Speaking to the Internet Generation
Every generation finds a way to distinguish itself from the previous one, whether it's by social custom, new philosophies or advancing technology.
My mother and I parted ways at the introduction of FM radio. Her AM set was always turned to the AM dial, which in the sixties and seventies were dominant in Canada – CJAD 800 was king of the airwaves, king of AM radio. But then, this new type of radio was being sold that had two bands to choose from AM and this "new" thing called FM radio.
FM had less talk and more music and, most importantly, it sounded better – especially on your "stereo system." So I bought my mother a new radio that had both AM and FM (plus a clock and alarm).
"All you have to do now," I said, "is switch the button to FM, select a station and you get different music, more selection, better sound."
She asked if her 800 CJAD was on the new band and I said it didn't work that way. She asked me to find CJAD 800 on this new radio – and leave it there! And that's where the dial stayed, never to be moved again.
Don't even get me started on the time I got her a VCR so she could watch movies at any time!
That was the technological disconnect point in our relationship, and it stayed that way into the era of portable home phones, cell phones, CD's – until she passed away at 85.
Of course it's easy to be smug when you are on this side of the generational divide, but sooner or later the next generation and its innovations catch up to you. Like my mother, my wake-up call also came through my children.
I had always prided myself on being the "cool" dad who knew about modern music. I like jazz, rock, and rhythm and blues – even some country. I could relate, I had the "moves." Then one day, I heard a Rap CD coming out of one of my son's rooms and in an instant I became my mother, "What is that racket up there? Turn it down!"
They say you've passed the tipping point of middle age when you stop complaining about the older generation and start complaining about the younger generation.
The advent of rap and the whole "Hip-Hop" culture sent me to senior-ville in a hurry. Like my mother, I didn't "get it" and I didn't want to get it. Okay, why am I talking about this? What's the point?
The point is that these generational disconnects over technology and social norms happen in the church in the same way that they happen in families. It doesn't mean that families break up because of these disconnects, it means that parents have to learn new things and new ways to understand and communicate with their children.
I bought an iPhone and learned how to use it and text with it because that was the only way I could maintain a close, regular and immediate contact with our youngest son – why? He only looks at text messages. He rarely, if ever, checks his voice-mail or even answers his phone. I don't always see the advantage of texting over voice, but that's my 20th century brain and custom talking – not William's 21st century attitude about staying in touch.
So I want us to think for a moment about what this newer generation – I call them the "under 40's" because they were born in the seventies and eighties – what disconnect do they feel? Not with their parents but rather with their church.
I think this is worth examining because the people who are the leaders in the church today are part of their parents' generation and so the same dynamic of "disconnect" working inter-generationally in families is also at work in the church. Our challenge, therefore, in the church, is to find a way to connect with this generation and understand what they need and are searching for…especially in the church.
The Four C's that Under 40's Look for in a Church
I want to share with you what I believe are the four things (not projects or programs) but basic elements that the Under 40's are looking for in a church. Elements or markers in their Christian experience that makes church relevant to them. We need to understand that the Under 40's are not as loyal to a movement or group as were the previous generation.
We can maintain Bible integrity and our Restoration ideals, but we have to be sensitive to the markers or elements that Under 40 people are looking for in order to identify with and see as "genuine" Christianity from their perspective. And what they are looking for is not unbiblical – it's just not always present in our churches.
Our usual sense of "connectedness" in the church revolves around Sunday and Wednesday worship and other fellowship events. It's one of the reasons we stress good attendance at all worship times and participation in fellowship gatherings.
I'm not saying we should abandon these Biblical and basic ways to connect with people and help them to integrate into the body. I know that the purpose of worship is not fellowship, but in our case it's a major time for fellowship. I'm saying that we have to add ways that people (especially Under 40's) can feel connected to the church on their terms.
One important way to do this is by creating church websites that provide up-to-date information on the church, its members, its ministries and its teachings. And I repeat for emphasis – current information about who's sick, who's new and what's going on today. Nothing conveys the impression of not caring and incompetence like a website with out-of-date information.
Another effective method is to have a church Facebook page so that members can give feedback, talk to one another, post pictures of the new baby or the youth event. It's an electronic bulletin board where virtual fellowship takes place.
Churches can also provide blogs where ministers and elders can provide teaching. Instead of an article by the preacher once per week, you can have several articles, documents and teachings by various elders and ministers on a daily basis – and feedback from the congregation. The Under 40 group has a tremendous appetite for information and we can use this technology to feed it.
Another effective communication tool is the Twitter feed to provide breaking news or announcements about body life. The Under 40's want to know now, not in ten days.
