In cross-cultural training, they say that when you leave your culture for a while and then return to it, you see it in a new light. It’s true. After my absence, I realize a lot more about America.
My first observation about modern America is that we are unbelievably advanced in technology. We possess artifacts that the ancients would never have dreamed of. We speak across the globe in an instant. We traverse it in less than a day. Tiny boxes produce endless hours of music at our slightest whim. Think about that for a moment! If you wanted to hear a symphony, you used to actually have to go to the symphony. Today, you can carry it around in a 3-ounce iPod
There is more entertainment available today on YouTube for free than any mortal could ever consume. And forget the Roman Colosseum; we watch bloodier, more exciting things with the wave of our remotes. And we can even participate in such fighting all day and night without any risk of injury (except perhaps to our carpal tunnels). Sex is available on demand. We are like gods. Nay, better. Even Zeus had to come down in human flesh to seduce a woman that he desired. For a paltry fee, we can have her at the edge of our fingers in high definition.
And think about all the relationships we carry on, even at great distance! We can share the photographs of our newborn babies with friends thousands of miles away from the hospital lobby. And they can respond to us just as quickly. At any time of the day, I can instantly send messages to everyone I know. This ability to communicate with so many boggles the mind.
First-world youths from the last two decades have lived with these immense powers since birth. It’s commonplace, nothing special. Only the latest thing is special. And even that doesn’t stay latest for long.
All this comes in the form of mass-produced, mass-consumed goods. Computers, iPods, cars… Though they try to fool us into thinking that there’s an “I” in iPod and that we have a “personal” computer, we’re really just choosing the model and colors. Thousands of other people out there have the exact same product. Our mass-entertainment unites us. People from California to Maine watch the same TV hits. Heck, people in Japan will be watching them in six months. The US entertainment behemoth unifies the entire world. Without ever visiting China, you share the same entertainment consumption as them.
We call this a “global village.” We feel it all around us. And yet, what effect does it have on human community? My thesis, if there is one, is this: because of the interconnectedness created by mass-produced, mass-consumed products, even though we have more in common with more people than ever before, and even though we maintain more relationships than ever before, Americans feel as though we are losing our individuality and genuine human relationships.
Nothing but lies
One interesting fact about these trappings is their falsehood. Entertainment is acting. I think that’s why reality shows have been so popular: they aren’t totally scripted, so they give an illusion of something real. Entertainment exists to make money, not to convey truth.
Everything is false. Our music is about love for nonexistent lovers. Our adventures are digitally produced, and there is neither risk nor true reward for completing them: just a pretty computer-graphic movie at the end. Even our sex is done by actors; it is false (not really sex) and absent of love (they’re actors). And though we love it when a movie is “based on a true story,” how many of us actually take the time to research and see how much of it is true? Few care about the real, true story, just the entertaining movie. In a thousand ways, we spend our lives living in a virtual world utterly devoid of substance.
I think this plays into the overwhelmingly postmodern culture of today. When so much time is spent consuming entertainment and advertizing, it’s hard to care about truth. There is so much information going into the mind that it’s hard to discern truth from lies for every piece of it. It’s easier to just care about what makes you feel good.
Let’s face it: As much as we can put out an image or pretend, we are part of a mass of humanity. We are a part of a statistically calculated demographic. They know what you’re likely to like, and they use it to market to you, be “they” Warner Brothers or the Democratic Party.
We live with this knowledge, and we rebel against it. As Americans, we hate it. We want to be individuals! So we watch the TV we like and buy the latest goods. But everyone else, of course, does the same thing. We try to be ourselves, but run as we may, these mass-produced, mass-consumed products greatly define all of us. This desire to express ourselves and be individuals contributes to the use of YouTube and blogging. So many just want to somehow get that hit counter above 1,000.
In a world where we are more aware than ever of the world’s billions, we live alone. We have our god-toys for comfort, but despite them, we can’t escape a profound loneliness. Despite having more ways than ever to communicate with people (from text-messaging to Facebook), our communication is more superficial than ever. We maintain ten times as many relationships, but they have the depth of a puddle. Our lives are more connected and more lonely than ever.
I am convinced that all of these facts play into the emphasis placed by young people today on genuineness.
In my experience, one of the best things you can be is genuine. It is such a positive word in this century and language. Because of this world of lies, people are drawn to individuals who are the same on the inside and outside.
