Presentation Given at May 4, 2022 Colloquium
Part of Educating Urban Ministers in Philadelphia After 2020 project
Presentation Question: How has the urban culture, in which the younger generations are growing up, developed and shifted, and what impact does this have on intercultural discipleship and leadership development?
Imagination During a Time of Uncertainty
Are we living in a time of a Holy Interruption? It is not that God has caused a world-wide pandemic, international protests over injustice nor the political extremes of today, but rather that we are experiencing a crisis throughout most of the world at exactly the same time. We have all been affected by the same air which others are breathing throughout the world. This air has been life-giving but also life losing. The political divisiveness we have all felt over the past two years has also been experienced by the rest of the world. The same is true for the cry for justice at local, regional, national and international levels. As current and developing leaders of faith, are we not noticing a unique divine moment and opportunity?
Many of the Psalms written in the First Testament tend to move us beyond our current circumstances toward another place. It does not “re” move us but rather it allows us to be grounded in our context while experiencing His presence through poetry and song, sometimes in joy, sometimes in sorrow and pain, but almost always slowing down enough for us to know that He is with us. It would be a big mistake to speed read a Psalm. I remember as a young man trying to memorize as many Bible verses as I could. In the process I would ignore its context, history and even the punctuations. Although I meant well, I’ve learned since then that I missed so much richness of the Word of God. Selah is a notation in seventy-one of the Psalms. There are variations to its meaning, but it is more likely either a liturgico-musical mark or an instruction on the reading of the text, something like “stop and listen.”1 It is a “pause in the song which was filled by an interlude played by the choir of Levites.”2 The Amplified Bible translates selah as “pause, and think of that.” Given the context for this (online) gathering (colloquium), we are taking the time for this reflection… to pause and to think. We are stopping and listening to pay closer attention to what we have been doing and/or what we are about to do, Selah, to release the binds of ‘doing’ for a moment, into a more prayerful, reflective and thoughtful approach.
During the past two years it has been quite clear that most people are “tuning out” from their current uncertainty. This is particularly but not exclusively true of young people. They and we are doing this by watching more movies, listening to more music, staying busy, spending long hours on our cell phones and more time on social media. Leading up to the first day of spring in March 2020, our country began to quickly hunker down through stay-at-home orders, lock downs, isolation, and even quarantine. I understood at that time that all of our lifestyles would be changing. During the few months that followed, I began to stay tuned to these changes. One particular shift was the significant increase in the consuming of media. As to music, a company called Morning Consult is a global technology firm which collects, organizes, and shares survey research data. They conducted a survey of 2,200 people from March 6-16, 2020. They found that plans to spend more money on music streaming nearly doubled among adults between the initial March 6-9 survey (6%) and the follow up March 13-16 survey (11%).3 As to movies, in China, after the country implemented nationwide isolation measures, average weekly downloads of apps during the first two weeks of February jumped 40% compared with the average for the whole of 2019, according to the Financial Times. In the same month, weekly game downloads on Apple devices were up 80% compared to the same period in 2019.4 As to the use of social media, a study from Obviously (an agency which targets marketers and technologists specifically among influencers), analyzed 260 of their own campaigns. They reviewed 7.5 million Instagram posts and data from 2,152 TikTok influencers. They found a 76 percent increase in daily accumulated likes on Instagram #ad posts. They also found a 22 percent increase in Instagram campaign impressions and a 27 percent jump in engagement on average on TikTok from February to March of 2020.5 By the end of December 2021, TikTok became the #1 most visited online domain, surpassing a long-held position by Google.6
One of the questions for us as Christian leaders, educators and students is, are we behaving any differently than the world in this regard? Are our patterns different or the same as “secular” society? We all know that increased social media use also increases anxiety, loneliness and depression. However, our tendency is to use social media to “do good,” and even to “further the gospel.” What do we do with these contradictions? Should we be following our natural tendencies and intuitions during times like this, especially when we know that this is the pattern of the larger world? Following our tendencies and intuitions is human nature (Christian or not). Should we react differently? Are we not called to go against the grain?
Matthew 7:13-14: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
I am not a carpenter, but I like to work with wood and build things as a break from meetings, reports and budgets. A planer is used to smooth out nicks and bumps from a piece of lumber. Planing with the grain of the wood is easier and more natural. Planing against the grain is more difficult and against the norm. This is where we get the term, “going against the grain.”
