WHERE WE’RE GOING
Once again, a new medium moves a new mood . . . a
new promise pushes a new paradigm . . . a new style sows a new seed.
The results will prove unavoidable, and they "will be very different
from the electronic church that we know from television."1
Futurists usually combine radio, television, and
computer technology into one "electronic" medium. Rex Miller,
however, clearly sees a major difference between the "electronic"
age and our "digital" future. His vision inspired this chapter.
The first computer network appeared about 1969.
Then, the ‘80's saw digital technology as the driving force of the
future. By 1994, the World Wide Web had taken a firm foothold. And
today, this new technology even drives the world’s stock markets.
In other words, the ground has shifted before a
full generation has grown up with this new model.
Church leaders have largely missed this change
because they see only hype for what appears to be glorified office
machines. True, the information highway may be mostly hype today,
but it is an understatement about tomorrow. It may seem a vague
matter of the future, but it will totally change the church.
Future historians will probably pick the year
2,000 as the watershed moment. Whatever the year, the Internet
already stands as a metaphor of what will soon amplify human will
and purpose at a staggering rate, and at a global level.
What will this new church look like?
We already know.
Mirroring the births of the print and electronic
media, computers also empower trends already underway. And—like the
‘60's youth in their time—today’s youth embody these trends. But
today’s "boomers" have forgotten society’s refusal of the youthful
Jesus Movement in the ‘60's and 70's, so—once again—church leaders
are misreading the trends and risking the loss of today’s young.
We forget that the instincts and desires of the
‘60's youth have become mainstream in our churches today. We seem
unaware that the radical ideas of the rebellious baby boomers are
now routine. So we continue forcing our postmodernism on today’s
youth just when postmodernism may be disappearing.2 And
we flaunt our hippie-ish "New Age" beliefs just when we’re entering
a post-hippie age.3
Today’s youth are not baby boomers. In fact, they
and our boomer church leaders are natural enemies! The subculture of
the young deplores boomer values. It despises the soulish narcissism
of its New Age elders. It detests the hollowness of their commercial
spirituality. And, as a result, it screams visceral hostility to any
boomer institution that tells it what to believe.
For their part, the boomers scorn the young’s
irreverent and vulgar videos and movies. They turn in disgust from
the youth’s aggressively unpretty grunge clothes, pierced noses, and
tatoos. And they can’t stand the in-your-face sassiness and
arrogance of its no-commitment "slackers."
This mutual animosity is more than a generation
gap. It’s a paradigm shift, a total misunderstanding. The boomers
have failed to see the unseen sorrows of the first generation of
"latch-key" kids . . . the despairs of their commonly broken homes .
. . or the absurdities of television as surrogate parents.
The boomers have forgotten that these kids are
the first to really sense the absence of moral absolutes . . . the
first children to be robbed of their character . . . undoubtedly,
the last generation to trust in institutional religion.
The boomers overlook the fact that these kids
grew up in a time of economic setback . . . that they are both
unemployed and underemployed . . . and that there is no way they can
pay for the boomers’ old-age social security.
No wonder the young are angry, broken, lonely,
and rootless. No wonder they show a world-weariness beyond their
years. No wonder they struggle so much with the boomers’ version of
But . . . today’s youth know something! They know
a future for which the boomers haven’t a clue. They have earned a
spirituality—though far-out and foreign—that reaches to a greater
depth than that of their elders. And they move easily and knowingly
in the language and learning of the digital age.
The boomers will someday ask their forgiveness.
The Lord’s Song in a Strange Land
If the Church is to sing its song in the New
Millennium, we first must hear the echoing themes between youthful
trends and digital technology. For the same sounds that now resonate
through today’s youth movement and the digital age also resounded in
the First Millennium Church: a new knowledge . . . a new creativity
. . . a new community . . . a new freedom . . . and a new
Like the ancient Hebrews, today’s youth measure
knowledge by experience. Their bodies often know things before their
minds do. They are more spiritual than cognitive.
In short, they see no distinction between spirit
and body . . . mind and emotion.
In place of mandated facts, for example, they
prefer raw experience. Rather than traditional doctrines, they
desire altered states. Instead of left-sided brains, they crave
Nonetheless, they’re still looking for God . . .
but not in the traditional places! In fact, they find their most
meaningful spiritual experiences in popular culture. The prophetic
metaphors . . . chance imageries . . . implicit visions . . . and
endless communions in their movies, videos, CD’s, and Internet
dialogue give them a church-like experience—emotional, uplifting . .
. even caring.
(In fact, their world proves vastly more
spiritual than the earlier pop culture of the boomers.)
Some currents within today’s secular stream "are
sufficient to begin funding a new theology by, for, and about a
generation."4 And the fact that many of their images are
irreverent and angry mean more a longing for faith than a rejection
In all these new images, today’s youth have seen
something everyone else has missed: They intuitively know that the
"language" of language has forever changed. They don’t care anymore
for religious codes and clichés.