Most Americans have a difficult time truly opening up and being “genuine.” It’s hard to do that in a 256-byte text message, after all. In a world so much about things, Americans long, more than ever, for real, deep human relationships. We may not admit this or consciously think about it (god-toys are great at distracting us), but we desire deeper relationships.
We live in a world obsessed with flashiness. Not long ago, text messages were new and flashy. Now, smart-phone apps are all the rage. We love the new. We love the advanced. So sitting down and having a conversation for three hours just sounds boring. While we put genuineness on a pedestal, we don’t really want to be genuine, ourselves. We suffer from deep loneliness, but what it takes to get out of that loneliness (like talking without music or TV in the background) isn’t flashy or new.
Young people these days want those true, genuine relationships, whether they admit it or not. Most didn’t get them in their family growing up, and they’re not getting them from Facebook. Despite all the distraction of our flashy technology, people cannot escape the needs of reality. And in a world with so many broken families, people cannot escape their longing for love.
Enter the church
I believe that this is one of the deepest, truest felt-needs in our society today. And it is essential for the mission of the church that we understand this aspect of American culture.
Some churches have gotten good enough at using the world’s ways to attract large crowds and wring lots of “sinner’s prayers” out of people (in the quietness their own seats while everyone’s eyes are closed). However, they don’t realize that they are just meeting a superficial desire, putting on a show, while ignoring the deeper need for something with substance.
The uber-pastor up front, even if he seems genuine, often is still putting up a facade to match what he knows people want (genuineness). But a man on a stage is still a man on a stage. He’s still creating a mass-produced, mass-consumed product: the church service. People, despite enjoying that service and being enthralled by it, need something more in this isolated society. They want personal interaction and human relationships. Whether they admit it (or even realize it) or not, no amount of mass-product will ever meet their need for meaningful relationships, much less create a strong relationship with God.
Churches must grow smaller in today’s culture. I don’t mean that they should shrink (though that would often help), but they need strong small groups. If you’re just producing a mass-product, people will stay on the superficial outside and little real transformation will happen. In today’s mass-culture, the best place to create true transformation is in the totally counter-cultural place of a genuine, small community where people know one another deeply—where they can have those media-less three-hour conversations. The deep loneliness of our society cries for that.
But these can’t be just any small groups. No. As Christians, we have to unplug from our media enough to develop real people-skills, like listening to others in a way that gets them to truly talk. The small groups we need are small groups filled with people who experience the transforming power of the gospel and learn to develop deep, real, loving, and strong human relationships. In short, they must experience real love and real transformation in community. In our culture of broken families, people long deeply for that kind of openness and unconditional love. And that is something the church has that Hollywood does not.
But the point of meeting the felt-need for something real is not as an end in and of itself. Because as much as human relationships get closer to the heart of the matter, they can never really satisfy our longings. The whole point of these fellowships is to point people to God, the source and aim of their desires. Because our society is so oriented away from truth on the outside, we sidestep propositional truth by focusing on love. But at heart, in these fellowships, believers and non-believers both dive into the absolute, eternal truths of the gospel.
For all that we care about “having an answer” to the questions we are asked, it is Jesus who said, “By this all men will know you are my disciples: if you love one another” (John 13:35). Our culture lies in a perfect place for the spilling-over of genuine love from within the church to be the primary method of sharing the truth with those outside the church.
Know your culture
We must be students of our own society. Just as a missionary studies the foreign culture which he enters, it is important to study your own culture and to study it hard. If you do, you will understand where people are hurting and where they may be open to the gospel and God’s healing.
For instance, I think the days of tracts are long ended in America. Quite simply, it’s just another mass-produced product, so few people these days will even read them. Even a gospel presentation personally presented through a tract can still have that mass-produced feel, and it feels un-genuine (the unforgivable sin). They will shut you out. The gospel must be presented in such a way that people know you love them and care for them. Otherwise, they will not listen. Tracts make you look like Coca-Cola—but Coke has better ads.
These are some observations by me, but can you trust them? You must study American culture for yourself and pray for God’s wisdom. And study the differences between Christian and non-Christian subcultures. They are quite different, and you don’t want to find yourself preaching a Christian-aimed message to people who don’t know Jesus from Jonah. Rather, we must minister the entrusted, holy, and true gospel, in such a way that people oriented away from truth can receive the hard-to-receive, life-destroying, life-healing power of God.