Faith and Facebook
The September/October edition of Outreach Magazine features several articles on finding and keeping the next generation. It’s a great issue, so you’ll want to pick one up. You can subscribe to the print edition here. Below is my column in the issue on this generation.
In a recent Wall Street Journal article, leading management consultant Gary Hamel dubs young people “Generation F”—the Facebook Generation. Sure, segments of every age group are jumping on the twit-text-book-space bandwagon. But for the younger generation, these points of contact are not additions to existing means of communication; the electronic world is its own social context for them.
Hamel writes that this generation will expect its social environments of work and play to reflect social characteristics of the Internet. For them, the Web is more than a tool. It shapes the way young people think and communicate. On the Web, contribution is valued more than credentials. On the Web, sharing information, not secrecy, brings power. On the Web, authority comes from the bottom up, not top down, Hamel explains.
Facebook will fade at some point, but these social expectations of the younger generation will remain. The Church as a social context is not exempt from these new expectations. With this in mind, how should the local church engage youth? Our ongoing research suggests three starting points.
Reclaim the locus of community. For many in the older generations, the church was the locus, or central focus, of the community. For better or worse, it was where people congregated to share life’s stories. In many ways, the church has lost its place as a community gathering point with the younger generation. They share life’s stories elsewhere, and often it’s not a physical location.
Churches that reach youth understand how to create a sense of community. They grasp the importance of providing a place where people share their lives. Through our research, we have found that more than 70 percent of the students who stuck to the church said it was because their church provided an environment to connect with others in their life stage. More than 60 percent of those students say that appealing small groups for people in their life stage kept them coming. Their church was not an ancillary add-on. It was a hub for life.
Balance the language temperature. As followers of Christ, we are instructed to contend for the faith. Yet 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 says we are to become like others so we can communicate our faith in a way people understand. Our research bears this out: Churches that are effective in reaching youth seem to maintain that balance—they are neither too hot to culture, nor too cold. Too hot and you become too much like the culture. Too cold and you become an island reaching no one.
Invest with older generations. The younger generation not only needs to connect with one another, but also with people in older generations. Churches may provide a popular ministry geared specifically toward youth, but these students are less likely to stay long term unless adult leaders are investing in their lives.
Our research indicates a strong correlation between the number of adults making a significant investment in a youth’s life and the likelihood that student stays in the church. In fact, 89 percent of youth with zero adult involvement drop out of church. Some in the older generations may not be able to connect on a social media-like level, but youth need this investment to view the church as critical to their life story.
The church is a social environment. It is more living organism than religious institution. God’s people are sent into all contexts. And the Facebook Generation needs to hear why an unchanging faith in Jesus is the only answer to life’s changing story.