They refuse the boomer’s force-fed "five steps to spiritual
victory." For they consider sequential thought outdated and logical
words a form of manipulation.
Most postmodern scholars agree.
Market driven churches have replaced this problem
with a show-business spirituality, but these TV-savvy youngsters are
sickened by such unseemly hype. And no longer can their elders sell
the latest New Age line, for today’s youth see an end to what they
call "cocktail spirituality."
Clearly, a new way of sharing the Word is needed.
Clearly, the church needs to reach the youth. It needs those who
will carry the gospel into a future age.
And, gratefully, the future can meet these needs:
The digital age will soon present a multimedia, multisensory,
virtual reality world designed especially for today’s youth and
their new language—the language of prophetic metaphor.
The Church can learn to "sing the Lord’s song in
a strange land."5
A New Creativity and a New Community
The youth intuitively understand that God is the
great Creator, not the great Imitator! And in this truth, we find
another example of the harmonizing trends between kids and
Today’s youth turn from anything routine, boring,
and predictable to anything imaginative, energizing, and innovative.
They would rather create their own business, for example, than push
pencils in a large corporation.
So, again, they are children of their time, for
the digital age is an innovation-based economy. Inventive ideas and
creative insights are its very products. Even the medium speaks the
language of creativity. Virtual reality—mirroring faith
itself—endlessly "calls those things that be not as though they
In the same way, their community also reflects
the coming digital community; for popular culture is their
community, and their peers their congregation. For example, they
have refused the passive, spectator worship of the boomers and the
illusory community of television "couch potatoes." Instead, they
demand participation, dialogue, interaction. . . .
And this, too, signals the coming age, for their
new "community is the new commodity."6 We have left the
one-to-many broadcast medium and are entering a one-to-one digital
medium. "Interaction," "interdependency," "collaboration," and
"dialogue" are the new buzzwords. Common interests now draw the
young together into common communities.
There is something spiritual about this. The idea
of connecting to one another in another space is inherently
spiritual. The notion of a "covenant network" of allied individuals
is certainly Christian. And—for the first time—the promised "body of
Christ" is potentially global.
A New Freedom and a New Empowerment
Freedom is another shared theme. The youth are
bound to break the barriers of time, space, geography, gender, and
generation. Given a chance, they will do their "thing," and the
Internet will give them that chance. They feel at ease in an
ethnically diverse world, and—behind a computer screen—think
whatever they want to think and become whoever they want to become.
Their music, for example, draws its energy from
breaking the barriers of both time and space. They easily celebrate
past popular styles and sincerely welcome a variety of global
In a similar way, the Internet will enter the
same excluded paths . . . invade the same restricted areas . . . and
cross the same forbidden borders. It will reach anyone, anywhere,
anytime, anyway. Or—modeling the new Church—it will reach
"different" souls in "different" places at "different" times and in
And, finally, we can compare computers and kids
in the new power shift. It may come as a surprise to boomers, but
the young are now in charge! This is the first generation brought up
with computers, and it forms a global network of young entrepreneurs
that know how to start businesses fast and run them cheap. In truth,
a twenty-year-old, who feels at home with this new technology, has
more potential to change the world than many corporations.
Youth will be the leaders of the new
cyberculture, the gurus of the ascending geek culture.
In the digital age, anyone can become an
initiator of innovation and change. Fluency in the new medium is now
more powerful than size and number. Indeed, a grain of sand
(silicon) is worth more than an ounce of gold when innovation is
etched on its surface.
In this paradigm shift, the huge institutions of
the boomers will become unwieldy burdens. But the young will have
the world in their digital hands!
Entering a New "Holy of Holies"
If the church can open the hearts of today’s
youth, it can open the doors to the future. But this "openness" must
be on their terms. And their terms require the emerging church to
enter a new "holy of holies."
To reach these youth, we must first feel their
deep pain. We must know their tortured and alienated souls as the
driving force of their lives. After all, they knew suffering as a
spiritual experience long before the boomers even considered the
idea. And, finally, we must agree they are, indeed, searching for
God . . . but in a totally new way and with a totally new language.
Their search for community, though, represents
their most desperate need. In truth, they never recovered from their
broken homes. They long for a sense of belonging, and the church
would do well in responding to their needs.
But responding to their needs doesn’t mean one
more church program. They are skeptical of "programs" . . . of
anything "organized." True, they welcome honesty and authenticity—in
any form—but they have learned to be suspicious of institutions and
They have already tasted too much pretension and
pretending. After all, Christianity is not a program . . . not a
board of directors . . . not a hierarchy . . . not a denomination .
. . not a building . . . not a governing structure. These truths
should make us pause.