Our tendency when we hear to “go against the grain” is to voice our opinions against popular thought, to speak our minds or just do things differently. However, what if to go against the grain also means to go against our own patterns? To go against our own learned tendencies? To avoid our natural reflexes? I have personally understood over the years that the passage in Matthew 7:13-14 was just about eternal life. What if it is also about life in general? Taking a different path than the masses?
As leaders and shepherds, helping others during what is going to continue to be very trying times is a noble and good thing. However, leadership during these times are requiring of us a higher level of thinking, a deeper understanding of the circumstances. It requires more than creativity… it will require imagination.
You have all probably heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Many years later Patti Brennan, Professor Emeritus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, College of Engineering, developed a Hierarchy of Imagination: these stages are; Reflex, Problem Solving, Creativity, and Imagination.
In this hierarchy, the more we move away from our natural reflexes, the more discipline it takes. However, the greater the vision, reward and authentic hope, the more we can point others toward it. I see Brennan’s model in the Bible when I read Galatians 5:22-23, where it says that the Spirit is in part self-control, rather than managing through our own reflexes or natural tendencies.
From the stage of reflex we take our learned experiences and move towards becoming problem solvers and not complainers when difficult circumstances arise. This is where I believe are the seeds of leadership and where it begins. As we move further up the pyramid, we can move toward the creative stage. We can be creative by looking online for ideas or talking to the same people we talk to every day for helpful insight. However, to be imaginative may require the interruption of our current way of doing things, including how we view (or review) in this era the gospel and discipleship, especially among our younger generations. It may require going deeper into our own souls rather than using the product of someone else’s soul.
Being creative may help us replace our busyness with more useful busyness, by taking significant time in this season such as today to Selah, to slow down our good busyness and instead be present to ourselves, be present to our Creator with some good quality and quantity time. This was in large part the Mary vs. Martha dilemma found in Luke 10:38-42. Jesus was coming from one of the oldest urban cities of the world, Jericho. “As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset [afanada – busy/toiled] about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Mary’s pause was an opening and receptiveness toward imagination especially for what was to come.
Creativity is changing the paint color in a room from a neutral blue to a pastel lemon chiffon combined with baby blue eyes wallpaper and rearranging the room’s furniture. However, imagination may be the removal of the entire ceiling to expose the beams, repurposing an antique headboard as a backboard for seating and taking three of the walls down to create an open concept. Considering this macro-moment which is affecting almost the entire world through a Holy Interruption, we must practice the psalmatic Selah, the pausing and reflection similar to Mary, so that we will not miss the opportunity to be imaginative rather than just creative regarding this moment’s implications for the gospel.
I lead the Esperanza Youth Leadership Institute (EYLI), which educates youth ministers throughout the region on how they can better lead and minister to millennials, generation X (iGen) and the upcoming Alpha generation. We retreated several months ago as a team and dedicated much time to imagining where our young people are now and where they are going to be over the next 3-5 years. These dialogues help us shape our live curricula to the current and upcoming needs. The following are some of those questions we grappled with. What are some considerations for these historic and quickly shifting times?
#1 What is Good News?
We must ask ourselves this question, especially in regards to young people. Good news is a well-used and overused term which we may have taken for granted. Is it time to revisit its intent, its spirit and its meaning for both the 1st century as well as now in the 21st century? José Maria Vigil wrote, “Las Iglesias deben someterse a revisión constantemente.” The churches should constantly submit themselves to revision.7 If, as the Body of Christ, our missiological purpose is in large part to share the good news with others, what would be considered good to the younger generation? What is news to them? One of the things we do at EYLI is engage young people about their civic duties. We recently conducted a survey with over 300 high school youth. One of the questions was about where they get their news. The results were quite telling. None stated CNN, Fox, or the other media outlets of my generation. However, 55% stated that their #1 source of where they get their news is Instagram. Other sources included articles, YouTube and Twitter. Therefore, as a minister of the gospel, what does news look like filtered through the lens of Twitter, Instagram and YouTube? I’m not asking if you agree or disagree with how they receive their news; neither you nor I will change that. We must ask instead, How do we best convey good news in this space? How do we package news in a way that it is received as good by the younger generations? Are we even qualified as adults to do so, or do we finally admit that we need the help of the younger generations of the faith in order to succeed? I am not suggesting creative ways to gain their input rather than coming alongside of them and their social digital space to reach their peers. Rather, I would suggest stretching our imagination and maybe even follow their lead as they reach each other, to learn from them and collaborate with them in spaces with which we are not familiar. I suspect that this would be good news for them.
