My father passed away from a brain tumor in 1981, my senior year in college. My mother had once beaten cancer in 1978 but it returned to take her life in 2006. At my mother’s death I became an orphan.
Assigned the unenviable task of cleaning out my mother’s house after she passed away, I came upon a drawer filled with old cassette tapes. Most were not labeled and the few that were labeled only mentioned random dates, including the one I held in my hand. “Dec 1, 1972.” That was my mother’s fortieth birthday.
Curiosity got the best of me.
Having no tape recorder in sight, I walked to my car and slipped the cassette into the tape player. After a few seconds I heard people singing “Happy Birthday.” The voices sounded distantly familiar. It was my sister, my dad, and I singing to my mom forty-two years earlier. We had bought my mother a tape recorder and decided that evening to leave it recording during dinner.
Nothing special was said that evening. My dad discussed his long day at work. My mom shared how she had gone to lunch with some old friends. My sister told us about dance class. Apparently I had been struggling with a cold and had to miss gym that day. We were all concerned about the approaching winter and if we would have enough firewood. Later that evening my grandparents and great-grandmother joined us around the table to celebrate and continue the conversation.
I sat in the car and listened to a forty-two year old nondescript conversation long forgotten in time. I wept. I had forgotten the sound of my father’s voice, missed the laughter of my mom, and the stories from my grandmother. I longed for the loving wisdom of my great-grandmother.
That evening, four generations of my family had sat around the table and talked, laughed, and discussed absolutely nothing for hours. But I cried, longing for it again. We shared that night. But in only a few years’ time, they were all gone; the people around the table along with the sharing. In less than a generation we were no longer having dinner. In less time than that, we had forgotten how to have a conversation. Society as a whole has forgotten how to dialogue. We have forgotten how to share. We have forgotten how to trust. We have forgotten how to engage.
Today’s teens and young adults have access to relational networks and new sets of digital tools on the web and mobile devices that enable and encourage them to engage with and trust others like no previous generation has ever imagined. This generation struggles because the same technology designed to connect them often results in their social isolation. Rather than turn away from emerging technology, it must be embraced and explored as a tool for spiritual engagement with those seeking to learn more about God.
Robert Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, contends that social capital, defined by the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, may turn out to be a prerequisite for, rather than a consequence of, effective digital relationships in the future. We need to take a fresh look at what it means to be in “community.”
- The emerging sociological complexity of the present teen and young adult generations make the traditional processes of spiritual engagement and discipleship much more challenging. Many attempts to continue adhering to the traditional methods of spiritual growth of even a generation ago contribute to driving this generation further away from spiritual awakening. While the youngest are drawn towards the temporal experiences and virtual community offered by new technology, the increased isolation driven by this same technology builds barriers to true engagement.
- Here are some suggestions to reestablishing conversation in your home:
- Don’t deny the digital. Have everyone go into his or her own room and get on a video Google Plus hangout. Video is paramount to this generation so learn to use it, even if it means sharing a video link with them down the hallway behind their closed door.
- The trouble with Twitter. Social media is generally short feature content. Everything is often limited to 140 characters, short two sentence descriptions, or a simple picture. Start a chain letter within your family that has them sharing their thoughts using pen and paper. If your children aren’t familiar with “pen and paper” you may want to have them google it.
- Choose some period of time for a digital Sabbath. Have everyone (and that means parents too!) lock up their cell phones, tablets, and laptops for some agreed period of time. The children can’t get on Facebook but dad can’t check office email either. It may be once a week or once a month, but give it a try.
So, those churches, religious organizations, and even our families with a vested spiritual interest in reaching this generation must research and answer the question, “How does this generation and my family want to leverage technology to engage with someone who will also respond to their early spiritual questions?”
We must answer that or we will all lose relevancy.