Mary Smith had her baby on Monday afternoon.
The old way:
There's a line in the bulletin and an announcement is made from the pulpit six days later on Sunday.
The Under 40 way:
The news breaks on a Twitter feed or Facebook page.
Pictures of the newborn are posted Monday evening.
Congratulations and comments are added throughout the day and week.
Sunday, a picture of mom, dad and new baby are flashed on the screen along with the announcements.
Speaking of PowerPoint slides, the Under 40's appreciate modern A/V equipment and usage in the preaching and teaching of the church. A good example of this in our congregation is the BibleTalk.tv teaching website that provides the opportunity to have in-depth Bible teaching throughout the week – not just on Sundays and Wednesdays.
There are 300 million cell phones in the USA and 50% of the population is on Facebook. This is how the Under 40 generation connects and is creating a sense of "community" for itself. For whatever reason, we are less together physically than before and church attendance is in decline. However, modern technology provides us with the opportunity to maintain a "connection" with our members (especially those under 40) – we should take advantage of that.
The second element that Under 40's look for:
The people who have "grown up" in the church and those who have been converted as teens or adults have higher expectations than the previous generation.
- They come from wealthier homes.
- They have, on average, a better education and training.
- They generally serve in management and professional capacities more than before.
- They are used to higher standards.
In the congregation where I serve things have changed since 1993 when I first preached there. We have medical doctors, engineers, nurses, teachers, businessmen/women and more college trained people in general.
My point is that if the congregation is better educated and employed at higher levels than before, they are more demanding as far as competency is concerned. In other words, the church has to be as well organized and function as smoothly as where they work. It's a question of confidence.
Under 40's want to feel that their leaders (elders, deacons, ministers, teachers) are as competent to care for their souls as their company is competent to ship boxes from point A to point B. It's difficult to inspire confidence in a software engineer supervising 10 people at the office, if he sees a spelling mistake on the sign out front or in the bulletin. You'll have trouble convincing a young mom to attend Bible class if the sheets in the nursery are dirty and smelly diapers are still in the trashcan a week later.
Our Bible teaching and preaching may be accurate, but if we're incompetent in taking care of our building or organizing our projects or preparing an orderly and well run public worship service – Under 40's will not take us seriously. And I stress the worship service because it's the most public thing we do (everybody sees it). Our competency in other areas is judged by what we do publicly.
The third element the Under 40's look for:
Under 40's have long been aware of the national disasters taking place around the world thanks to their exposure from a young age to television and more recently to social media. This generation is more likely to care about human rights concerns and get involved in idealistic projects that improve the environment and the human condition.
They are not so much interested in correct doctrine about compassion as actual acts of compassion to legitimatize the doctrine. They would certainly amen James' admonition in chapter 2:18, "You have faith, and I have works; show me your faith without works, and I will show you my faith by my works."
Of course this has been true in every generation, but it is especially true for this generation.
No compassion = No credibility
The forth and final element in the four C's that the Under 40's look for in a church:
Every generation needs to know Christ and searches for Him – including this one. Our generation (50+) used the teaching about the "true" church to teach about Christ.
We come from that generation that trusted and were loyal to institutions (government, corporations, church). If you could trust the institution, you could trust the head of that institution (president, Christ, etc.). This is why much of the evangelism material produced during this time focused on the New Testament church, its "marks," its form. If the body (church) was true, then the head (Christ) was also true.
Today's generation is more independent and less trusting of "institutions." They are less concerned with who is the "true" church because in the end all churches make the same claim. They are interested in spiritual things, good things, life and death things; so we must change our approach to teaching them. I believe that we need to teach them first about Christ so that we can then teach them about the church – the church that belongs to Christ that is:
- Connected to Him and every believer.
- Competent to minister to them.
- Compassionate, as He was compassionate.
In other words, I believe that we need to teach them Colossians before Acts. We need to teach them about Christ who can answer the questions that every generation asks:
- Is there really a God and how can I know Him?
- Why is the world (and my life) so messed up?
- Is there life after death?
- How can I find peace and happiness?
- Which religion is true and how can I know this?
We know that Christ is and answers all of these questions. My point is that teaching this generation about Christ first is the way to lead them to the Lord's church.
I want you to notice that I have not suggested that we change any of our teachings or any of our good traditions.
Every generation responds to the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Every generation is blessed by their life in the church of the Lord.
My appeal is to make sure that we speak to this generation in terms that they, because of their experience and formation in the internet age, can understand.
Therefore, if we reach out with special attention to their sensitivity to the ideas of connectivity, competency, compassion and, of course, Christ – we will fulfill more effectively the Great Commission in our time.