Soon after the internet boom in the 1990s, the Christian consulting firm WisdomWorks obtained software that could run automated chat groups -- allowing anonymous teens to ask candid questions.
Mark Matlock and his team called the project “Wise Intelligent Guide.”
Tech-savvy young people were careful, often repeating easy questions over and over to determine if the “bot” was truly autonomous, as opposed to being operated by hidden adults. A typical user would then probe with relatively safe questions, like “Does God exist?”
Finally, there would be the “actual question the teen wanted to ask, usually about sex, depression, suicide or abuse,” noted Matlock and Barna Group President David Kinnaman in their new book, “Faith for Exiles.” Typical questions: “How do I know if I am gay? What does God think about masturbation? What happens to people who commit suicide? I had sex with my boyfriend; what should I do?”
That was two decades ago. Today, most teens would use their omnipresent smartphones and take these personal questions straight to Google -- a secular oracle offering guidance on topics that religious leaders often avoid.
”The church has bubble-wrapped itself in an attempt to avoid thinking about the truly disruptive forms of technology that are everywhere in our world,” said Kinnaman, reached by phone. “Most church leaders think they can just use technology as a way of reaching people. ... They aren’t looking at the real impact of all this on their people. It’s easier just to look the other way.”
Meanwhile, practical decisions on tough lifestyle and religious questions often have long-term consequences.
Religious leaders have been forced -- after waves of Pew Research Center polling -- to acknowledge the surge in millennial Americans (born 1981-1996) who now identify as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular” when asked about religion. In a 2019 update, Pew noted that 40% of millennials are “nones.”
The goal of the “Faith for Exiles” study was to find patterns among young Americans (18 to 29 years of age) who were raised as Christians. It appears that they have become ex-Christian “Prodigals” (22%), unchurched “Nomads” (30%), mere “Habitual Churchgoers” (38%) or “Resilient Disciples” (10%). The “Resilient” cohort is defined by church involvement outside of Sunday services and a commitment to core Christian behaviors and doctrines.
The bottom line: It’s impossible to avoid the role technology plays in shaping life in “digital Babylon,” the name the authors use to describe contemporary culture.
”Through screens’ ubiquitous presence, Babylon’s pride, power, prestige and pleasure colonize our hearts and minds,” wrote Kinnaman and Matlock. “Pop culture is a reality filter. Websites, apps, movies, TV, video games, music, social media, YouTube channels and so on increasingly provide the grid against which we test what is true and what is real. ... Screens demand our attention. Screens DISCIPLE.”
The Barna researchers asked young adults what kinds of help congregations gave them with specific topics and life challenges. The answers of Prodigals, Nomads, Habitual Churchgoers and Resilient Disciples were radically different.
For example, only 14% of Prodigals said they experienced “wisdom for how to live faithfully in a secular world” from their churches, while 70% of Resilient Disciples affirmed that answer. Resilient Disciples were much more likely to say their churches helped them live “wisely” when dealing with sex (52%), challenges with technology (50%) and “managing my money” (43%).
Kinnaman and Matlock have decided that many young people -- along with adults of all ages -- are too busy bingeing “Game of Thrones,” trying out Snapchat filters, playing video games or watching porn to seek answers to hard questions about life, death and eternity. But why do so many church leaders promote a Sunday-morning-only approach to faith when they are wrestling with forms of technology that work 24/7?
In “Faith for Exiles,” the authors quote Microsoft computer scientist Jaron Lanier’s observation that social media has “everyone under surveillance by their devices receiving calculated stimulus to modify them. ... It’s a bad religion. It’s a nerdy, empty, sterile, ugly, useless religion that’s based on false ideals.”
Meanwhile, said Kinnaman, many pastors act like they are willing to settle for “dial-up ministry in a Wi-Fi world. ... A few hours of ministry spread over a month are not going to help young people learn to be disciples in the world we face today.”
(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)