March 9, 2009
Paper or plastic is no longer a choice for an increasing number of Christians. Many now receive church news only by plastic-encased personal computer rather than traditional parchment.
But that doesn’t mean churches don’t still face an either/or decision on how best to package their product.
At Fellowship Christian Church in Springfield, Ohio, senior pastor Grant Edwards has done away with the traditional paper newsletter sent to homes by snail mail. Instead, the 750-member church fires off an email containing an e-news article of fewer than 200 words.
“One of the things that has happened is that the amount of content with every successive generation has dropped,” said Edwards, who formed the church 35 years ago. “With the younger generation you have to get the info to them in 140 (characters) or less.”
The challenge for Edwards, and for church leaders of other multi-generational churches, is how to best balance the technological needs of younger people with the wishes and requirements of the older crowd.
“We have to have all forms of information,” Edwards said. “We still hand out paper (during services) but we have to have podcasts, too.”
Keeping all generations happily informed under one roof is becoming an increasingly difficult task. While Americans of every age have become comfortable with technology, their dependence upon it differs depending on the age group.
The generational divide brought on by digital tools is significant, according to a new research study conducted by The Barna Group. The key finding shows that each successive generation is adopting and using technology at a significantly greater pace than their predecessors. Connected to that discovery is the exponential reliance on tech tools among those under age 25.
“I was surprised how technically reliant every generation is on the most basic of Internet tools – email and search – but when you look at each generation successively the gap is huge,” Barna Group President David Kinnaman said. “It’s not as though you can just make a sweeping statement about those over 40 years old and under 40, because then you will have missed two big jumps there.”
The study broke out four generational groups – Mosaics (ages 18-24); Busters (25-43), Boomers (44-62) and Elders (63+) – and surveyed whether their Internet technology use was mainstream, emerging or limited. Mainstream means technology used by at least one out of every two computer users; emerging means technologies used by at least one out of five but less than half of computer users; limited means technologies used by fewer than one-fifth of computer users.
The gap between Mosaics and Busters was particularly surprising, Kinnaman said, explaining that while Busters fit the Mainstream classification in four digital categories, the Mosaics depend on eight forms of internet technology. That’s a big difference, considering that the two generations bump up against one another.
Given the findings, how does technology help or hinder overall church communication and also affect relationships across generations?
Edwards, who belongs to the Boomer generation, has to juggle his method of digital communication depending on the audience. Currently, he is being pulled – kicking and screaming at times – into the world of Twitter, where people communicate through tweets of 140 characters or fewer.
“I find it a nuisance, because I don’t want to Twitter 12 times a day with people telling me they just had coffee,” Edwards said, managing a chuckle. “I’d rather they pray or read a book. They could be developing a relationship with God.”
That said, Edwards understands it’s important to reach people where they live, so he is Twittering – “Or is it Tweeting?,” he asked – with Mosaics to maintain relationships.
“If you listen to the letters being read in Ken Burns’ Civil War (PBS documentary), you’re not going to see that in the modern version of Twitter,” Edwards said. “With quill and ink, those letters were so eloquent. You’re not getting that in a Twitter.”
At the same time, there is a creative eloquence found in Twitter that involves an urban language complete with code words that hash things down, Edwards said.
Kinnaman understands the dilemma of generational dialogue. How do Elders “talk” to Mosaics when the two groups “speak” different languages?
“It’s a constant tension between trying to use communication tools that actually penetrate people’s consciousness,” he said. “The church has to have technology, or at least youth workers have to have some level of comfort with these things, not so much to be relevant but because you can’t communicate otherwise. It’s like not being able to use the telephone.”
According to Barna, some of the research study findings include:
* The youngest adults may be the most tech-savvy, but because Boomers and Busters represent about two-thirds of the adult population they are far more numerous users of technology than are Mosaics. For example, the majority of online purchases are made by those between the age of 30 and 55.
* Mosaics, however, are well ahead in their personal integration of internet technologies, making even Busters appear technologically outdated. In effect, younger adults do not consider themselves users of content, but think of themselves as content creators.
* While all Americans are increasingly dependent on new digital technologies to acquire entertainment, products, content, information and stimulation, older adults tend to use technology for information and convenience. Younger adults rely on technology to facilitate their search for meaning and connection. Facebook, MySpace and Twitter are three examples of social networking that allows younger adults to feel like they’re part of a community.
Despite the reliance on electronic communication to provide a sense of place for young people, both Kinnaman and Edwards point out there also exists a hunger for one-on-one relationships.
“What we’re seeing is that besides their attention deficit, in being so focused on technology, is a craving for real relationships, both physical and emotional, that often are best facilitated in a face-to-face relationship,” said Kinnaman, who further touches upon the issue of modern Christian relationship in his new book unChristian.
Studies suggest that the youth groups that do the best and last the longest are not focused on the hippest technology but on the more intentional process of discipleship, Kinnaman added.
Edwards concluded with this: “Preaching a message in the style of Jonathan Edwards, where there is a long thesis, would be hard for this new generation to follow. But I think a challenging testimony still has the ability to hold their attention. Preaching still has relevance, if done right. Some call it preaching, some say message, some say communicating. I say whatever you call it, just make sure it’s a testimony of what God is doing.”