided they’d had enough and finally pushed the button. Gen X was the first generation that was expected to do worse than our parents, and we were consistently told that Social Security would be bankrupt by the time we needed it. These and numerous other formative factors served to shape Generation X into a generation of cynics and survivors. Cynics because, when it comes to institutions, they consistently fail to deliver on their promises, and survivors who, since we tend to expect the worst, are prepared to persevere through anything.

Don’t hear me wrong. I’m not proud to be a cynic. I even suspect that it’s a bit sinful. It’s something I struggle with. I still believe in institutions and their inherent value, I do not want to see them destroyed or circumvented, but neither do I trust them completely. Somewhat ironically, the generation that preceded Gen X, the Boomers, also mistrusted institutions in their youth, but in their middle and later adulthood they came to embrace institutions, even if it was because they cynically found a way to manipulate them to their advantage. That’s a sin of a similar, but different kind. However, all of this generation talk is really to get at what I truly want to write about – what a joy and blessing it is to minister to a generation that is so very unlike either the Boomers or my own Generation X – Generation Z, who are now approaching, are in, or have recently graduated from college.

School is back in session. While parents and teachers fret and argue over masks and mandates and vaccines and more, Gen Z youth, at least as I perceive them, are fairly easy-going, eager to get to their studies, their sports, their music, their friends, and their lives. They are not cynics, like many of my generation, nor are they manipulators (another form of cynicism) like some of the Boomers. In my experience, most of the Gen Z youth I meet today are extremely positive, and outgoing. They’re not out to change the world, at least not yet. Perhaps they haven’t experienced enough of the world yet to want to change it, but that’s probably the cynic in me talking. Indeed, I’m fairly certain of this – if they could change anything, they would likely dismiss all cynicism and cynical manipulation.

I am blessed to minister to several high school students and a good number of college students, specifically Wartburg College students. I’ve been a pastor in Waverly for four years now, and throughout those four years St. John Lutheran Church has ministered to Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod students and other students at Wartburg College through worship, Bible studies, and fellowship events. What began as a small, humble gathering has grown into a bonafide campus ministry recognized officially by the LC-MS. This past year I was particularly blessed to see two students who were freshmen when I began my ministry at St. John graduate and get married (I was even blessed to marry them!), and the groom is planning to enter seminary to become a pastor! My experience with these students and their lives has been extremely encouraging and positive. I can feel them driving back my cynical tendencies, and it’s a blessing and a great relief.

While we can think of countless reasons to be pessimistic and cynical, I encourage you to spend some time with Gen Z, particularly our college students who are out of their parent’s homes for the first time and are beginning to discover who they are and what they believe. There is good reason to be hopeful. Further, they need you as much as you need them. I’ve received several letters from students present and former, as well as from their parents, expressing how important and beneficial the St. John Campus Ministry and congregation was/is for them, some even describing it as a lifeline or net. 

It is the God-given duty of every generation to pass on to the next the right worship of the Lord God in faith, confession, and deed. While the truth of God’s Word never changes, other things most certainly do. While this can cause some unease for the former generations, I encourage you, as I encourage myself, to embrace this task with joy and thanksgiving. Instead of being fearful at what the next stewards of the faith might do, get to know them, encourage them, and find yourself encouraged and delighted at how God works, often in unexpected and always marvelous ways. God bless and keep our students and youth and make of them a rich and gracious blessing.

+ Rev. Jon M. Ellingworth

St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church – Waverly, IA

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