Gen X, Gadgets, and God

Two bits of religion news caught my attention recently. The first was a short note about research by University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociologist Philip Schwadel on the “religious loyalty” of Gen-Xers (people born between about 1961 and 1981) and Baby Boomers (people born between 1946 and about 1959). According to Schwadel’s examination of data from the General Social Survey, adults raised by Baby Boomer parents are more likely to have no religious affiliation—to be religious “Nones,” in current social research parlance. The unaffiliated religious status of Gen-Xers can be attributed to high rates of Boomers disaffiliation in the 1960s that was passed on to their children. Gen-X disaffiliation squares with data on the overall growth of religious Nones shown in the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey and the American Religious Identification Survey, both released in 2008. In this regard, Schwadel offers little new insight.

However, Schwadel identified a further finding that is especially important if you’re trying to sustain the relevancy and viability of religious institutions. His research shows that among Gen-Xers who were raised with a religious affiliation, commitment to religious practice generally is more durable than that of their religiously-affiliated Boomer parents. While Gen-Xers may change denominations or religions several times during their lives, they are less likely than their parents to entirely chuck the search for spiritual meaning in the context of religious institutions. With lots of religious choices available, Gen-Xers of the religious sort apparently keep trying till they find a fit, and then they stay there.

Authoring One’s Own Religious Narrative

This is the kind of news that seems to bring out the marketer in every other imam, pastor, and rabbi. Once word is out that a reasonable cohort of believers in their thirties and forties is looking for institutional religious roosts, any responsible religious leader will reflect on how best to engage them and keep them connected for the long haul. These days, that engagement is likely to include digital media. What’s a religious leader to do? Blog? Kind of over. Update the Web page with a Ning network? Yawn. Spiffy new Facebook page? Been there; did that. Besides, all of these platforms invite engagement outside of the face-to-face community. They extend the community into the day-to-day lives of believers, so they’re important for ongoing connection, but they’re not necessarily going to invite people in. (Indeed, I’m aware of a number of churches whose social networking site pages are closed to outsiders. Hmmm?)

A modestly tech-savvy minister will eventually come to the conclusion that engagement with believers today has to be both digital and mobile. Thus, I wasn’t surprised to read about an Anglican priest in Nova Scotia who offered a “grace for gadgets” service over Labor Day weekend during which the faithful had to opportunity to have their smartphones, laptops, and other mobile electronic devices blessed. In a similar vein, earlier this year, a Methodist church in Texas began offering special worship packets for children that include MP3 players so that they are able to “hear the gospel in their own child language.”

Both of these efforts recognize a shift in the use of technology in the lives of ordinary believers and seekers. But I’m not so sure they quite get the broader cultural shift that grounds both the developing integration of technology into daily life and the pattern of religious affiliation and associated seeking that Schwadel and other researchers have identified. This pattern, taking into account a Pew study of Religion Among the Millennials, seems to extend from thirty- and forty-year-olds to their twenty-something children. The Millennials study, too, highlighted an overall decline in religious affiliation, but showed religiously-affiliated Millennials as having an intensity of religious commitment as strong that of as pre-Boomer believers. Likewise, the study showed young adult believers as “fairly traditional in their religious beliefs and practices.”

What is different, however, is the level of individual authority that both Gen-Xers and Millennials claim in shaping their spiritual lives within and beyond the contexts of traditional religious institutions. This authority plays out in the oft-noted increase in “churning” from one religious tradition to another as well as in the blending of faith practices that increasingly characterizes American religious life. There was a time, after all, when making the switch from being, say, a Presbyterian to a Catholic with Buddhist leanings was kind of a big deal. Now, not so much.

What amounts, then, to an unprecedented ability to author one’s own religious narrative is reinforced in technological practices that allow users to access, share, and intermingle diverse sources of information on the basis of personal interests and experience. The increasing mobility of digital technology allows this to happen within the flow of everyday life and its myriad relationships rather than at the fixed and solitary altar of the desktop computer.

A Weird Grownup’s Mix Tape in a High-Tech Package

Mobile technological tools bring information to us more quickly and efficiently, and they also allow us to easily select and customize information to address our minute-by-minute needs. This flexibility of access, opportunities for sharing and collaboration, and almost endless options for creative customization extends across generations. This in itself offers a never been before seen level of authority to youth in particular, especially with regard to sacred resources. So, it is not digital tools and toys at the center of cultural change to which religious leaders are attempting to respond, but the nature of spiritual authority itself as it is rapidly evacuated from the upper registers of traditional religious and other social hierarchies.

In this light, an MP3 player loaded with the pastor’s kid-friendly sermons, jiggy religious music, or bible stories punched up for 21st-century hipness doesn’t add up to cultural relevance. The technology may have changed, but authority over the spiritual message remains in the hands of the adult ministers who shape it. Such approaches to the integration of digital media with religious practice fail to grasp the interactive nature of new digital media, which invites both vertical participation between traditionally authoritative sources (like clergy) and laypeople of all ages and horizontal participation across affiliated sectors (such as young adults, Gen-Xers, and so on). Once the novelty of the new church toy wears thin, the falseness of its claim to cultural relevancy is revealed. An MP3 player loaded by the pastor is just a weird grownup’s mix tape in a high-tech package. The kids’ experience of the spiritual in the context of the worship service is not the focus, the pastor’s is.

