Once upon a time, if you wanted to communicate with someone, you spoke to them, sent a letter, or phoned them from a phone box in the street, requiring loads of change or the ‘house phone’ in the hall.
This probably sounds like the dark ages: but it was actually less than 35 years ago. The rate of change in digitalisation, technology and the internet in the last 20 years has been phenomenal.
In 2006, 17 million people were logging on to the internet. By 2014, 38 million adults in Great Britain accessed the internet daily. Accessing the internet via mobile phones more than doubled between 2010 & 2014. On 25th August 2015, one in seven people on the planet logged onto Facebook.
1980 marks a ‘line in the sand’ between what have been called the ‘digital natives’: those who have never known anything but the digital age, and the ‘digital immigrant’: who has experienced the evolution of a digital age (Palfrey & Gasser, Born Digital: Understanding the first generation of digital natives, 2008). These two groups have fundamentally different understandings and worldviews of ‘the world’. The world of the digital immigrant where digitalisation is strange, inherently suspicious, constantly changing and needs to be ‘kept up with’. The world of the digital native, where the digitalisation and the internet just ‘is’.
Why does this matter? Think of a young person in a church: checking their phone, reading their bible online during a church service, connected by social media and comfortably immersed in online presence. Then, a ‘digital immigrant’ opens the service by requesting that everyone turns off their phones. To our young people this is akin to shutting off the oxygen supply – and for some, it requires they ‘turn off’ their bible!
The digital native generation in general are:
- Constantly connected to a world of immersive entertainment and immediate communication:
- Self-creating in the social media landscape of individualised profiles
- Immersed in an image driven online world. The ‘selfie’ being the ultimate customisation of any landscape.
- ‘Friends’ with the world, but in relationship with increasingly few.
- Wired for speed: Existing in a state of ‘continuous partial attention’: keeping tabs on everything while never truly focusing on anything, risking a superficial engagement with life itself.
Why does this matter?
Most churches are struggling to connect with the digital generation. According to Christian Research, the Church in the UK will have lost an estimated 1.1 million children between 1990 & 2020. It is predicted that in the year 2020, 183,700 children aged under-15 will attend church compared to 375,300 in 2010.
The digital age challenges us to think differently about faith, young people & ourselves. What if we understood this transition as God’s latest way to equip his people to fulfil the great commission, resisting the approach of the Victorians who, when exploring new cultures sought to recreate the gospel in the culture of the sending nation, rather than understanding the land God had called them to.
This raises significant questions for all of us:
How can we inhabit online spaces with digital natives? Twitter reminds us we are ‘followers’ every day & that we have followers who listen to what we say. Used proactively social media offers the opportunity to communicate what God is doing in our lives every day as a catalyst for a more mindful daily experience of God, as we intentionally seek God’s presence daily. How might we reach the millions of young people engaging in worlds such as online gaming? Rather than seeking to pull young people away from their online life, what if Christians were to be found in the places the young people already inhabit?
How can we include a generation who are not used to being passive recipients of the wisdom of others? This will require more than a token nod at ‘All age worship’, rather a wholescale re-evaluation of what it means to worship.
How can we lead those wired for speed, entertainment & instant gratification into a deep experience of God, resisting superficiality in exchange for a deeper commitment to God, without seeking to pull them back to a pre-digital era?
Ultimately, whether digital immigrant or digital native, we are called to follow God’s command to go & make disciples of all nations, resting securely in the assurance of God repeated over 365 times in scripture ‘do not be afraid.’
The digital revolution has not taken God by surprise or diminished his desire to reach his people. We need to be open to the new, respectful of what has been, and balance safeguarding restraints with the challenge of new communication methods. Committed to seizing the opportunity to build bridges between all generations and Jesus by exploring new and strange lands, rather than reinforcing the walls that seek to keep us apart.
You can read Liz’s Grove Booklet about reaching digital natives, buy your copy here – Youth Ministry in a Digital Age: Understanding and Reaching a Generation of Digital Natives