The church must awaken to the new materialism of today’s young urban professionals.
It is a well-established ritual of American life: at year’s end, word-weary journalists compete to distill the past and future into a word or phrase. Last year was no exception; and I was fascinated by Newsweek’s offering, a cover story characterizing 1984 as “The Year of the Yuppie.”
As most people know by now, a yuppie is a young urban professional. He or she has been described as an aging hippie transformed by a $20 haircut and upper-middle-class values; a baby boomer in his or her thirties, a one-time rebel now domesticated. As one self-confessed yuppie put it, “We tried drugs and sex and all those things. Now we’re becoming the children our parents wanted us to be.”
As I read the Newsweek article I found myself again thinking like a politician; my electoral antennae tingled as I read about this fast-emerging power bloc. Yuppies, Newsweek said, control almost one-quarter of the national income. They are keenly interested in economic issues; they are clustering in certain cities.
I was tempted to pull out a map of the U.S. to chart where the electoral fault lines would move, the shifts in voter alignment that the yuppies portend. When I was in the White House, such analysis was reflex action. We took daily polls, always on the lookout for indications that voters’ preferences were moving one way or another. We would quickly seize on such movements to score political points. I often wrote speeches for the President based on narrow demographic data. Hamtramck, Michigan, for example, contained a preponderance of Polish-American voters who were sensitive to busing; hence, Nixon’s area advertisements would all talk about his antibusing positions.
We studied issues and voter data precinct by precinct. Simply put, those politicians who get re-elected are the ones who predict where the voter power base is moving. That was the secret of Nixon’s immensely successful silent majority strategy. And as I read Newsweek’s article, I realized the yuppies have probably as much potential for bringing about a realignment of American politics as Nixon’s silent majority had a dozen years ago.
Suddenly I shook myself out of my reverie. What in the world am I doing, I thought. I am out of politics. I then reread the article with the new eyes God has given me as a believer. That’s when the real shock set in.
Merger Marriages And The New Sex
According to Newsweek, the yuppies are apparently convinced that money is the root of all good. The managing editor of Money summed up his magazine’s study’s conclusion that money has become the number one obsession of Americans. “Money has become the new sex,” he enthused. Laurie Gilbert, one frank yuppie quoted in Newsweek, confessed to reporters that she would be “comfortable with $200,000 a year.”
In fact, yuppies have turned their devotion to getting rich into a fine art—so much so that Newsweek described them as having achieved a new plane of consciousness: Transcendental Acquisition. Listen to the testimony of a “converted” social worker: “I realized that I would have to make a commitment to being poor to be a social worker. Eventually, I was able to shed the notion that to prove to everybody I was a good person I had to parade around as a good person by being a social worker.”
Now, with her lawyer husband, she makes about $100,000 per year, without any apparent worries about her “goodness.”
Certainly this honesty would be refreshing were it not so appalling. Says the director of public service at an Atlanta TV station, “I’ve started to live the American dream. I want a business. I want to be rich. I want to have more money than I can spend. I want a Jaguar and maybe a quarter-of-a-million-dollar house.”
This money grabbing appears to be an all-out effort to increase possessions—particularly possessions conspicuous in their consumption. Restaurants specializing in exotic cuisine, $600-per-month health clubs, fine wines (“I guess this is a substitute for children,” coos one interviewee as she fondles a prize Perrier Jouet), all reflect the mentality of a generation that defines itself by what it owns.
I saw the ugliness of this mentality up close several months ago at a car-rental establishment. I was renting a compact for my visiting parents, and found myself in line behind a fellow who was loudly complaining to the clerk that he had not ordered a white Lincoln Continental, but a black one. The woman behind the desk explained she had no black Lincolns available, but gracefully complied with the man’s insistence that she check all other rental offices in the area.
