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.

Natural Enemies

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 success.

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 empowerment.

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 multisensory worlds.

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 of faith.

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 computers.

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 were."

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 traditions.

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 "different" ways.

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 authority figures.

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 programs.

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 morning!).

Transcendent Messages

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 pigeonholes.

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 own conclusions.

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 worship.

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 without choice.

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 age.

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), p. 54.

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.")

3. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bf9-ai9wj2U

4. Jon Katz, "Can Religion Go Interactive?" Internet, August 6, 1998; http://hotwired.lycos.com/synapse/katz/98/31/katz3a_text.html (Page inactive)

5. Psalm 137:4.

6. Alt.culture, Internet, http://www.plastic.com/article.pl?sid=01/04/10/1835211

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