Is Generation Z in Need Of Rules?

At First Things, Betsy VanDenBerghe unequivocally says “yes.”

VanDenBerghe’s column begins by recounting her recent experience as part of a Mormon “Standards Night” where teens and their parents are encouraged to abstain from pornography and commit themselves to chastity. Parallelling many Catholic and Evangelical practices, the leaders at this meeting offered assurances of forgiveness and urged repentance among those who had transgressed these boundaries.

Then, looking forward and beyond past failings, leaders placed a strong emphasis on delaying sex until marriage, citing the National Study of Youth and Religion as evidence that such a commitment has many long-term benefits. VanDenBerghe writes:

Extensive, rigorous, and long-term academic studies that control for demographic and socioeconomic factors continue to associate church-going youth with academic achievement, high self-esteem, optimism, ability to reason morally, strong family bonds, and low levels of risky behavior such as crime, substance abuse, and premarital sex.

VanDenBerghe notes numerous challenges before generation Z: “sexting, revenge porn, teen pregnancy, abortion, and STDs.” This list could easily be expanded beyond concerns related to sex and sexuality. But in this instance, VanDenBerghe is arguing for the importance of rules and their function in developing a moral vocabulary, moral commitments, and a flourishing overall life.

VanDenBerghe admits that for her religious community there is “some trepidation” around offering rules. I strongly suspect that would be the case among many pastors, youth workers, and other church leaders. We want to avoid being legalistic, narrow, or condemnatory.

Despite these concerns, however, VanDenBerghe and her colleagues do lay down rules. The avoidance of rule-making is, in itself, a deference to a kind of rule, though it may be more unspoken and assumed than it is written and enforced. To offer a rule is a violation of a social code that deems boundaries and structures contrary to “freedom.” But true freedom is found through discovering, establishing, and respecting the proper boundaries that allow us to thrive. The first fish to pursue a better life outside the fishbowl, only to jump and discover that the fishbowl was surrounded by land, will soon be deceased. It is the boundaries that enabled the fish to live, and even thrive.

The Old Testament is most often associated with rules and commandments, and rightfully so. But the New Testament also contains many positive exhortations and cautionary warnings that are corollaries and outgrowths of the gospel of and about Jesus Christ. Often, these commands are deeply challenging. For example, talk to millennials and generation Z about refraining from gossip. A rule helps us to see where we measure up, and good rules help us grow, either through embracing some positive behavior or by avoiding destructive pitfalls.

VanDenBerghe argues for rules on the basis that generation Z is not only in need of them, but also that certain religious values lead to behavior that is positive and beneficial for human beings. It is possible that our faith commitments, when taught with diligence, conviction, and compassion, can be a blessing.

Don’t be afraid to impart rules. Demonstrate their positive effects, and establish their basis in Scripture, real life experience, and through personal example. Embody what you teach. Rules have authority when given credence, but people whose lives are authoritative are difficult to dismiss. Generation Z does need rules, and it is an act of love toward them to offer our best wisdom, guidance, and direction as they grow into the people God is calling them to be.