After a lengthy search, the saleswoman’s efforts had turned up Lincolns of every other hue. The man shook his head. “I’m going someplace where everyone will be driving a black car,” he explained sulkily. (Since it was the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, I didn’t think he meant a funeral.) As he turned away in disgust, the man faced my direction for the first time. Emblazoned across his shirt was a motto that put the whole affair into perspective: “The one who dies with the most toys wins.”
Marital stability also appears to be easily sacrificed on the altar of Mammon. One young woman described how she had scheduled several job interviews during her honeymoon. At one she met a man she fancied more than her new husband; she returned home to divorce the latter to marry the former. “I know it sounds shocking,” she admits, “but there are times in your life when you just have to go after what you want.” Another yuppie summed up the point nicely: “Our marriages seem like mergers, our divorces like divestitures.”
The Politics Of Self
The yuppies make up an unusual amalgam in the voting booth: their political profile melds economic conservatism with social libertarianism. They appear to be distrustful of government and institutions—or perhaps anyone or anything that may exact a sense of community responsibility.
Thus Newsweek speaks of those who found in Gary Hart the embodiment of their “vehement impatience with the past—but happily enough, … the candidate of prosperity [Reagan] actually won the election.” One young urban professional put it this way: “I own a condo and for the first time I had to think about my pocketbook. [I liked Reagan] for financial reasons.” Nevertheless, this yuppie voted for Mondale because of her opposition to the Republican stand on abortion. But, she concluded, “I knew Reagan would win easily anyway. If I thought it was a close election, I might not have voted for Mondale. I had the best of both worlds. I could vote my conscience and still come out ahead financially.”
(And in a chilling comment for anyone who weeps for the clinical murder of the unborn, a young lawyer sums up the political concerns of the yuppies: “The social program Reagan is talking about a lot of them find really scary. Abortion is a part of their lives.”)
There is, on the other hand, apparently some concern for the war-and-peace issues that fired the radicalism of yuppie youth—though the slogans of the T-shirts of the ’80s show a slightly different twist: “Nuclear war? What about my career?”
What religious leaning the yuppies have may be that of the prosperity gospel. The Newsweek article features a picture of an attractive blond woman, Terry Cole-Whittaker, whose book, How to Have More in a Have Not World, is a yuppie favorite. Her radio messages are now broadcast in 19 cities in North America; her newsletter apparently reports testimonies of divine intervention in closing big business deals. It may not be too harsh to describe Ms. Cole-Whittaker as a tweedy, blond-haired version of Reverend Ike.
Of course, there is a debate going on in political circles and elsewhere whether yuppies are a passing fad or a genuine sociological tidal wave. One prominent commentator doubted that any of the people quoted in the Newsweek story actually existed, saying, “I won’t believe it until someone gives me proof. Their heads on a platter will do nicely.”
But there have always been those who refuse to see new trends until they are run over by them. Personally, I think Newsweek and other yuppie watchers are on to something. Marketing executives usually read the tea leaves of the times very well—and we can see the influence of their targeting in advertising. Look at the recent beer ad campaign featuring happy, successful yuppie types: “You can have it all,” the upbeat soundtrack assures its viewers—precisely the yuppie mentality described in Newsweek.
But what’s this got to do with Christianity? Simply this: As we examine the range of yuppie priorities, what clearly emerges is a people whose values are absolutely antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Pin-Striped Mission Field
Though biblically conservative Christians tend to be conservative on economic issues—and certainly the yuppies fit traditional definitions of economic conservatism—Christians have historically been, and should be today, sensitive to God’s demands for economic justice. The command to care for widows and orphans is a biblical imperative; and to “sell the poor for a pair of shoes” brings the judgment of God upon a people. So a Christian’s economic views must be tempered by God’s standards of fairness and compassion. There is none of the latter in the analyses of yuppie economics.
Their ultimate priority of money, coupled with rejection of absolute values and the cold-hearted focus on self-advancement, puts the yuppie generation on a collision course with Christian values. And that’s where we evangelicals need to be concerned. Our new-found social respect—coming in off the farm, as one evangelical leader put it—may be short-lived if we don’t begin to think about how we will reach this emerging power bloc.
