Millennial Faith – Part 2: A Church for Makers

I teach a senior seminar class in communication topics every fall. The format is reading and discussion. I curate a selection of topical texts for my students and together we read and discuss our way through them in our 15 weeks together. One of the things I have observed is how the nature of the discussion changes when even one person is absent from the table—sometimes dramatically. We “create” the discussion each time we meet in such a way that every learner matters, and we tangibly feel the presence or absence of presence of each person in our seminar group. Every interaction we have together is fundamentally different, even if it is my sixth or seventh time leading the group through the same material.

Contrast that with the prevailing evangelical church model today—one of large group gatherings featuring high-end music performance and teaching—that works against the relevancy of the individual that attends. Simply stated, it matters not if one attends or doesn’t attend the weekly service. The experience created at the large group level is unaffected by any individual. In this model it is only the individual that is affected by their presence in the service. There is little or no interdependence. Much like swimming in the ocean, the individual gets wet and experiences the refreshment of the cool water, but the ocean is unaffected by their presence. Generationally this consumer model has appeared to be successful with Boomers and even Gen Xers.

simmelIn 1902 German Sociologist, Georg Simmel considered the impact of group size on the sociological forms those groups take. He noted that there was a stifling impact on individuals immersed in large collectives: “It is this large number which paralyzes the individual element and which causes the general element to emerge at such a distant form it that is seems as if it could exist by itself, without any individuals, to whom in fact it often enough is antagonistic.”

At a certain point, the large group is perpetuated without meaningful connection to the individual. “The large group gains its unity… only at the price of a great distance between all of these structures and the individual,” Simmel wrote. The value of the individual ceases to matter apart from what can be quantified.

Yet, it seems, this quantification is all anyone can talk about with regard to millennials and Christianity. The blogosphere erupted with responses to the most recent Pew research ostensibly heralding the decline of Christianity in America.

More generationally focused Pew research from 2010 found young people much less likely to affiliate with any religious tradition or to identify themselves as part of a Christian denomination. One-in-four adults under age 30 (25%) were unaffiliated, describing their religion as “atheist,” “agnostic” or “nothing in particular.” This compares with less than one-fifth of people in their 30s (19%), 15% of those in their 40s, 14% of those in their 50s and 10% or less among those 60 and older.

Use of the term “affiliation”—the quantitatively measured membership roll of a religious denomination or church body—seems indicative of what makes millennials different. Again, Simmel’s ideas are on point:

The super-individual character of the group, the fact that its form no longer depends upon any contents of the component individuals, is nowhere seen in a more absolute and emphatic manner than in the reduction of the principles of organization to purely arithmetic relations. – Georg Simmel

Attend a large evangelical church on a Sunday morning and ask yourself if your presence there would fundamentally change the service experience in any way other than adding to the size of the audience and for anyone other than yourself.

This is where Simmel resonates with the generational data. Millennials have a high need to count—and count for more than their objective value as statistics. Myriad references to the rise of the “nones” in much of the recent church research on this topic masks the reality that millennials seek something more than affiliation. This is not the generation of auto clubs, AARP or the American Express card where “membership has its privileges.”

While Boomers and GenExers could be said to be individualists and self-reliant in different ways, milliennials exhibit an individualism that craves significance through collaboration and co-creation: the individual is most valued in relation to the social group.

In a December Forbes article by Micah Solomon touting 2015 as “the year of the millennial,” Alex Castellarnau at Dropbox.com characterized millennials as “a generation that wants to co-create the product, the brand.” Soloman agrees, with the caveat, “as long as they believe their say matters to the company in question.”

Companies that understand this and figure out ways to engage in this co-creation relationship with millennials will have an edge. – Alex Castellarnau

The prevailing church model puts inordinate resources in to getting people to attend—to show up. Gabe Lyons characterizes The Next Christians as a generation that strongly believes “…no one solves anything by merely showing up.” Instead, “The next Christians are provoked to do something when they arrive on the cultural scene.” And that something must not be filling traditional church roles that prop up and perpetuate the existing consumer church model. Rather, Lyons continues, “…they create culture that can inspire change. They create organizations, services, and goods—art, films, music, campaigns, projects, media, churches, and businesses—anything that incarnates Christ.”

In order for the creative impulse to be realized, an individual must have subjective value within in their social group.

