Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Gospel for the Next Generation

Christianity has at times in the past been leaders in certain aspects of cultural change (scientific revolution, anti-slavery movement, etc.), but as a general rule of thumb we are along the trailing edge of cultural change and are caught off guard when societal shifts become mainstream. Abortion, gay marriage, the new atheism, and similar movements seemed to catch the Church off guard; it takes years after such a change for the church to regroup, for seminaries to teach a new generation of pastors how to contextualize the Gospel in such a culture, and then...poof,  that culture is gone and the next arises.

As a result, most churches are responding to last generation's changes in culture and missing the next generation's culture. We are in a constant state of playing catch-up.

I've been thinking a lot lately about how to get on the leading edge of the next movement. Can we predict what the next generation will think about the world, and -- therefore -- actually PLAN how to contextualize the Gospel? Certainly God knows what is coming, and with proper prayer and fasting and reflection we should be able to prepare ourselves to adjust to what is coming.

I warn you in advance that I have not fully fleshed out these ideas...I am still considering them.

But I think that to do something like this, we must do two things:  (1) consider the "streams" of culture which will combine to form the 'river' which carries our kids and grandkids along in their society; and (2) develop some methods to respond to it. Let's take each in turn.

I.  Examining the Headwaters

I think that there are four major headwaters we must understand:

(1)  The Birth of the Third Moral Culture.

A new sociological study argues that the changes we have been seeing in the past few decades are not simply changes but are the birth of the third major moral culture in world history.

The majority of the world historically have been honor-shame societies (I have written about this before, and indeed much of the Middle East and Asia are still honor societies today). Basically, in an honor society, the highest moral value comes in the form of the honor of one's peers--honor given to you personally or to your society. The worst punishment is to shame a wrong-doer and their family. In an honor society, when one's honor has been violated, the person seeks vengeance themselves. (Think of duels, Arab public shaming and/or killing of sexual sinners, or Japanese warriors committing suicide to restore their honor on the battlefield, etc.).

About three centuries ago, Western Civilization underwent a major change, and became a justice-dignity society. The highest moral value comes in the equal application of justice. Doing right is its own reward, and all men have an inherent dignity which should be respected by both the law and other men. It doesn't matter what other people think of you--what matter is right and wrong. If you did something wrong, your conscience will make you feel bad even if there is no loss of personal or family honor. Your dignity comes from doing right.

A few decades ago, we saw the rise of political correctness and civil rights movements--it was a sort of subset of the justice-dignity society. Now we have taken a new movement, into a society in which even unintended slights (microaggressions) are considered morally wrong. The idea of the new study is that we are entering a third moral culture--a victimization culture

In this culture, people's inherent dignity is defended not through personal vengeance (as in an honor society) or through equal application of justice (as in a justice-dignity society). People's inherent dignity will be defended in this society by competing against other groups to establish themselves as victims--and to demand that the government and other people seek out right on their behalf.

(Consider how well this explains what you have seen recently: the War on Christmas and the Kim Davis debacle is Christians trying to prove status as victims; the "black lives matter"/"blue lives matter"/"all lives matter" debate is a jockeying for victim status; etc.)

If true, this will have major ramifications in the coming years, politically and socially. The next generations would likely see a major move to protect all those who cannot protect themselves. If true I wouldn't be surprised to find that the next generations overturn Roe v Wade while also outlawing the death penalty and providing amnesty for immigrants, for example--in today's culture those are on different ends of the political spectrum, but a victim culture would see them all on the same side and needing protection.

In short--if true, we will see increasing political correctness and a very high sensitivity to victimization in the next generations.

(2)  Social Media and the Post 9-11 World.

The next generation will be the first which is raised on social media. For them, it is not just a place to post updates of your meal plans and photos of the grandkids. The Boomers and Gen X and Y use Facebook to show a part of our lives, and many great studies have been done showing how unhealthily we are creating elaborate 'masks' of reality. But that is this culture, which is already passing.

The next generation does not put on a mask on Facebook--they are totally transparent. They are open to share anything, favorite anything, discuss anything online. They grew up in a post-9-11 world which does not expect privacy, and in a social-media world in which your living happens openly for all to see and is permanently available on the Internet.

(3)  Archivists - the Google Generation 

This generation also grew up without ever having to wonder about anything. If you are sitting over lunch and can't remember who played in such-and-such movie, you just Google it. If you overheard a conversation about a religion and didn't know about it, you just Google it and hit the Wikipedia bullet points.

No generation in history has been so connected to so many facts. And generally speaking, the facts are well edited--for all the jokes, Wikipedia is a pretty reliable resource. So where our generation would have to go to libraries or do long-term online searches, think and reflect, collate sources, take notes, outline, etc to answer's generation can with a few clicks quickly accumulate mass information.

And this generation is EXCELLENT at archiving and collecting this information. They know more facts than any generation before. However...they also worked less to gain them. They haven't actually pondered over most of the facts which they have received, and thus they often know tons of facts and theories but not how the facts were gathered or why the theories were first developed.

(4)  Multitaskers.

This is also a generation of multitaskers. They can process far more simultaneous streams of knowledge than past generations. This is a major advantage. Every advantage has a disadvantage, however--the same wiring of their brains which has allowed multitasking ALSO means they become easily distracted (compared to other generations). Focus is not as much a strength.

These four headwaters will come together in confluence to create a river, a new culture, that will sweep along all generations of the future. It is to these types of people that we must be capable of responding.

II.  How to Respond

I suspect I will edit the next portion quite a bit over time and reflection. How shall we respond to these headwaters?

At this point, I do not purport to provide answers, but rather a few ideas for thought:

  • The primary context of the Gospel must address victimization. In an honor culture we talk about praising God as giving due honor and Jesus as taking our shame. In a justice culture we talk about Jesus as a substitutionary atonement, taking the justice we deserve. In the new culture, we should focus on Jesus as the protector of the victims and oppressed--father to the fatherless, champion of the poor, friend of lepers. (This is why the Pope is so popular among the youth, FYI.) We must ensure that the new generation is seeing that Jesus was a champion of the forgotten, that He will return again to heal a broken world, and that this new world will have no victims.
  • Our sermons must not reinforce feelings of victimization--a feminist, LGBT person, any race, etc. one should be able to read between the lines and find offense.
  • However, we must also mature people toward a lack of offendedness and anger toward those who wrong them (especially unintentionally)
  • Churches should--as McKnight argues--be a place where the forgotten of society feel noticed
  • If we are no longer a justice culture but a victim culture, then we cannot as a church ever be seen as allowing issues to be more valuable than people (gun control, climate change, etc.).
  • We must be exceptionally transparent. I think a regular reinforcement of the discipline of confession can make a strong comeback and be a very great draw to a totally open culture
  • Sermons must be much more carefully proofread, for they are easily Google fact-checked after the sermon (if not during it)
  • Clear, straightforward answers can be positively shocking (in a good way). I recently was meeting with a teenager I mentor, and he asked about how we know the OT laws do not universally apply. I gave him a clear discussion of Acts 15 and it was a major relief. They have tons of data but it is hard to separate the "signal" from the "noise." Clear communication can do that.
  • Move quickly from thing to thing in the services and sermons. We must constantly engage the group to battle ADD; and yet we are now free to use MORE information in a more compressed form. In past generations, perhaps too many sources of information would distract from the message. In the next generation, the best way to avoid distraction is to provide on-point methods of engaging the audience--multimedia/powerpoint, engaging speaking, handouts, etc. all will be even more valuable as a method of engaging the audience.

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