Theology in a Wikipedia World: Part II

The Challenge of a Collaborative Generation

I’m currently working through David Kinnaman’s book You Lost Me, in which he presents his research on why the younger generation of Christians disappear from the church. He sees three key challenges that are contributing to the loss of this generation: unprecedented access to information, alienation from meaningful relationships, and suspicion of traditional authority structures. His research on the impact of unprecedented access to information translates into this observation made by Kinnaman:

“Young people expect to participate as well as consume.”

If I think back hard enough, I can remember the first time I voted in an American Idol competition. For students younger than me, they can’t remember a time when they didn’t have some participation in the media they consume. Now, advertising companies tap into the appeal of this participatory model with competitions for making their next ad, giveaways for retweets on Twitter or likes on Facebook. The ultimate model of this collaborative, participatory way of thinking is Wikipedia itself, the majority of which was written and compiled by Millennials, Kinnaman notes, challenging us with the collaborative reality of this generation:

“Who would have guessed that one of the largest, most influential and well-funded technology companies (Microsoft) would mothball Encarta, losing the race with Wikipedia to create a comprehensive online encyclopedia to thousands of unpaid volunteer contributors, many of whom are Mosaics? It’s not a one-to-one comparison, but think about which model the church most resembles – the established monolith or the grassroots network – and what that mean for its relevance in the lives of a collaborative, can-do generation that feels alienated from hierarchical institutions.” 

How much of the meaningful stuff of our youth ministry is participatory? Between games and singing and a lesson and maybe small groups, the traditional paradigm has students playing the passive observers to us as we do ministry. Sure, we may have students leading the music and maybe have a drama team or a student speak the occasional week, but as a whole, are we giving space and permission to our students to participate in truly meaningful, ministry-shaping ways every week? Or do I just stand up there every week, say what I want to say, and hope that something gets through their iPod headphones into their brains, and then, if I’m lucky, their hearts?

Students expect and want to participate in meaningful ways in our ministries. I know that might be hard to believe, considering that it’s a hard enough struggle to get them to put down Angry Birds in small group, but perhaps that’s not because they don’t want to participate, but because we haven’t given them permission to. In general, they are not used to being treated as co-creators, as individuals with worth and with worthwhile things to say. Talking heads are everywhere – the news, the classroom, the internet. Students don’t need another person talking to them about them. They need individuals who will care enough about them to listen and to seriously consider the things they say and the emotions they feel, and to give them power and permission to truly make a difference. It’s a daunting task, and one which doesn’t seem to have clear solutions, but perhaps the solution is in the process: ask your students how we can minister to them, give them the power and the permission to speak into our own ministries to them, to shape what we do and how we do it. That’s certainly an easy solution to write, but a hard reality to make happen. But it starts in the context of the relationships and conversations we have with our students.

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