Barna Takes: Peace for an Anxiety-Ridden Generation
Whenever Barna releases findings from a study, one of our aims is that it might be easy to glimpse the person behind the percentage. Our goal is that readers wouldn’t engage with the findings from a distance, but would be able to recognize their neighbors, their congregations, their families—and, yes, themselves—in the research. That can be an aha moment, when the numbers and tables become animated by one’s context, and that’s when, we hope, the research might be turned into action.
Our own team is not immune to this effect. I’d have to try hard to not see myself in the work. Some examples from recent projects and partnerships: For our Households of Faith study, I was challenged to find myself represented among the “couple households,” a comfortable group that, the data suggest, have to be quite intentional about incorporating spiritual rhythms and hospitality into their routines. In our Christians at Work report, I was heartened to align myself with ambitious Millennials who want to find their callings and infuse their careers with meaning. Most recently, The Connected Generation—Barna’s largest project yet—inevitably became an introspective effort for myself and some of my Millennial and Gen Z coworkers, as we partnered with World Vision to survey 15,000+ of our generational peers (18–35-year-olds) in 25 countries around the world.
One of the major findings from this international study struck but did not surprise me: Young adults today are, well, a little tense. Anxiety about important decisions, uncertainty about the future and fear of failure are among respondents’ most commonly reported emotions. These worries are often tied up in vocation, relationship status or financial means—all things that tend to be unsettled for this age group. Near-constant connection to and emotional investment in what’s going on around the world is a defining trait of my generation, but more personal, supportive connections aren’t quite so common; only one in three young adults feels someone deeply cares for or believes in them. People of faith may experience stronger community or well-being, the data show—but Barna has long documented this generations’ barriers to belief, including questions about human suffering or a feeling that communities of worship just aren’t appropriately speaking to big issues or daily life.
In short: I get it. Anxiety has been a pattern throughout my life, growing more pronounced in my adulthood. Beyond trying to crack the mystery of my mental health, when I look at my relationship to others, to the news, to productivity, to sleep and to devices, I can acknowledge the ways this digital age and my own age might aggravate the condition. Staring down, treating and learning to deal with my anxiety is a day-to-day effort, at times an urgent one. So I, too, have been disappointed on the occasions when I’ve witnessed people in the Church fumble discussions about anxiety, or shrug off a “generational angst” without delving into some of the issues (spiritual, psychological, societal, etc.) that might fuel it.
Thankfully, I can also attest to the power and relief of being in faith communities that have addressed these topics well—thoroughly, compassionately, holistically. One example comes from my own father, a pastor in Florida, who did a series of teachings on anxiety earlier this year. After validating the subject from the pulpit over multiple weeks, the church provided attendees with booklets including scriptures, readings and resources to take home and return to.
And I’ll never forget a Lenten service at my church in Nashville last year in which, in lieu of a sermon, we spent the morning meditating on and singing of peace—as well as its absence. We were asked to ponder: What is peace? Do we believe it is even possible today, as we consider the headlines, as we weather the storms in our own lives, in the nation and around the world? The service didn’t rush to feel-good messages or quick fixes. Instead, it allowed room for us to sit in silence, which was challenging at points. But I left feeling less alone. No small thing, the research tells us.
Working on this study, it was difficult to chronicle—and relate to—the doubts, isolation and anxiety plaguing many young adults around the world. I can understand that some might feel an urge to either despair over or dismiss these uncomfortable realities. But I hope faith leaders can go deeper, and young adults like myself need them to. More than disembodied data, these findings represent the experiences of the bulk of a generation—and act as reminders to receive and make the peace we are offered in Christ, the kind we’re told exceeds our understanding and guards our hearts and minds.