How our high-speed world is already changing the next generation — and what it means for the future of the Church.
“Historical generations are not born. They are made.” —Robert Wohl
“Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.” —Ecclesiastes 1:4
If you haven’t noticed, the world is changing. Fast.
Technological advancements like driverless cars, robotics, 3D printing, and the “Internet of things” will soon rule our digitally-driven culture. A tech blog predicts by 2023 that 90-percent of the planet will own a supercomputer…in their pocket.
The digital revolution we’re currently experiencing has introduced monumental change. In less than two decades, it’s transformed a Gutenberg-Newtonian “enlightenment” and “industrial” modern universe into a global, image-driven, fluid, fast, “open source” Einstein multiverse. What was once science fiction is now science faction.
It’s this world our youngest generation is learning to embrace, explore, and enjoy.
Meet the iTechs
Since 2005, a new generation has emerged in our story. Unlike previous generations, the iTechs will experience unprecedented technological and cultural change in their lifetimes. Many futurists predict this generation will see the end of the printed book, postal service, social security numbers, satellite/cable television, disc media, and “brick and mortar” education. They will witness holographic technology, cloning, cashless societies, retina identification, and cryonic resurrections. In the Church, they will lead a revolution that reimagines spiritual practices, traditions, ministry, worship, preaching, and teaching.
That’s why I call this generation the iTech Generation.
Technology is what distinguishes them from previous generations.
This generation (born 2005 to present) already has been given other monikers: iGen, Posts, Centennials, and Plurals. Renowned historians and sociologists William Strauss and Neil Howe (who coined the term “Millennials”) tag this cohort as the “Homeland Generation.” A lazier label might be the ubiquitous “Gen Z”—because it explains little and is attributed more to Millennials born between 1994-2010.
In contrast, the “iTech” moniker speaks to a digital psyche framed by the Apple revolution (iPod, iTunes, iPad, iPhone, and iWatch). The “i” reflects how this generation will personalize their life and “individualize” how they learn, work, give, serve, shop, communicate, worship, and play. The “tech” refers to the great technological changes that have emerged already in their short lifetimes, most notably social media (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram).
So what’s all this mean to your church and, more importantly, to your children’s ministry? How must congregations reimagine programming to reach the iTech generation?
The answers aren’t easy, but they’re best understood through three consequences of growing up in a cyberculture.
You might say today’s iTech Generation is growing up 3D. Digital. Decentralized. Deconstructive. Let’s unpack each one.
Born since 2005, the iTechs have experienced the full emergence of a digital multiverse. From USB to GPS, NetFlix to ApplePay, 3D to virtual reality, Google glasses to holograms, the iTechs are awash in innovative technology. It took the printing press a century to reach a cultural tipping point. It took television decades. But social media reached critical mass in less than five years. In 1980, IBM released the first-gigabyte hard drive. It was as big as a fridge, weighed 550 pounds, and cost $40,000. Today, 100 gigs of cloud storage is $12/year through Amazon.
Moreover, the iTechs are interacting differently with technology. Boomers dropped needles on vinyl, Gen X inserted cassettes, and Millennials pressed play for CDs. The iTechs will stream their music, television, movies, and games (rendering physical media obsolete). Unlike the “mouse” world of older generations, the iTechs manipulate “touch screens.” In the future, these screens will operate by voice command and vaporize when not needed.
Essentially, the iTech Generation is inheriting a digital, wireless, “swipe-and-pinch” cloud and screen world.
But there’s more.
The iTechs are a post-911 generation. They won’t remember much of the Great Recession, even though its shadow will always follow them. The Great Recession, coupled with the rise of a digital economy, has ended the Industrial age. Consequently, the iTechs will experience the final collapse of the middles: middle management, middle class, mainframe computers, mainstream press, and mainline religion. It’s already happening. Malls and big box stores are in trouble. In 2017 more Christmas shoppers purchased online than in-store.
Three profound technological evolutions have occurred in the iTech’s short lifetime.
They’ve gone from:
- hard drives to clouds
- cable/satellite to stream
- “point and click” to “touch and swipe.”
Consequently, attention spans have drastically reduced to around four minutes (the average length of a YouTube video). Furthermore, learning is no longer dominated by a few voices who control, even censor, knowledge. Google flattened information, Twitter flattened communication, Facebook flattened relationships, and Snapchat flattened images. In a flat world, anyone can go anywhere at any time.
Most cultural institutions have adapted to this fast and fluid world, but the church and education continue to keep their feet stuck in the past. But they can’t for much longer.
Certainly, children’s ministries must double down on faith formation and review our educational strategies if we hope to remain relevant and effective in the next decade. After all, we cannot allow the iTechs to travel the same path as the Millennials— who experienced the finest in children’s ministry programming, funding, professional expertise, curricula, and facilities—only to exit the church door at graduation. With the Millennial generation, children’s ministries mostly taught kids to conform and perform. It’s now critical that we empower iTechs to be transformed to follow Jesus.
After all, in a digital culture, what’s fake can look very real.
And if we’re not careful, we can unintentionally communicate the Good News as “fake news,” especially with programs, events, and ministries that are overly staged. Just like adult formats, many kids’ ministries present a “show.” Such presentations may entertain, but do they transform? They may attract numbers, but do they invite change? Discipleship must be interactive, experiential, and image-soaked for the iTech. They desire to be in the story, part of the experience and connected to what’s real. Jesus already gives us a working strategy. Most of his teaching happened on hilltops, beside roads, in boats, inside upper rooms, and around town. He used wheat, boats, vineyards, nets, trees, and other objects as lessons.