In the small group, by contrast, the individual’s views and needs are directly effective, are objects of immediate consideration. – Georg Simmel

Try to forget, for a moment, that Simmel uses the phrase “small group.” Writing in 1902 he certainly is not referring to modern church programs that seek to infuse more community and discipleship into large, impersonal churches. Simmel writes more fundamentally of group size indicating a sociological tipping point between one’s individual presence in a group being significant and even essential as a subject, and that presence being largely irrelevant when objectified as part of a larger quantity.

To understand the millennial disaffiliation from the consumer church model, one needs to understand the characteristics that are coming to distinguish this generation. A 2012 MTV Strategic Insights study entitled “Generation Innovation” found considerable evidence to refute the notion that millennials are entitled or coddled.

We found a vibrant and strong fixer/maker/builder culture where nearly 3 in 4 of Millennials believe [they are] starting a movement to change old, outdated systems. Put more broadly, if the American Dream isn’t working as promised, Millennials will take it upon themselves to iterate the next “version” of America. – Nick Shore, Senior Vice President of Strategic Consumer Insights and Research for MTV.

In step with that strong proclivity for creativity and meaning, Solomon notes that millennials “care about what’s genuine and authentic. This interest falls somewhere between a purely aesthetic preference and a search for honesty.”

I recently received a tweet from a local millennial audaciously announcing the launch of a newsletter featuring handmade goods. Think about that. In the age of mobile technology and social media, a millennial is using an old medium to generate marketplace interest in handmade goods. And he’s right on the trend. Handmade goods are gaining popularity, led by a wave of creative millennials.

Handmade happens on a small scale. It is necessarily subjective. The craftsperson, inventor, artist or maker leaves their fingerprints on their work. Handmade is the epitome of authenticity.

some text John J. Thomsen, author of Jesus, Bread, and Chocolate: Crafting a Handmade Faith in a Mass-Market World, describes a realization he had as he compared his regular mass market loaf of bread with the delicious bread his friend, a baker by trade, shared with him more than a decade ago. In the age of mass production people have “chosen to sacrifice quality, nutrition, flavor, and integrity in our pursuit of convenience and cost savings. In fact, that kind of trade-off has become one of the prevailing values of our age.”

These industrial age values have profoundly affected how we produce food, how we educate children and how we conduct the church.

As I sat there in the kitchen tasting my friend’s bread I started thinking about all of the other things we have sacrificed on the altar of convenience and industrialism. … the squishy loaf of plastic-wrapped bread on my counter reminded me of the ways…the church had taken on certain toxic values of the Industrial Revolution far more that she had shaped those values. – John J. Thompson

The generational trend toward seeking meaningful creativity and hand-crafted authenticity, along with the data suggesting the apparent rejection of the industrial producer-consumer model of church, points toward a new millennial ecclesiology.

Our Internet connectivity is just fine. The rest of our lives is a different story. We are hopelessly disconnected. Church, you can be a powerful remedy if you stop posing as a Fortune 500 company scheming to sell a product. – Jonathan, from Dear Church: An open letter from one of those millennials you can’t figure out

This is what pierces the filter bubble—the sharpness of the real; the penetrating reality of a hands-on community incarnating Jesus.

At the ground level, what does a church consist of that is made, or co-created, with parishioners?

I return to the analogy I began with in Part 1. Clay Shirky made a prediction about what would replace the public good of accountability journalism that the newspaper industry long provided now that the Internet had fundamentally changed the economics of the industry. In short, he asserts no one model will replace newspapers, but rather the next “step needs to be vast and varied experimentation, not the transfer of allegiance from one institution to another.” The state of affairs for the church is the same. We must let a thousand flowers bloom.

And while I want to avoid proposing anything formulaic in this regard, in light of Simmel’s sociology of groups, my strong proclivity is that church communities going forward, in the midst of this experimental and entrepreneurial necessity, must intentionally strive toward ways of gathering together for worship where every person matters as a co creator, and that their presence or absence makes a qualitative difference in the ongoing experience of the group.

The data is shouting at the church to stop trying to get millennials to just show up and, instead, “make” something entirely new with them.

—————-

Simmel quotations taken from Kurt Wolff (Trans.), The Sociology of Georg Simmel. New York: Free Press, 1950.

Lyons quotation take from Gabe Lyons, The Next Christians. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.

