To Whom are We Debtors? Millennials, Debt, and Spiritual Poverty

If the recent deluge of magazine articles is any indication, Millennials are a lot of thingslazy, self-centered, unmotivated, restless. The list seems to go on ad infinitum, filled with terms so familiar they’ve become cliché. But there’s another equally negative term being thrown into the mix lately, and this one is more insidious. Increasingly, some Millennials also are poverty-stricken.

It’s easy to pass off our poverty as mere debt. After all, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that unemployment is more than 5 percent higher among Americans ages 20-24 than among the general population. Yet Millennial poverty is more complex than that. According to the Census Bureau, of the 5.9 million young adults who lived with their parents in 2011, nearly half (45 percent) had income falling below the poverty threshold for a single person under age 65. It’s somewhat ironic that a generation often characterized by its tendency to return home post-college possibly could be sinking into poverty. But between student loans and credit card payments, Millennials are accruing more debt—and paying it off more slowly—than previous generations did, accruing “nearly $6,000 more in credit card debt than their parents (those born 1950 to 1954) did by the time they’re 45, according to a 2013 study at The Ohio State University.” As a result, Lucia Dunn, an Ohio State economics professor who authored the study, told, “‘If we project (debt repayment rates) out to the end of their life using life expectancy tables, we will see that they will die with credit card debt.’”

These statistics indicate one thing: We’re in debt up to our eyeballs. Yet, other Millennials aren’t even included in these statistics because they don’t attend college or can’t qualify for credit cards in the first place. The Michigan Daily called these people the “forgotten Millennials—members of our age group who don’t have smart phones, who aren’t debating what classes they should take or what activities they can pursue outside of class and aren’t contemplating strategies of social activism. They are simply trying to survive each day.” But whether we’re Millennials on the edge of survival or on the cusp of finally attaining full-time employment, the sinkhole in which we find ourselves trapped is more than a financial one; it’s a spiritual one, too.

As we spend our money on material possessions, we feed a spirit of individualism that alienates us from our peers. As Forbes reported in 2012, Millennials are spending their money differently than previous generations: “Whereas older adults prioritized family-focused expenditures while in their 20s, such as buying a house, automobile, and building a savings portfolio, today’s Millennials spend their money on themselves, primarily on technology and travel.” But as our generation searches for contentment and connection and “real-ness” in material things, we get more and more stuff but nothing of substance. The resulting dissatisfaction is not only economic debt, but a deeply spiritual poverty as well; we’ve never been more aware of our need for something “more” than money can buy.

"...the sinkhole in which we find ourselves trapped is more than a financial one; it’s a spiritual one, too." Photo via Steve Hackman.

"...the sinkhole in which we find ourselves trapped is more than a financial one; it’s a spiritual one, too." Photo via Steve Hackman.

But a great many of those in our generation seem unaware of how to attain anything spiritually satisfying. We’re seeking God more than ever—even if we’re not aware that God is the ultimate object of our desire.

As a result, the Church at large is uniquely positioned to respond to both our financial and our spiritual poverties. The local church ought to focus on reaching those “forgotten” Millennials, many of whom may feel like they do not belong in church ministries that reach out to young adults in college and to entry-level professionals. Such outreach needs to allow young adults to feel safe, rather than ashamed of their decision not to follow the graduation-college-career pathway. Only by creating an atmosphere of honesty and security will we demonstrate Jesus’ presence within our churches—regardless of denomination or tradition.

Such Milliennial ministries likely would take different forms in different communities: One good example is Launch, a Minneapolis-area ministry that began mentoring and tutoring young adults who were otherwise overlooked by the Church. As Christianity Today reported in June, Launch is growing and even has “opened a transitional house called the Launch Pad, where eight young men stay for a monthly rent of $150, and they hope to start a house for young women.” Among other factors, Launch is succeeding because it first addressed members’ spiritual problems before taking on their financial ones. The ministry gave appropriate priority to spiritual poverty, connecting young adults to Jesus before helping anything else.

So, too, should the larger Church emphasize our generation’s growing spiritual poverty. It may be impossible to redirect the course of our entire generation, or to convince everyone that financial debt—in amounts we never can repay—is ultimately harmful. However, the Church fails in its mission if it does not reach poverty-bound individuals with truth of a God who provides in this life and with the promise of eternal abundance in the next. The good news, of course, is that our spiritual debt already has been paid.

-Melissa Steffan is a 2012 graduate of Seattle Pacific University with degrees in Communications – Journalism and Political Science. She is a former intern of the Washington Post and the Center for Public Justice, and she is the 2012-13 Editorial Resident for Christianity Today magazine. You can follow her on Twitter at @melissasteffan.