Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Oh, the times, they are a'changing...

I didn't watch the Grammy's the other night, but I was amused by the wildly different comments I read on Facebook about Bob Dylan's performance. Some friends celebrated the vindication of a sugar-pop music industry show with a real artist like Dylan. Others (primarily younger), wondered what the old man on stage was gargling that kept him from getting his words out. I don't know what song he sang, but I think the performance itself sang, "Oh the times, they are a'changing..."

This morning I read a recap of the first Jeopardy! match between Watson, the IBM computer, and Jeopardy!'s two most successful contestants. This related article in the NY Times discussed some of the possible applications and ramifications of the highly advancing field of Artificial Intelligence.  Advances in AI threaten to make humans obsolete in many occupations that we currently hold.  Oh the times, they are a'changing...

Of course, that immediately got this former philosophy major/current preacher brain thinking about what it is to be human. I thought perhaps I had stumbled onto my theme for the March newsletter Pastors' Note, but immediately second-guessed myself.  After all, even though a good number of our members currently receive the newsletter over email rather than snail mail, most of our members are not very tech-savvy.  One of the reasons that I decided to hold off regular blogging and tweeting was because it doesn't connect with the vast majority of our congregation.  Though we have more members on facebook than I would have thought, only a dozen or so seem to use it regularly, and I don't know of a single person in our church who is on Twitter.

The times may be a'changing, but there is a huge technological divide between the average person in our congregation and the general public.  Is it the difference between being in a small town and being in a more urban area?  Maybe a little.  I think to a large degree the gap can be attributed to average age.  Most of our members are older and retired, and never knew a work environment when a personal computer was required, much less an email address! 

Even so, I look at my own grandparents and see that they are active on email and facebook (though it took them a while to realize they didn't have to "have the facebook" on their computer, they just had to go to an internet site).  They are older than all of the four active elders in our church who don't have email.  Though we do have some older members who regularly use email and the internet, I don't think any of them are as old as my grandparents. 

It seems like one major determining factors in use of technology by the "Greatest Generation" is geographic history and mobility.  Most of the older adults in our congregation have lived here most of their lives.  Their families, for the most part, live here or somewhere in the state, and their friends all live here.  If they want to connect, they will pick up the phone and make plans for lunch.  My grandparents, however, are retired from a long career of ministry, in which they have served congregations from the west coast of Canada all the way to upstate New York.  In retirement they have lived in Washington state, Louisville, KY, and last year moved to Pittsburgh.  Their grandchildren and great-grandchildren live in Missouri, Kentucky, and Virginia, and their brothers and sisters live in British Columbia and Ontario.  While they continue to enter into their new community, their web of support spans two countries extensively, and beyond.

My grandparents, who will be 82 and 87 in the next month, more closely resemble Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers in their geographic rootlessness.  Email and social media networks are an important web of connectivity in their lives.  They know that the times are changing - they have experienced the change first-hand.  Through all of the changes, God has been the constant, and their church has been the center of their professional, social, and spiritual lives.  Yet even as they hold onto that constant, they appreciate the need for the church to change.  They don't really like a lot of the "new" music.  They have a difficult time following words or images that are projected onto screens.  And yet, they support changes in worship that they might not prefer because they recognize that the times are changing, and that the church must continue to change to meet and reach out to new generations.  They recognize that yesterday's ways of being church might not always be appropriate to today's context of ministry, or to meeting the spiritual and material needs of tomorrow's generation.

Back to the newsletter article.  In my current context of ministry, I won't be writing about advances in artificial intelligence.  I won't make references in sermons to Twitter, and I'll think very carefully before I reference facebook, or even a video on the internet (YouTube).  That's not where the current congregation is.  In fact, my current context of ministry more closely resembles the context of ministry twenty or thirty years ago than it resembles contemporary urban and suburban settings.  I have been called to serve a small (under 150 members) church in a small county-seat town (around 8,000 people) that is still primarily white (88%, and 94% for the county), primarily Christian (76%), and primarily Baptist (67%).  The average age of marriage is still in the early 20s, most adults are married, and couples are having children at younger ages than in other parts of the country.  Most people have an affiliation with a church, whether or not they go regularly (or go at all).  Some kind of religious involvement is still assumed, and though sports practices might be creeping into our Sunday afternoons, schools still suspend activities on Wednesday nights for church involvement.  The times may be a'changing, but they are changing in different ways here than they are in other parts of the country.

Though more of the US population lives in cities, I think that more of our churches are in smaller towns.  While more of the population is living in contexts of increasing diversity, increasing use of technology, increasing pluralism on the religious landscape, more of our churches are struggling to survive or grow in areas that are changing at a slower pace and in different ways.  When we think about challenges of ministry in the 21st century, we must be sensitive to those differences. 

How can leaders be adequately prepared for ministry in such vastly different settings? Are there ways we can bridge gaps between churches in different settings?  Like some churches that have a "traditional" service and a "contemporary" service, are we facilitating two different churches that are growing further apart, with less sense of shared ministry?

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