Generational Disorientation and Grieving Blockbuster

By Joe LaGuardia

This past week, a Swami, Rabbi, Christian Scientist, and I (the Baptist) went to a local private high school to provide three workshops on our respective faith communities.  I know it sounds like the start of a bad joke, but we were there as part of a larger conference on “sharing our stories.”  Each of us had about 10 minutes to present who we were and our faith.

As the workshops got underway — with about a dozen or so students in each one — we realized that all our planning for telling our stories, sharing anecdotes, and providing illustrations to express our faith fell short.

The rabbi, for instance, opened by recalling a scene from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  After realizing that no one in the workshops (but one!) had heard of the book, he re-calibrated his lesson.  He referred to the hit, prime time show, Big Bang Theory instead, but again fell short.  No one (apparently under the age of 30) watches Big Bang Theory.  When he made a joke about Sheldon Cooper, no one laughed.

I tried a different tact as I wanted to explain various Baptist visions of how to live out the Gospel.  I asked if anyone knew who Billy Graham was.  No one.  I gave a brief introduction and went on with the story.  Then I asked who was assassinated that day 50 years ago–April 4, 1968.  No one knew that it was Martin Luther King, Jr.  I talked about MLK, by now assuming they never heard of him either.

The swami and the Christian Scientist did no better.  We muddled through three sessions of workshops trying our best to connect our lives with theirs.  We were miserable failures.

During the third and final session, we changed strategies and wanted to hear more from the students.  It was a small group, so we were able to personalize our discussion, so we asked the question: “What do you all do–what do you watch, listen to, talk about?”  The rabbi asked, “Is there anything that you share in common, a favorite TV show?”

The students explained that many of their activities revolved around their families–they spent time fishing and going to the beach, etc.  But when it came time to connect with peers, there were limited opportunities.  There were few common interests they shared, and that meant no common language based on pop culture.

Social media, which I assumed connected young people, only tended to keep them in an algorithmic bubble that showed them what they wanted.  Time on the phone, then, meant less time looking outwards–to books (when we gathered in a large group in the auditorium for the keynote speaker, the speaker asked who read Harry Potter–this, in front of over 200 students; only a couple dozen rose their hands, and the keynote speaker had to re-calibrate too), to movies or television shows, or to radio stations (do young people even own radios anymore?).

No shared platform means no shared pop culture allusions, narratives that frame our relationships, or foundations for a common language.  That young people don’t write anymore means that their ability to communicate beyond Tweets and posts and Snapchats at 130 characters is breaking down–or has become dysfunctional already.

Consider some of the things I read or heard recently:

  • Author Vivek Wadwha of The Driver in the Driverless Car, notes that most young people have never written a full-length letter.  To me, that means that people no longer know how to see, describe, and explore how they feel and how to invite others into their thoughts.
  • Recent reports show that a higher usage of “screen time” results in a higher rate of depression and feelings of isolation or loneliness.
  • The mystery as to why radio stations, television, and even movies are going vintage (how many have been throwing nods to the 1980s and 1970s in look, feel, and music–Thor Ragnorak for instance?) is solved: Corporations know that the over-40 crowd not only consumes that stuff more often than younger generations, we also have more money to spend!

As I spoke with those students in class, I asked them how they even found videos and music on Youtube or Spotify to figure out what to listen to in the first place.  One admitted it was all technology–the media platforms automatically feed students what they like, so why do having choices even matter?

I explained that my favorite Friday-night “date” with my wife was going to a Blockbuster video–where all of the choices of movies were set before us and no one and no robot was going to tell me what I liked!  I could easily go to the slasher-horror section as easily as the romance section, and no one was going to tell me what I was going to watch (I used this point as to why I am a Baptist, and focused on liberty during my talk in that third session).

When I asked them if they had an issue that corporations were literally running their life preferences, they said, “No, we don’t care.  We like what we see, so not really.”  I wanted to talk about The Matrix at that point, but I let that one go–for their sake and mine.