Which brings me to my central point. Politicians and marketing experts are busily identifying the yuppies—where they live, what they eat, what kind of ads they respond to. But who in the church is doing this? All too often we tend to think in sermon-to-sermon strategy, rather than to look long-range at the ways we will reach those who need to hear the Good News.
I don’t have any easy answers. Neither am I suggesting we tailor our message to fit our audience, like politicians who shape their speeches according to the tastes of the voter bloc. But we can certainly identify yuppie issues needing to be addressed.
First, we need to help the yuppies discover they are on a blind path. We don’t have to club them over the head with our Bibles—but we can challenge them to recapture their lost social idealism by unmasking the emptiness of a life that depends on money, power, and prestige for its satisfaction.
Second, we can encourage spokespersons whom yuppies will respect. I was asked recently by a leading Christian publication to name the outstanding young evangelical leaders under 40; it was one of the shortest lists I’ve ever compiled. The evangelical caste system tends to stifle articulate young spokes-people. We must cultivate and encourage these—young preachers like a Rennie Scott, perhaps—solid in the Word, Ivy League educated, personalities with whom yuppies might identify.
Third, there are apparently some churches attracting young urban professionals, particularly in silicon valley and in sunbelt areas. We need to learn from these churches ways in which local assemblies might reach out, ways in which they can bring in and help meet the unspoken needs of the yuppies.
Fourth, since many yuppies appear to have little interest in the organized church, we need to reach them on their own turf. Home Bible studies, morning prayer breakfasts, and the powerful testimony of unadulterated friendship evangelism may well reach yuppies in the midst of their overscheduled lives. Several ministries to executives have pioneered dinner parties with a concise evangelistic message offered by a host after dessert. This is one way to catch yuppies relaxed in their natural habitat.
Fifth, the way in which our case is presented has a powerful effect. Yuppies may not be willing to listen to a thundering denunciation of the evils of alcohol and tobacco, or watch some arm-waving Bible pounder on television. But a reasoned argument by a Jim Boice, an R. C. Sproul, a Steve Brown, or a Stuart Briscoe on the evidence for the existence of God might quietly penetrate the yuppie armor.
A word of caution, however: We Christians are not immune to the seduction of money, success, power, and prominence. Far more often than we would care to remember, the church has girded itself for battle against the world—only to discover that the enemy is within. Evidence abounds today that this pattern is repeating itself, as the church dallies with the false values of an egocentric and materialistic culture.
So as we preach to the yuppies let us beware: cross-pollination will only produce our own crop of yuppies—young, urban, pew-sitting professionals whose faith is but a notation on their resumes and whose ornate churches are but a reflection of their social status.
All the public fuss over yuppies will have served a useful purpose if it alerts the church to the challenge at hand. For the yuppies are now up for grabs. As resistant as they appear, their very defenses will serve as open doors for the gospel.
As Joanne Martin of the Stanford Business School predicts, “In the next few years we will see the biggest wave of midcareer crises this nation has ever seen.” Many of us know about the bankruptcy of transient power, money, and worldly goals; I surely do. Let us then be ready to give disillusioned yuppies the good news of the eternal Christ.
Our Lord commands us to go into all the world with the gospel; though we may little love the world of conspicuous consumption and greed, it is there that the need is greatest. Our work today, as it has been for Christians over the centuries, requires a form of translation in which we take the timeless message of the gospel and articulate it into the language of our own time and place. The question is how well we shall do it.
In the yuppie we are faced with a person who proudly values much of what the Scriptures call sin. How shall we communicate this shattering conflict of moral judgments? Merely to condemn from on high will do little but alienate an already antagonistic subculture. And yet, a word of judgment must come if such people are ever to see that, in fact, they are weak and heavy laden, needing to repent and believe in Jesus Christ.
This, I submit, is a great challenge of the work of evangelism in our nation: How to speak the uncompromising word of truth in love to a sector who glory in what the Scriptures call shame.
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