I’ve been told several times now that Facebook is mostly for older people (thirties and older). My response is always the same: “So what are teens using now?”
I’m increasingly getting the sense that the answer is something more startling than some new platform or technology. The answer is that they are messaging, posting videos on YouTube, and using other apps like Snapchat and Instagram. What is different? There is no real collecting place. It is all relatively instantaneous–then it goes away.
A message may not even be a sentence. At the most it might be one or two. Twitter only allows 140 characters in an individual tweet. A picture on Snapchat disappears in 10 seconds or less. These technologies are embodiments of a culture that is attention deficit.
How might these changes affect the way we do ministry?
1. First, don’t become a grumpy old man (or woman). “Why I remember the days when we used to listen to an hour long lecture, and we liked it.”
It’s true. Checking your email 30 times in an hour will decrease your productivity. It’s true, multi-tasking is really switch-tasking quickly. And anyone who thinks the average grades in my classes went up when they introduced wireless into the classrooms might think again.
But complaining is an exercise in futility. One of the fundamental principles of ministry is incarnation–meeting people where they are, not expecting them to come up to God’s level. Complaining makes us feel better, but it won’t make your ministry effective in a context like ours (this post is already too long to hold a teenager’s attention).
2. There are virtues at stake–the virtues of silence and Sabbath, for example. There are the virtues of focus and endurance. There is the virtue of being present in someone else’s company. There is the virtue of maturity, which comes from accumulated experience–not a string of disconnected ones.
These are all virtues a minister should continue to address and embody. But it’s counterproductive to present them in a scolding manner. Indeed, we may have to meet our increasingly attention deficit congregations where they are and trick them in a disconnected fashion into these increasingly lost virtues of duration.
3. Effective “sermons” will probably break down into smaller and smaller units, little 5-10 minute segments. I saw Jared Osborne of College Wesleyan preach a few weeks ago. He used several parts of the platform to provide different “scenes” during the sermon. It was as if the sermon consisted of several acts, like a play. He had three different people come up during the sermon and interviewed each one for 2-3 minutes (they were like the points of his sermon).
At one point in the middle when he mentioned speaking in people’s language, the woman signing for people sitting at the front right of the congregation came up and started signing from the platform for the rest of the sermon. This was a multi-sensory, attention deficit sermon at its best. It was exactly the kind of sermon that will be most effective for the generation going to college right now.
4. For a few decades now, we’ve been hearing that the human brain is wired in terms of narrative, that stories are the way to communicate so that it sticks. I realize that narrative preaching is a lot broader than stories. But in keeping with the increased difficulty for the rising generation to follow a long train of thought, we should probably think more in terms of short stories–“parables”–than long narratives. We will communicate better with a string of shorter stories (or problem/solutions) than with a long, continuous one, unless it has multiple scenes and snapshots. Our conversation becomes “snapchats.”
5. Repetition from multiple angles becomes the game, and repetition like a rolling snowball. Each time a basic point is repeated, a little more is added. New dimensions build on old. New connections are added little by little. The need for extended contact becomes clear–and in a way that is intentional about discipleship, where someone is at, and where s/he needs to go next. What is the next “tweet-size” bit that this person needs?
6. How do you build community in a world like this? Shared experiences, as it has always been. Getting together physically is still important for community, although all these moving parts are shared experiences in themselves.
Everything is moving. If you can’t get it to pause much, get it to move together. Get it to bump into each other regularly, even if only for moments in time. The culture is atomizing us, breaking us down into little disconnected bits. It works against continuity. It can work against community.
If we have difficulty getting it to stop, at least we can move together. Anywhere we stop along the way, the Spirit will already be there…