Advertisements

Millennial Faith – Part 1: The Decline of Church and the Rise of Filter Bubbles

Journalism in the print dominated era was largely able to avoid having advertisers censor or otherwise interfere with news reporting, something known as “commercial capture,” because there were few, if any, advertising alternatives available. For example, GM would never challenge an unfavorable story by threatening to pull its advertising dollars largely because they had nowhere else to buy their media. Clay Shirky, NYU media professor, aptly noted this in a well-known blog posts in 2009.

Shirky As Shirky noted then, that deferential treatment of publishers changed in the digital era. In short, Internet companies such as Ebay, Craigslist, Monster and myriad social media upended the political economy of the newspaper business:

With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data. It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem. – Clay Shirky

There are some interesting parallels to draw between the organizational and economic models of newspapering in the industrial age, and the modernist evangelical church, especially as it concerns certain effects of mobile networked communication media on millennials.

In light of Shirky’s well-worn thesis on the plight of newspapers in the digital era, I thought I’d create a “find and replace” thought exercise to show how analogous this is with the exodus of millennials from evangelical churches. In reading the statements below, replace the underlined words with those in the parentheses that follow.

Find and Replace:

For years newspapers (churches) didn’t have to be beholden to advertisers’ (parishioners) concerns about content (theology and dogma) because publishers (clergy) controlled the only viable advertising medium (spiritual and social support system) available. Publishers (clergy) could avoid this commercial capture (church consumer capture) because, as Shirky puts it, “Where else you gonna go?”

Yes, people have been church hopping for decades — people have always been able to vote with their feet — but something is going on generationally that points to a new dynamic. After a spate of articles in the past few weeks laying blame for plummeting millennial engagement with the church on the usual suspects (pluralism, lack of critical thinking, the decline of apologetics, post modernism, consumerism), something just didn’t ring true with my experience of millennials as a college professor, and I began to pull on a thread that seems to connect some of the disparate sources I’ve been reading and listening to in the past few weeks.

All of the issues people have had with churches—the reasons millennials give for leaving the Evangelical churches behind noted in recent research—are largely the same as they have been for decades and even generations, as Richard Beck, professor and department chair of psychology at Abilene Christian University, points out.

…the church has always been this way. Is the church of 2010 much different from the church of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s? I don’t think so. So, yes, the church is screwed up. Always has been. The church has been a depressing constant over the generations. – Richard Beck

What has changed is the ability to mediate and even titrate our spiritual and social support structure.

In the silence of connection, people are comforted by being in touch with a lot of people — carefully kept at bay. We can’t get enough of one another if we can use technology to keep one another at distances we can control. – Sherry Turkle, psychologist and professor at MIT

Traditional church attendance, interacting with others in unmediated and uncontrollable context, for some millennials has become as unbearable as using their mobile device to make an actual phone call. Technology has given them a measure of control over their relationships, something the church cannot provide (nor should it). Yet, having been conditioned by an industrial-producer model of church programmed with the base code of consumer culture, they find it quite natural to leverage technology to “optimize” their experiences of faith and the church.

ShirkyThis leads to another analogous concept that seems pertinent here: Eli Pariser’s filter bubble. (You can access a full definition through the link. In short, it is how people become increasingly isolated in their own cultural or ideological bubbles by digital technology that can monetize their personal data). This individual bubble effect is further inflated by our ability to control our social interactions and information sources through social media.

Many Christians have spent their lives within the church “bubble,” a word most readily understood to be the protective insulation one gains from affiliation with their church subculture. A strong social contract has maintained the boundaries of this bubble over time: be likeminded and the medium of the church will filter out dissonance, deception, temptation, etc. In the digital era, individual filter bubbles have largely transcended the old borders.

As one is able to inflate and maintain their own filter bubble, he or she becomes less bound within the church bubble, as everything is more subject to their individual bubble. Even if one still subscribes to the dogma and practices of their original church subculture, all of that content and connection must now transcend the mediated membrane of the individual’s bubble. The church becomes subject to a person’s ability to control the input and mediation of social interactions and information. What was once a relational–social process is obsolesced and becomes an objectified input source — one among many.

In short, the existence of individual filter bubbles that propagate digitally makes the existence of larger bubbles propagated offline largely irrelevant (or a lot less relevant). The priesthood of all believers is now the oracle of each individual believer.

Percentage of people affiliating as white evangelical Protestants:

  • 27% of people age 65-plus
  • 22% of people age 50 to 64
  • 17% of people age 35 to 49
  • 11% of percent age 18 to 34

– Public Religion Research Institute, American Values Atlas, 2014.