Algorithms matter.  I had a feeling that this bunch won’t make good Baptists, as we Baptists are known for having issues with authority and tyranny.  But then again, maybe that’s why my–and so many other Baptist churches–are struggling to attract young adults in the first place.  We walk on the lawn when the sign says, “Keep off Grass,” and we prefer Bibles to programs that give us the “Verse of the Day.”  We know our heroes — from Graham to MLK– and there ain’t no brand going to take their place.

I am not sure our brief time in high school provided thorough research to draw broader conclusions.  Nor am I apt to make assumptions based on anecdotal evidence.  But if my time with these young people mean anything, then all I can say is that I think that I and my ilk are doomed.  It means that, decades from now, we will get arrested for walking and dancing on the grass.

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The Limits of Technology and the Fullness of Faith

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

This is the second article in a new message series at Heritage Baptist Fellowship, Canton, Georgia, that focuses on finding meaning in a chaotic world.  Find the first article here.

In the 1990s politicians told us about the “information super highway.”  Most of us couldn’t understand what they were talking about then, but today we are smack dab in the middle of the Information Age.

Everything the world has ever known or experienced or discovered is at our fingertips—in our pockets, even. The thoughts and ideas and opinions and experiences of billions of people are catalogued and archived every day on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Tumbler.

So for a generation now, conventional wisdom has supported the idea that more information is the key to better living.  Today, data analysis, feedback systems and performance metrics improve products and services to make our lives better and easier—and our businesses more profitable.

Access to information also makes us more productive. The information age makes same day delivery from Amazon possible—wonder of wonders!  It holds the promise of improving the standard of living and quality of life for people all over the world.

Increasingly, though, we’re discovering the limits of information. And in places where the Information Age has fully blossomed we find ourselves binging on information to distract us from thoughts, relationships, situations, and emotions we’d rather avoid.

Unlimited access to information has some wonderful benefits, but what if we need more?  What if convenience and productivity do not translate into more us becoming fulfilled, grounded, and connected?  What if it takes more than facts and information to build meaningful lives?

Researchers are discovering that our minds and senses are so overly stimulated that our attention spans are shrinking to the vanishing point.

techAt the same time, depth is disappearing from our lives: Depth of relationship, depth of feeling, depth of purpose, just to name a few.  The meaning and rootedness that used to ground us—the physical places and spaces of community that used to connect us–are disappearing.

How can lives full of access to knowledge and stimulation feel so…empty?

Cultural observers have been openly wondering whether the church can survive the upheavals of this new era.  The shift away from physical places and space of community poses a huge challenge to churches, but we still need depth of relationship and feeling and purpose, of rootedness and connectedness.  The church can provide that kind of depth!

At HERITAGE we’re working to organize ourselves around three big ideas and needs that will help weather the Information Age.

Instead of easy answers we desperately want to find HEALTHY WAYS to understand the world and be understood. We’re discovering that answers can’t organize themselves into a coherent worldview that provides order and meaning to life.  In a world full of facts we hunger for understanding.

Instead of facts, we hunger for deeper TRUTH—a truth that’s Google proof.  Maybe even a truth that’s HOLY. There’s a depth to real truth that we often miss when we’re conditioned to search for facts that can be found with a few key strokes. We’re so used to searching for facts that we no longer even know to ask for truth. Truth is deeper than facts.  Truth has roots.  It connects at a spiritual, elemental level.

Truth is searched for, hard-earned, embodied and owned in a way that facts aren’t. Google offers facts; but it doesn’t offer truth.

As we discover the limits of knowledge, we might just be starting to rediscover the benefits of a LIFE of faith–a life that makes us WHOLE.  Knowledge might change how we think and may even change how we live; but we don’t just want to know how to live, we want to know why we live.

The bounded fields of knowledge can’t hold a candle to the unlimited landscape of faith.  Faith leads us to ask questions and a search for truth that knowledge can’t fully address. It leads us to truth instead of facts.

We want understanding, not answers. We hunger for truth, not facts. It’s not knowledge that we yearn for; it’s life! We want a new way to live.  We’ve heard the conventional wisdom. We’ve tried the easy fixes. We’ve experienced all the Information Age has to offer, and we want more.

