Do you know someone who has to be in control of the remote? No matter what's on TV, that person is always looking for something better. Commercials don't exist for advertising purposes but only to allow exploration of all the other viewing options.
Exploring options is part of our nature. But today, the remote control is a metaphor for commitment in America. We want to control our choices but from a distance, without having to get involved.
Short-term commitments require less. They also offer less. And when people get accustomed to short-term commitments, long-term commitments may seem less necessary. Why should we choose the long-term when the short-term offers more ease and control?
Barna Research Group says the trend toward shorter commitments has spilled into the arena of church attendance. Each year, one out of seven adults changes his or her church membership. Another one out of six regularly attends a carefully chosen handful of churches on a rotating basis rather than sticking with the same church week after week.
What fuels our commitment aversion? Uncertainty.
Virtually all of life is up for grabs. No job is secure. Half of all marriages aren't forever. Consumerism has made us option addicts. And when change is the only cultural constant, long-term commitments begin to look foolish.
Our culture of divorce, particularly, has shaped the worldview and expectations of young adults. A legacy of pain and uncertainty has made marriage a risky and sober lifestyle choice, and as a result many young adults have postponed marriage.
When downsizing and mergers erase any expectation of employer loyalty, and dot-coms portend not only quick riches but also sudden failure, people come to accept job volatility.
But all this talk about commitment aversion can be misleading, says Cassidy Dale, 29, a research consultant and futurist in Washington, D.C. What often looks like a lack of commitment may actually be a shifting of commitments. People still commit, but to different things, says Dale. Perhaps what we need are new ways to measure loyalty.
"People are basically commitment-oriented, and people choose commitments based on their priorities," says Dale. The Builder generation--those born before 1946--tend to commit to concrete things, like churches and other institutions. The Boomers--born 1946 to 1964--don't feel that allegiance to concrete institutions, so the Builders see them as noncommittal. On the contrary, the Boomers feel a strong commitment to causes, such as Habitat for Humanity and Promise Keepers.
Lower commitment to church membership, particularly among Generation Xers, mirrors our skepticism about all institutions, including the companies that employ us, says Dale. "Xers don't expect companies to be loyal to them, so they're not loyal to the companies. They don't know how long a company will be around, so they don't commit to it. This feeling transfers to churches. And while Xers don't tend to be loyal to institutions, they are loyal to their friends."
These commitments apparently grow shorter with each generation. Institutions, including churches and denominations, have been around for decades, even centuries. The causes popular with Boomers are only a decade or two old, and many less. A Gen Xer's commitment to a community may be considered old after a few years.
"The clearest indications of fear of commitment are evidenced in the phenomena I see among younger generations of serial monogamy, cohabitation and delayed marriages," says Tom Beaudoin, author of "Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X." Beaudoin defines serial monogamy as the habit of getting into relationships that are "more or less monogamous, fully sexually expressive, emotionally over-invested and short-term."
Since many young people don't like to take time off between relationships, they end up giving all their resources to one relationship after another, he says.
"I think these experiences can be understood in the context of a generation who grew up in what we might call a divorce culture and also in a heavily consumer culture. Neither a divorce culture nor a consumer culture encourages permanence or fidelity. This is not some magical situation in which we find ourselves. It is our own doing," says Beaudoin, a Catholic and doctoral candidate at Boston College.
Bridges, the Dallas marketing specialist, says churches must blame themselves for commitment avoidance. "When a church has a conflict, what normally happens? A split and a new church is started.... It is more acceptable to kick 'em out or quit and start over than it is to reconcile."
Yet young adults desperately want to commit to something. "Given the suspicion of institutions characteristic of many young people, they often want to know exactly what they're committing themselves to before they put their foot in the water," says Beaudoin. Wes Eades, a pastoral counselor in Waco, Texas, says this fear of commitment, with its hunger for certainty, doesn't reside only in Generation X. "No one group has the monopoly on fear or peace," says Eades. "There is definitely a hesitation to make commitments unless one can be guaranteed that he or she will get what is wanted from the commitment." Many young adults like to keep their options open when they face career choices too, says young-adult minister Keith Pate of Austin, Texas. "Many people are jumping from job to job, never finding happiness. They may have lots of money, but they're still not happy."
The church can be a source of support for those overcoming commitment fear. But the first thing Christians need to do is quit making the problem worse, says author and speaker Blaine Smith of Damascus, Md. The traditional message of the church to commitment-fearful people--namely, recognize your responsibility to God and commit out of obligation--only reinforces their fears and insecurities, says Smith in "The Yes Anxiety: Taming the Fear of Commitment." People who fear commitment already are paralyzed by their guilt and fear, he writes.
Yet church leaders should not shy away from challenging the commitment-resistant, says young-adult minister Pate. "In some ways, we've treated baby boomers and the younger generations as if we can't challenge them, and that's a mistake. We've pulled back from calling for commitment. They want people to shoot straight with them and to communicate a clear vision."
The solution to the fear of commitment, particularly for young adults, are church ministries "that first and foremost offer experiences of unconditional acceptance," says Gen-X author Beaudoin. "That will require having ministries that allow for significant disagreement on some issues of importance to Christians. "But the deeper issue here is the transformation of the culture away from such a heavy investment in consumerism and divorce. This is entirely within the power of Christians--and all people of goodwill."