The challenge posed by the phenomenon is that neither those in church leadership, nor millennials recognize this filtering process is occurring. The sharp decline in the religious affiliation of successive generations is largely attributed to immediately visible factors (styles of worship, service content, bad PR, etc.) — all with much hand-wringing. The presence of filter bubble millennials doesn’t negate the other factors, but we also shouldn’t expect solving those issues will change much in terms of the generations filling the church pews in the digital era. One bubble has popped as the other has inflated.

Next: Part 2 – Millennial faith: A church for makers

Refrigerators With X-Ray Vision Want To See What You’re Hungry For

Our 16-year-old Amana refrigerator is starting to show its age, and we’ve recently started to think about all the options for replacing it. So much has changed in home appliance technology, and I’m the most intrigued by this “smart” model from LG with a networked, touch screen computer that helps manage the family food and grocery comportment.
LG Smart Fridge

Some academics have begun to argue that the primary commodity of commercial media has shifted from mass audience attention to individual and inferential data culled from one’s online identity and activity. This “net” of personal data collection and analysis now extends from the desktop to the smartphone to the growing realm of networked devices we are becoming increasingly reliant on. Even your fancy new Internet-connected, wifi-enabled refrigerator can generate data that can be monetized.

Mass media advertising has always been low in efficiency, with the main bargain skewed in favor of the audience through free entertainment and information product. Today, the terms of this bargain are being rewritten. Instead of broadcast entertainment, news and information (delivered at scale and driven to a certain level of quality by competing for audience attention and advertising revenue), we find an emerging ecosystem of social media applications and devices that are increasingly defining a new social contract. Taken together these technologies comprise a new commercial medium that becomes more valuable to advertisers as we use it. Beyond monetizing human attention, the medium seeks to monetize total human involvement: Attention + Activity + Identity (what you see, what you do and who you are). McLuhan

Recently, while doing some media theory research for the current course I’m teaching, I stumbled across a fascinating online video of Marshall McLuhan giving a talk in 1974. Such discoveries are often little treasures of prescience, and this one is no exception, as he somehow reaches out of the past to describe media effects being experienced in this present moment.

Another strange effect of this electric environment is the total absence of secrecy. No form of secrecy is possible at electric speed. At electric speed everything becomes X-Ray. – Marshall McLuhan

Next time you look in the refrigerator, your refrigerator may also be looking back at you and providing a valuable data stream that is sold to commercial interests. Your lengthy and often unread end user agreement may even specify that all this data is generated anonymously, and is, therefore, benign. Yet, how important is it that some unseen and unknown commercial entity doesn’t know your specific name or even your SSN if they do know where you live; what you like to eat; the age and weight of you, your spouse and your children; what you all like to do online; what you watch on TV; where you travel in your car; and ultimately every byte of behavior and preference data a human being can generate each day? What’s in a name when the rest of you is worth so much more money?

Concerning the Object and Subject of Love

It’s been both fascinating and annoying to have the past two weeks of social media chock full of advertising promoting the 50 Shades of Grey film and articles upon articles of critiques, commentaries, film reviews and denouncements. The novel and the film have become the object catalyzing strong reactions, as well as a means for bloggers generate social media currency and expand their audience. The web analytics for this phenomenon are off the chart (249 million Google web hits on the title alone). Lord knows what this poorly reviewed flick will net at the box office given the marketing, hype and hysteria it has generated.

This certainly makes writing a blog post of my own the pot calling the kettle black. Yet, at the risk of being accused of clickbait, I stumbled upon a couple of references spanning Martin Buber and C.S. Lewis this week that linked a key idea of human relationships and communication to 50 Shades and made it worth sharing in the form of a post.
Buber
This past Sunday Bruxy Cavey, teaching pastor at The Meetings House in Toronto, gave a teaching on Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well from John 4:10. While I highly recommend the entire message, toward the end Cavey provided an easy-to-understand overview of Martin Buber’s I & Thou—admittedly better that some of the times I have attempted to describe this in my communication classroom. The basic idea is that there are two modes of relatedness between people: one of relating to the other as an object, a means to an end; and one of relating to the other as a subject, through what Buber describes as dialogue—the “inter-human.”
Buber
Having been reminded of the I & Thou concept while listening to The Meeting House podcast on my drive to work, I was struck by a correlation to this C.S. Lewis quote from The Four Loves in an article I came across in my social media feed (reposted from a blogger previously unknown to me):

Sex is a sensory pleasure; that is, an event occurring within one’s own body. We use a most unfortunate idiom when we say, of a lustful man prowling the streets, that he ‘wants a woman.’ Strictly speaking, a woman is just what he does not want. He wants a pleasure for which a woman happens to be the necessary piece of apparatus. How much he cares about the woman as such may be gauged by his attitude to her five minutes after fruition (one does not keep the carton after one has smoked the cigarettes).