The youth want the church to be the Church—not to
be something it isn’t or to be a counterfeit version of what it
pretends to be. They want a community built around loving
relationships rather than hairsplitting doctrines. They want a
community sensitive to their multiple stages of growth, learning,
and ministry rather than anonymity in the boomers’ favorite
They want a flexible community with alliances
crossing all denominations, traditions, and cultures. They want
worship, fun, and teaching anyplace (though perhaps not in the
church building!) and anytime (though perhaps not on Sunday
If the boomers differ this much from today’s
youth, how will they communicate?
First, boomers must be real. They must really
believe what they say, and what they say must be relevant to
youthful lives. In the same way, boomers must relate to the
youth—without condescension or manipulation—as individuals, rather
than as "Generation X," "Baby Busters," or anything else. For the
youth seek "user-friendly" acceptance, without guilt, shame, or
In short, they want a two-way relationship. They
want to participate, interact.
Next, boomers must learn to speak the language of
the youth—the language of cutting-edge, popular culture. But, within
that language, boomers must convey transcendent images, words, and
actions that carry an implicit—rather than explicit—message. In
other words, youth want room to be equally inspired to draw their
These "implicit" messages promise a return of art
to the Church. They pledge a reappearance of the poet/prophet. They
perceive a rediscovery of the prophetic metaphor. And the youth will
listen to these messages. They will listen to inspiration,
spontaneity, and transcendence . . . the off-the-wall . . . the
relentlessly fresh and new.
For they think in flowing nanosecond images. They
feel at home in multisensory, multimedia environments. In fact, they
can take in more information in less time and with less confusion
than their boomer elders. That’s because they have learned to
experience truth . . . rather than talk about it.
A Spirit of Adventure
Worship, then, must reflect the same respect,
relevance, room, rapport. . . . This means an honest service
controlled by the Holy Spirit rather than some authority figure . .
. a service with more humility than hype . . . a service with more
intimacy to God than subjection to an institution.
It means a safe, loving environment without
threat or shame. It means a "family" setting without cold-shoulders
from the boomers. It means plenty of room for reflective growth
without pressure or manipulation.
Their worship is audience-prompted
worship—collaborative, interactive. It carries a personal touch, an
involvement in the outcome. Anything else is welcome as long as it
is short, excellent, and doesn’t interrupt the flow of participative
Throughout, they want a sense of expectancy. They
want worship that moves almost randomly, spontaneously. And variety
is their theme: multisensory, multimedia, multidimensional,
multicultural. . . .
In summary, they want their language, their
style, their environment . . . but with an awesome twist!
It’s the Spirit of adventure.
A Continuing Relevance
Does the church see the signs of our time? The
youth are protesting all the religious language that has turned
stagnant. They are rejecting the mistaken idea that "God never does
anything new." And they are refusing any religion thrust upon them
Make no mistake about it. They are going to do
something, and they will have the power to do it. In ten years, half
the world will be teens, and they will have more in common with
their global peers than with their boomer elders. The real division
will not be between the have’s and have not’s, but between the young
and everybody else!
The youth of today already speak a digital
language. It is their language. They are beginning to produce
full-motion, video term papers on their laptops. So we must take for
granted they will be the innovators, the pioneers of the digital
In addition to their computer skills, they have
special gifts for these changing times. They are more informed than
the previous generation and are not afraid of diversity or change.
They are also proving tough and resilient, and—in the midst of their
suffering—will already be older and wiser before they even start.
Is the church ready for them? This is no mere
trend. There’s a difference, after all, between "trends" and
"transformations." Trends simply disengage the moment, but
transformations shatter clichés
and shock easy realities with new revelations.
No church leader wants to endure the trauma of
change, but there are times when God alters the course of history.
And, when that happens, everyone is expected to drop their excess
baggage—their cherished traditions . . . their worn-out language . .
. their privilege and power. For what made ministry effective in the
past becomes a liability in the future.
No one is without feet of clay. It is not enough
for past traditions to catch up with passing trends. The church must
change or die.
And even with change, there remains a challenge,
for the digital age promises just as much tragedy as triumph. Yet,
if a future theology can be grounded in Christian principles, this
promises our long-awaited victory.
© 2010 Thomas Hohstadt
1. David Lochhead, Theology in a Digital World
(United Church Publishing House, United Church of Canada, 1988),
2. Sarah Means quotes British theologian and
author Os Guinness in "Postmodern Church Targets Generation X in
Seattle," The Washington Times,
http://bit.ly/a1E63t (Also, Guinness wrote in a letter to me, "Only
positive philosophies endure and postmodernism is radically
negative. You could not build or sustain a family, a university, or
a nation on it, so it simply cannot last." So considering the trends
that promise a new and powerful language of the future—what I call
prophetic metaphor—we could speak of a "post-postmodernism.")
4. Jon Katz, "Can Religion Go Interactive?" Internet, August 6,
5. Psalm 137:4.
6. Alt.culture, Internet,