During the past two years, many churches missed an amazing opportunity with our young people. Throughout the shutdown, most of our churches followed the public official recommendations and held off on in-person worship services and other church related activities. Many churches were already providing online services. However, most in our community were not. Our young people stepped up to the plate and helped the church get online. There are countless stories throughout the country of youth and young adults teaching us old heads how to stream a service, how to use Facebook Live, how to create YouTube channels, how to stream on Twitch, how to use our outdated webpages to stream church services and activities, etc. etc. Our young people did this! They kept the church alive during the pandemic. Some were acknowledged with a pat on the back, but most were not even recognized. They should have been thanked; they should have been recognized; they should have been considered heroes of the faith for, in some cases, keeping the church (virtual) doors open. And if we were to be imaginative rather than just creative, they should have been considered formally in church leadership roles since, in some cases, they kept the churches from closing? Was this the younger generation’s way of being and sharing good news? And if so, should we be joining them in learning how to be and share good news during “such a time as this”? Selah… pause, think and listen.
#2 What is Reality?
The answer to this question may seem obvious and that is the beauty of questions. God’s first words to Adam in the First Testament were, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). He asks Adam what may seem obvious. To us, reality may be obvious. However, if we do not begin thinking against the grain, we will be irrelevant to the following generations. For many of us, reality is our in-person experiences. However, times are shifting quickly and exponentially among our young people. My mother communicated with her mother mostly through snail mail letters. Her mother lived in the campo in Puerto Rico. She then shifted to regular phone calls during the 1970s which is when their pueblo was finally connected with land lines. Subsequently my mother moved to Puerto Rico in the 1990s and my communication with her was mostly through video calls. Now that she is back in the mainland, we text each other frequently. As a matter of fact, although I see her in person, we mostly communicate via messaging and video calls. This feels real. A phone call and a video call seem so real. It actually gives me the impression that we see and hear each other. However, the truth is that through a video chat, what happens is that I actually open an app and dial her number. My cell phone sends a signal to the closest tower of my service provider which then sends another signal to the nearest satellite, which searches and sends a different signal to her closest cell tower, which then sends another digital signal to her cell phone. All of this happens within seconds. She then accepts my call and seems to see me. However, she is actually looking at over three million digital dots called pixels on a screen, which combined together gives an almost identical image of what actually looks like me. The audio is very similar. The sound sounds like me but it is actually a digital composition of my voice; it is an illusion. Our minds and our hearts are programmed to think and believe that they are real. So, in some ways the illusion has become or has already replaced reality.
This digital space is the new reality among us, especially among young people, so much so that they have best friends which they have never met in person. Others have learned “together” through online classes and courses, while even others have met online, dated online, married online, and live out virtual relationships. We must come to the realization that during our current times, most of our engagements are digital. Are these experiences less real? Or is it time to accept that the reality which we have handed down to the next generations is more digital than in person? Were the communications over the past two years between yourself and your loved ones, family, friends, neighbors and even strangers less than real? Or is reality now in large part digital? And if so, what does evangelism, discipleship, worship and service look like, or rather click like, over the coming years?
#3 Short is the New Attention Span
Leading up to the writing of the New Testament, social skills, conversations and dialogues were much different than today. If you were to discuss an idea with someone, you should not be in a rush. A greeting could take several minutes, a conversation up to an hour and a debate would last several hours long and, in some cases, days long. Several biblical passages point to these lengthy orations. However, the attention span of an adolescent has always been much shorter. The concept of adolescence did not exist during Bible times, but that is a topic of another discussion. The apostle Paul however did not seem to get the idea of a shorter attention span of the younger generation. At the time, Paul was in Troas in Greece. Acts 20:7-12 picks it up from there, “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting. Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead. Paul went down, threw himself on the young man and put his arms around him. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “He’s alive!” Then he went upstairs again and broke bread and ate. After talking until daylight, he left. The people took the young man home alive and were greatly comforted.” Jesus’ posture toward the young was much different. He elevated the young by acknowledging him through touch and blessings (Mark 10:13-16). He even stated that in order to enter the kingdom of God we would have to take on the position or posture of a child (Mark 10:15), he partnered with a young person on food service delivery (John 6:5-13), and he gave a deadly warning for those who causes a child to stumble (Matthew 18:6–7). The moral of the story is, do not be like Paul; be like Jesus and keep your young people interested and engaged.
