(I am posting a series of thoughts on the disengagement of the mainline denominations from mainstream media over the past thirty years that results in the absence of the mainline voice from the public dialogue. This is the last installment.)
I’m writing this from Tallinn, Estonia. I was in a church outside Tallinn that has an outdoor two-seater toilet (If you’re too young to know what this means, it’s a hole in the ground with no running water and no heat where you take care of business in the breezy cold winds of the northern Baltic, and you do it quickly). Barely a mile down the road a tourist attraction offers wireless Internet connection. Such is the world we live in. We are wired, but lack some basic conveniences.
Here, as in Varna, Bulgaria, where I was last week, young people on the sidewalk text message each other and television programs deliver Western music, fashions and advertisements. A sign for a global marketer in Varna features attractive, scantily-clad young women in alluring poses selling clothing that offers, “Sex Apil.” I might as well be in Tenafly, New Jersey, where two weeks ago I saw the same.
Driven by images, music and experiences, a global media culture is shaping how young people perceive the world, form relationships with each other and view their place in the whole mess.
The generation coming to maturity in the digital era is fundamentally different than generations before. They are born into a world of media that allows them to be always-on and always available. They tend of think of media as the natural state of affairs, a part of the environment. This media culture is changing notions of privacy and intimacy. It’s changing how youth meet, congregate and maintain relationships. A researcher for the Barna Group, a research organization that studies religious attitudes, told a group of church agency staff recently, “The Mosaic generation (the youngest generation) values technology as a natural ally.” It’s not an add-on.
He also illustrated how the Mosaic generation perceives and processes information differently than earlier generations. This culture of image, sound and experience is changing how reality is defined and perceived.
Mosaics don’t need a beginning, middle and end to understand a story; they perceive fragments and form perceptions based on pieces that probably don’t make sense to someone who’s been taught to think in a sequential, linear way, which is everyone before the digital era. They can think episodically, which is to say, not sequentially.
The always-on engagement through media results in a capacity to filter, retain and block information in more complex but innate ability. A Barna Group study found that 98% of Mosaics in the U.S. are on-line daily, some almost non-stop. Thus, they have developed an ability to evaluate and exclude dissonant, irrelevant information in a split-second. Undoubtedly fewer youth in developing nations are online, however, in developing nations other media are shaping values and perceptions so the process of media acculturation is happening, just differently.
I was told in a recent visit to Uganda that a young person will purchase a radio and month’s supply of batteries before she will buy a mattress to sleep on. Radio is the accessible medium across Africa today, followed by text-messaging via cellphone. As the radio spectrum is opened by governments no longer able to stave off the rush of technology, societies are becoming flooded with media alternatives, all seeking an audience and competing aggressively for its attention.
What this means for the future is up for grabs. Those who can engage with these audiences at a level that communicates and offer them the experiences, information, entertainment and growth they desire will have an edge. Those who stand back and watch will be left behind.
I note that the Trinity Broadcasting Network, a freelance religious operation, has invested several million dollars in a television network targeting a youth audience. Several freelance religious broadcasters already have global operations. Some are getting into radio for youth. It’s too early to tell whether these will gain traction and find widespread acceptance. But that’s not the point.
The point is, by engaging the audience they will gather important knowledge that will position them for the future. These groups have taken the plunge. In the chaotic environment of the fast-changing media culture there is no safe harbor. They’ve enjoined the risk. Those who venture into the water must accept that they will make mistakes, learn from them, re-tool and set out again.
Fortunately, there are many more options for dipping your toes into the water today. Not all of them involve spending buckets of money. But they do require that you step in and get wet and do your best to swim in this sea of competing and conflicting messages.
I am advocating that my denomination support community radio in parts of the developing world. These stations relate to a local community, design programming based on that interaction and maintain an on-going relationship. They can convey information about how to prevent contagious diseases, how to mobilize for economic development, and encourage youth to not smoke, for example. Community radio stations are encouraging people to participate in democratic activities, including informing people about how and where to vote. They are offering information about family relationships and providing abused and battered women with information about how to get out of harmful relationships. And many are programming information about religious belief including Muslim and Christian dialogue, among many other subjects.
In the final analysis it isn’t about how much we spend, it’s about how much we care. Do we care enough about the people in our communities across the globe to try and communicate with them, listen to them, hear their concerns and offer alternative visions for abundant life today? Do we care enough to confront the culture of materialism that can only work its success by isolating us as individuals, undermining our self-esteem and offering us palliatives in place of authentic dignity, meaning and purpose? Do we dare say that life is more than the creation of desire and the meeting of that desire through consuming products and entertaining diversions? Are meaning and purpose in life gained with plastic cards that mortgage our future?
If we think and act theologically, media engagement is about how we enter the culture, embrace people in their struggles and love them.