We want lives that are holier, healthier and more complete than the lives we’re living right now. We want a chance to dream and exist and hope beyond the limits of the present reality. That’s what it means to be human. We were uniquely created to exist on more than information.

Jesus once made a claim about his identity that might be useful as we look to move beyond information. Jesus says, “I am the WAY, the TRUTH, and the LIFE.”  The WAY to understanding, the TRUTH beyond facts, a LIFE that transcends mere knowledge.

Recent experience teaches us that more access to information fails to make us more holy, more healthy, or more whole. That’s precisely what Christ promises to do as we search for truth, understanding and faith.

In a world where nothing is permanent, where even facts seem to change as quickly as you can google them, Christ offers something solid to hold onto—something that keeps us from drowning in a sea of information.

4 Ways to use Social Media for the Gospel

By Joe LaGuardia

Over the past two years, many church visitors found us by our website.  Our online presence is a major draw for our guests, second only to personal invitations.

If that is the case, then it stands to reason that churches, especially those concerned about fulfilling Jesus’ Great Commission, need to think intentionally and “missionally” about the use of social media.

The use of social media is not for the church leadership or administration alone.  Every person in the church must think critically about how social media may harness the power of evangelism and testimony in a world that has entered the digital age.

Meredith Gould, author of The Social Media Gospel, states that a church-wide approach to social media has to do with a church’s philosophy of ministry.  If a church is teaching that each person is a minister called to share the gospel, then the use of social media must come under the lordship of Christ.  No word published should be without some spiritual scrutiny.

There are several models for social media usage that might guide churches–and Christians–on the appropriate use of online communication.

Santa Clara University professor and journalist Elizabeth Dresther, for instance, argues that Christians can keep in mind the acronym, LACE, when online.*

The L stands for listening.  She argues that Christians can use social media by listening to others and assessing the emotions and needs behind the opinions and posts that people often publish.

Ask yourself: What are the concerns that people express in social media?   Do fears, prejudices, or anxiety seem to be a common theme?  How might God’s Word address these fears and empower friends to “love thy neighbor” rather than disparage the unknown?

The A in LACE is attend.  We Christians are asked to be the presence of Christ for others; this can happen in person or online.  Our comments and contributions on social media platforms can attend to people who need encouragement.

C is for connect.  Our digital world gives the illusion that we are relating to each other intimately and in real-time.  Yet, people feel more isolated than ever.

A recent article in the New York Times by Adam Grant revealed that people are less likely to make friends at work because people spend time on online or on phones during breaks instead of talking to co-workers.

We must keep our connections authentic and vibrant.  We cannot settle on being a voyeur in the lives of others, keeping people at arm’s length.  Connecting to people is the intentional act of moving past the “like” button.

The E stands for engage.  Engaging others online for Christ encourages that we share words of edification on our profiles and in emails.

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. (1 Thess. 5:11)

Are we promoting the cause of Christ and challenging people to think in new ways with our communications?  Are we building an alternative community with quality content and thoughtful reflection fitting the Christian faith?

Too often, our engagement is limited to promoting political or theological views that reinforce our embedded beliefs.  Status quo can be dangerous in this setting: if Christian engagement does not inspire transformation and conformity to the image of Jesus, then why share it in the first place?

We all know that social media is a powerful tool in keeping up with friends and family.  It even has the power to shape our day if it exposes us to a heartbreaking story of a loved one in need or bombards us with offensive opinions that linger in our minds well after the computer is turned off.

Likewise, it can be an effective tool for Christ, for it has shown that it can influence people to mobilize and get excited about a cause, religious or otherwise.

Although the Bible did not originate in a digital world, its principles are just as applicable.  We are still commissioned, whether in person, at church, or while surfing the world-wide web, to share the Good News of Jesus’ love, make disciples, and, ultimately, baptize all in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

“Digital Media–It’s All About Relationships,” in Bearings for the Life of Faith (Autumn 2014): 4-8.