I also believe we must employ (not downplay) technology and interact with digital resources. I love God’s Word, but let’s be honest: the Bible is a “book” (a form of technology). It’s critical we also engage the iTechs using 21st Century technology through age-appropriate strategies. Read Scripture from a smartphone. Google biblical topics. Encourage artistic expression through digital formats. We must imagine the faith growth we want children to experience and employ later in life through a digital lens.
In their captivating leadership book The Starfish and The Spider: The Power of Leaderless Organizations, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom illustrate decentralization using a starfish. Starfish can lose a limb and grow a new appendage because the power of the starfish is decentralized throughout the organism. In contrast, spiders are more easily incapacitated, crippled, and even killed due to their centralized nature. Our new cyber culture teems with decentralized organizations, websites, and media outlets like Wikipedia, YouTube, Craig’s List, #metoo campaigns, Isis terror groups, Celebrate Recovery, and house churches.
Thomas Friedman wrote an equally helpful book that documents how a digital economy creates a “flat” world. But what does that mean or look like? I propose a flat society is an F-A-T culture—and the iTech Generation is experiencing it firsthand.
The F-A-T Culture
First, a decentralized world is fluid. It’s always moving, shifting, and changing. A fluid culture is comfortable with contradiction. Go to Starbucks and order a “tall” and you get “small.” Or eat at Outback Steakhouse where “no rules means just right.” This fluidity immerses our culture in new ethical dilemmas and moral questions, particularly with gender and human sexuality. You may be born male but that doesn’t mean you can’t “self-identify” as female. Even ethnicity is now considered fluid. It’s no wonder children’s ministries struggle to minister to children grappling with their gender and sexuality.
Second, a decentralized culture is accessible. We live in a 24/7/365 world. The old world was squared and boxed (with cords attached) to “time and space.” But just try to explain a phone booth to an iTech! Have you noticed, in a world that’s constantly changing, that it’s your phone number that remains constant (no matter where you live)?
For children’s ministries, this accessibility provides both opportunity and abuse. Digital technology allows children to access information for which they’re not ready. It also permits parents to connect, hover, even control. Accessibility means a camera is always on you. The iTech generation swims comfortably in these “open” waters.
Finally, a “flat and fat” decentralized world is temporary, even transparent. Hard drives are dying because everything is now stored in a cloud. Is there anything more “temporary” or “transparent” than a “cloud?” A transparent culture is readily seen in Facebook posts, SnapChat photos, and Twitter feeds. Profanity, violence, and sexual content are common television fare while pornography remains the dark underbelly of the Internet.
Children’s ministries will need to equip iTech children and their parents to navigate an increasingly “open-source,” X-rated culture. It’s no longer a matter of “if” but “when.” The Internet has changed the rules.
The most compelling consequence of a cyberculture is its deconstructive nature and how it influences the way we understand and process truth. The iTech generation is growing up in a world where objectivity is questioned and lies and truth are presented as equal. They also live in a politically hostile, culturally fragmented, and spiritually tolerant world that normalizes fake news and positions disagreement as hate.
Who really knows what’s true anymore?
In the 1960s the French philosopher Jacques Derrida originated a school of philosophy called deconstructionism. Derrida challenged traditional interpretations of reality, certainty, and truth; particularly the words we employ to frame ideas.
Objectivity is an illusion to the deconstructionist. All truth is relative to the individual, they argue. Consequently, to understand truth (or another’s perception of truth) it’s necessary to “deconstruct.” We must remove the biases and recognize the influences (background, ethnicity, experiences, education). Derrida argued that this process was unending. Nevertheless, the imperfection of objectivity eventually became a mainstream cultural belief.
Today’s children are inheriting a world that accepts all truth as relative, including religious truth. For many, this is a dangerous idea and, if taken to its logical end, produces atheism, agnosticism, and nihilism. Those sympathetic to the idea argue this philosophy as more honest, even accurate. After all, what is truth? And how can we know it? Pilate asked Jesus the same question.
Ironically, even though objectivity has been dismissed, many still believe in Absolute Truth (including the agnostic). The (Absolute) Truth is still out there. It’s like sunlight. And what color is sunlight? No colors? All colors? Yellow? White? There’s much doubt in that answer. But when sunlight is refracted it becomes a rainbow of colors, each one distinct and partial. Many argue this is a better approach to Truth. Maybe all truth is relative (different colors) but that doesn’t mean Absolute Truth (sunlight) doesn’t exist. Remember, Jesus claimed to be THE Truth (John 14:6). He was the True Son Light.
A deconstructive culture holds unique challenges for those who teach biblical Truth to children. It demands less lecture and more conversation, fewer periods and more question marks, fewer arrivals and more journeys. Learning for the iTech child needs to be interactive, experiential, affective, and process-oriented.
The Truth is still the Truth.
God’s Word is still God’s Word.
But how we communicate and live biblical truth will require grace, tolerance, creativity, and respect.
The iTech child is certainly growing up 3D—digital, decentralized, and deconstructive—and this fact certainly creates new opportunities, challenges, and needs.
We mustn’t forget that this generation will lead the church from 2030 to 2070. They’re the pastors and teachers and leaders of tomorrow’s congregations.
The future of the Church demands a generation that can communicate Truth in a post-Christian, post-Church, and post-modern world.
Even if that world is one we still only imagine.
Dr. Rick Chromey is founder and president of MANNA! Educational Services International, a nonprofit organization that services churches with innovative, complimentary “edutrainment” for leaders, teachers, pastors, and parents.
For more great information like this in every issue, subscribe today to Children’s Ministry Magazine!