In many ways, 50 Shades’ Christian Grey is a metaphor of the kind of alienation that is all too common in a culture where more and more of our relationships subsist in mediated, even titrated, human contact. We shun the openness and vulnerability required for I & Thou relationships in favor of connections where we can control the outcome and get what we want. Christian Grey’s need for a “contract” with his submissive partner is the ultimate symbol of a thoroughly objectified relationship—which is quite honestly the relational position where such abuse and exploitation occur, as Lewis points out.

This is why I feel it is important to recognize the great potential for all of us to lose our ability to relate to one another as subjects rather than objectified means to an end when more and more of our interpersonal communication is digitally mediated to afford us more control, novelty and less vulnerability. Research is showing a lower readiness for first-hand encounters as people gravitate to simulations or personal technologies that afford relational control.

On Valentines Day 2015 it is helpful to reflect on the temporality and exhaustibility of objectified love and the perpetual nature of love comprised in the I & Thou of two subjects. Let the 50 Shades conversation in the culture cause us to embrace a higher love, just as Jesus related to, and with, the Samaritan woman and called her to an eternal life of the same:

Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.

TV News, Authenticity and its Discontents

The stunningly fast descent of NBC News anchor Brian Williams over a gross embellishment of his 2003 reporting of the Iraq invasion, has prompted a very public discussion between media professionals and the public about journalistic integrity and personal branding in an image-driven medium. Here we have the oldest of news mediums (the Stars and Stripes newspaper) scooping a story by closely following the socially mediated conversations of their core audience (U.S. troops and veterans) in a new medium (Facebook and Twitter) that ultimately serves as a corrective of network television news media.

some text

Some have noted that the public esteem for the giants of television news past (the Walter Cronkites and the Edward R. Murrows) has been irreversibly damaged by the more recent prevarications of Dan Rather and now Williams, not to mention the increasingly dominant partisan media of cable news. In addition, the concreteness of television’s visual image, which in the past naturally lent itself toward audience perceptions of authenticity, has been superseded in the hyper-real era of Photoshop, CGI, reality television and advertising saturation for younger generations of the audience with a highly developed sense of the inauthentic (and even cynicism).

Unrelated to the Williams story, Maker Studios’ chief content officer Erin McPherson, speaking at the Interactive Advertising Bureau Annual Leadership Meeting in Phoenix on Monday, said this about advertising to millennials: “The new authority is authenticity.” For McPherson, this statement was about old brands taking the risk to allow new media content creators, the kind Maker Studios fosters, to communicate about brands authentically in order to cultivate greater brand loyalty through their strong audience relationships.

I couldn’t help but take her statement, “the new authority is authenticity,” and comment on the challenge this presents to network television news in cultivating younger audiences. Perhaps more than any other major news network anchor in the past decade, Williams had managed to build a new audience among millennials–owing to his winning personality, engagement with popular culture and compelling storytelling. It turns out, however, that there may be little difference between the plying of his story craft and the army of Photoshop “artists” that create hyper-real super models in today’s advertising. With word today of Williams’ six-month suspension from NBC, his road to reclaim audience trust should be paved with authenticity. The question is, what does authenticity look like now?

Serial Draws New Attention to Podcasting

In his book, Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky states, “Communications Tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.”

Perhaps the timeframe for getting boring has become shorter in the digital age. The Email forwarding of web articles, for example, became the key medium mobilizing Catholics around the Boston Globe‘s investigative coverage of Catholic priest abuse scandals in the early 2000s.

This also may be the case with podcasting, where the much-hyped emergence of the technology in the mid 2000s had faded into the background noise of social media–until recently.

some text
Serial, the hit podcast from the creators of This American Life and WBEZ public radio in Chicago, may have prompted a dramatic turn in the prospects of it’s central figure, currently serving a life sentence for murder: Serial’s Adnan Syed Will Get a Chance to Appeal His Conviction.