What does this mean during these times? It means that we must tune in and listen to the urban culture, particularly youth culture. They perceive and lay down more memory frames or mental images per unit of time than us as adults; therefore, when they remember events, that is the passage of time, they recall more visual data. This is what causes the perception of time passing more rapidly as we age. Our generation created the microwave to shorten cooking time; we created the drive thru culture or immediate access to a hot meal, the Microsoft Office package to write, calculate and communicate at faster speeds; we handed our youth mobile laptops and cell phones. The younger generation has inherited this and found a way to operate in shorter spans and continue to do so. The style of clothing used to hold on for a year or several years. Young people flip clothing styles by the season. Pro-Keds and Converse (Chuck Taylors) would last us for years, while the younger generations have sneakers “released” throughout the year. Nike alone released the Air Jordan 11 ‘Cool Grey’, Commes Des Garçons/Nike Air Foamposite One, Trophy Room/Air Jordan 1 High, Fragment/Travis Scott/Air Jordan 1 High, Off-White/Nike Dunk Low ‘The 50’, Off-White/Air Jordan 2 Low, and finally, A Ma Maniere/Air Jordan 3. Keep in mind that these were released during a pandemic year. Hit songs that used to last for a year or two have been replaced at a quicker pace with songs “dropping” several times a summer. A typical board game that would take two hours of fun with only several dozen actions within the game have been replaced with online games with several thousand actions over the same period of time. In other words, short is the new attention span… very short.
We must consider packaging the gospel message and our discipling of young people in shorter bits rather than mistakenly drowning them with an overload of information and messages. What could this look like in your context? Maybe a gospel that is more paced out rather than bundled? This could mean stages of evangelism and discipleship. Maybe we should just begin with the awareness of Christianity as a possibility for their lives, and then maybe exposure to the gospel in action, followed by opportunities for them to even consider a relationship with Christ and ultimately conversion. We must consider Instagram and Twitter posts for each of these separate stages, as well as TikTok’s conveying these elements leading up to the opportunity for discipleship. The Bible says that “Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” (Luke 2:52) I ask you to consider what is wisdom among our young people; how do we gain our stature in their midst and gain their favor?
There are many other shifts within the urban context including the increasing lack of online access, increase in poverty, mental health challenges, greater fragmentation between the urban and suburban, and many others. I hope and pray that this is the beginning of looking at large issues which impact us at scale and figuring out how to address them at the local level. Our young people are resilient, they are visionaries and they are willing to take risks. Let’s help them achieve and become good news to others around them and to those much further out but are much more accessible through technology.
1 “Selah,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selah.
2 Charles Randall Barnes, ed., Dictionary of the Bible: Biographical, Geographical, Historical, and Doctrinal (New York: Eaton & Maines, 1900).
3 Sarah Shevenock, “Consumers Nearly Twice as Likely to Spend More on Streaming Due to Coronavirus,” Morning Consult, March 18, 2020, https://morningconsult.com/2020/03/18/more-consumers-expect-to-increase-streaming-spending-due-to-coronavirus/. The initial survey found that just 6% of boomers said they were likely to spend more money on movie and TV streaming; the share who said the same in the most recent survey has more than doubled to 15%.
4 Stefan Brambilla Hall, “Empty stadiums and online streaming: how coronavirus is affecting the media industry,” World Economic Forum, March 13, 2020, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/03/covid-19-coronavirus-media-entertainment-sports/.
5 McAteer, Oliver, Coronavirus Sparks Huge Jump in Social Media Use, Study Finds, March 16, 2020, https://www.campaignlive.com/article/coronavirus-sparks-huge-jump-social-media-use-study-finds/1677276
6 Clint Rainey, “Step aside, Google.com. TikTok has the most popular web domain on the internet right now,” Fast Company, December 22, 2021, https://www.fastcompany.com/90709038/step-aside-google-com-tiktok-has-the-most-popular-web-domain-on-the-internet-right-now/.
7 José Maria Vigil, Los “paganos… ¿al infierno? La Buena Noticia de la Salvación de las religiones indígenas,” Diakonia 61 (1992): 39. Centro Ignaciano de Centroamérica.