“Grace for gadgets” perhaps gets a bit closer to the mark in that it offers the special sauce of mainline Christianity for the benefit of techno-spiritual practice outside of church. The digital blessing is a postmodern adaptation of the medieval English tradition of blessing ploughs and other farming tools on “Plough Monday,” the first workday after the Christmas holiday. The idea is to highlight the integration of faith into every aspect of life, within and outside the formal worship site. “It’s about, you know, help me to be the best Christian, the best person I can be in my conversations, my communications,” the Rev. Lisa Vaughn explained to a reporter from the Globe and Mail.

In this regard, Vaughn has made two important gestures toward religious relevancy for Millennials and Gen-Xers. First, she hands over the goods of the church (the blessing) for the enrichment of the spirituality of daily life. “Take, tweet…,” she says to believers, inviting them to see the whole of their lives as spiritual practice and formally endorsing what amounts to their own continuing ministries in the world. Such holistic spiritual practices play an increasingly important role in the lives of American seekers and believers, and ministers seeking relevance are wise to link traditional religious practices to the activities of daily life.

But where blessing mobile phones, family pets, bicycles, and so on gets it wrong is in failing to invite the spiritual experience and creativity of believers back into the formal faith setting. Believers in the Digital Reformation are extensively shaped by a dialogical culture—a culture of near-constant conversation and collaboration. The digital adaptation of the ancient and medieval social reading practice (on which I recently commented) is but one manifestation of a rapidly developing cultural orientation toward the meaningful, creative, and always potentially authoritative involvement of all willing participants in the shaping and reshaping of knowledge and “truth,” including religious truth and its enactment. Blessing the tools of the Digital Reformation, or playing with its toys, without acknowledging the spiritual authority of believers as they use them in the world and bring their experience and insight into religious institutions misunderstands the radically participatory, dialogical, and collaborative nature of a contemporary Western culture informed by digital social technologies. It inadvertently reinforces a line between “faith” and “life” that believers now routinely transgress.

Bible Mash-Up

Where religious institutions and their leaders struggle with this cultural transition, religiously committed innovators fill the breach. In an insightful essay in Cultural Encounters, Benjamin Meyers explores the role of blogging in the shaping of theological discourse and the formation of the spiritual self in community. As blogging wanes as a digital practice generally, the interactive reshaping of spiritual life mobile computing applications—apps—are taking up the creative slack in inviting believers, seekers, and non-believers of all stripes into what Meyers refers to as the “adventurous and always unpredictable exploration of God’s strange and surprising ways with the world.”

Scholars and religion journalists are just beginning to address the impact of religious apps on the shaping of formal and informal religious life, but it is certain that these technologies—along with Facebook religious group pages and religiously-themed Twitter feeds (both often linked to apps)—are making a powerful claim on normative religious faith. This is abundantly clear with regard to the Bible, which is being rewritten every day as believers excerpt, translate (intentionally or otherwise), mash-up, share, and comment on passages with a reverent abandon that would have been unthinkable to the most committed medieval Lollard or Lutheran.

I recently talked with Ryan Dry, for instance, an attorney in Texas who launched an app called the “Holy Roller” earlier this year. As far as I can tell, Dry is not himself a Holy Roller in the conventional sense. Rather, vaguely Methodist, with no strong church affiliation, Dry turned privately to scripture for guidance throughout his life. And, he was really digging all the apps on his new iPhone. So, eventually, he created an app that would provide “Biblical guidance to your everyday ups and downs.” With it, users select from a scrolling list of “blessings” (friendship, new home) or “burdens” (anger, money), shake the phone, and get a Bible verse to guide reflection in the course of daily life.

What is cool about apps like the Holy Roller is not, however, just what they contain and how that has been selected, but where they go and what comes back. That is, a user of the Holy Roller can share a meaningful verse with others, and they can also send suggestions of topics and related verses to Dry for inclusion in ongoing revisions of the app. In essence, Dry, a religiously unaffiliated guy with only the spiritual authority of the Web and a prayer, has created not merely a digital tool, but an interactive spiritual practice that is progressively interpreting and reconfiguring scripture in the context of a multilingual, global community. The practice itself “blesses” the iPhones and their users. Similar collaborative transformations are happening with literally hundreds of apps, Facebook groups, and Twitter feeds for the Bible, the Qur’an, the Torah, the Book of Mormon, the Roman Catholic Missal, the Book of Common Prayer, and so on. No ordained clergy, no religious institution, no religious scholar required.

Here we return to Schwadel’s research on the durability of religious affiliation among Gen-Xers and the Pew findings on the religious interests of Millennials. Americans, it seems, are not losing religion, but rebuilding it. For those who still anchor the meeting of their spiritual needs to clergy, this perhaps results in a frustrating demand for “concierge ministers,” as G. Jeffrey MacDonald recently complained in an op-ed on clergy burnout. But I suspect that at least some clergy burnout today stems from efforts to retain a kind of spiritual authority in the daily lives of believers that many believers have themselves claimed through spiritual entrepreneurialism in collaboration with others across globally distributed communities of affiliation. Given this, the quest for institutional religious relevance seems to lie in developing ways—technologically-based and otherwise—of participating with believers and seekers in the redistribution of spiritual authority and associated reinstitutionalizing of religious practice rather than in integrating digital gimmicks into lingering religious structures. In the end, it may be that the only way to save the religious traditions many people still hold dear is to actively participate in giving them away.

* My thanks to Steven C. Bauman, PhD (Cand.) and Marilyn Matevia, PhD (Cand.), who shared valuable resources for this article.

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