Oh what it is to grow up digital
Amongst all that I am supposed to do as an ordained minister is the fact that in my ordination I made a vow to be a good student of all that will deepen my faith and fit me to bear witness to the truth of the gospel. I am also a curate and therefore still in a period of training although sometimes it feels like I’m a long way away from anything ‘theoretical’ (which is what I always associate with training, wrongly I guess).
While it may not be the average book that curates are reading around the country, I’ve recently finished reading Grown Up Digital by Don Tapscott. The book was inspired by a large research project which spoke to over 10,000 people and produced over 40 reports. It assesses the worldview, culture and impact of what Don terms ‘the Net Generation’ – people born between January 1977 and December 1997. Those who right now in 2009 are between the ages of 12 and 32.
It’s a fascinating read that has done a great deal for me in trying to make sense of several different things. Firstly, I read this book for my dissertation and how Church both now and in the future will look for this generation who were the first to be truly digital from their earliest days on the planet. Secondly, I read it for the very practical and down-to-earth reason that I am currently running a youth group for a bunch of kids all born in the early to mid nineties. Making the point about being digital from day one, I was at university when my current youth group were being born. I was learning how to code HTML by hand and built my first website for Netscape 2.0 using Notepad when they were having their nappies changed. They simply have never known a world without the Internet.
I take some of what Tapscott says with a pinch of salt. There’s an element of proud dad in his assessment given that he has ‘Net Generation’ kids. He’s clearly keen (and I would add – absolutely right) to run against the tide of opinion that sees this generation as a waste, infantile, selfish, delinquent, narcissistic and all the rest… but I think he does that in part because he is a dad to NetGen kids and I can understand that; I wouldn’t want my kids written off just for existing in a certain era. There’s also an element of his own background as a sixties rebel in his overly positive assessment of the way NetGen may be altruistic, caring and keen to implement social revolution. Nevertheless, this is a good book that deserves a bit of time and effort and consideration.
For me, I’m left wondering how as a minister of the Church what impact this generation will have. Tapscott notes a number of NetGen norms like freedom to customise and personalise, scrutiny and integrity, collaboration, entertainment and speed that he illustrates with reference to education, the family, the world of work and more and I think in every area of the Church – how we do church worship but also how we teach the faith, how we encourage families, how we support people in their work – his book provides insight and challenges.
He’s made sense for me of videos like these two (one on the BBC and one on YouTube) of the Google office buildings with their emphases on fun, personalisation and collaboration that seem extremely alien to the generations of workers who preceded NetGen. Such ‘Boomers’ take one look at Google’s HQ and assume they must all be layabouts and wasters and simply don’t get the notion that these new NetGen work environments could be facilitating the personnel of one of the most influential, powerful and innovative companies of the 21st Century. When I first saw that Google video a year ago, I made a note of it and wrote down in disgust – ‘what does it say about the world we live in?’ Now I get it and understand that actually Google have understood what it takes to harness the NetGen and all you need to do is take a look at their share price (even in such economically bleak times) and how worried the behemoth Microsoft is about them to see what impact it is having on their business.
I am also thinking about our Café Church services that we run once a month where numbers are going up steadily and our youth group are heavily involved. It doesn’t look much like normal church. We discuss rather than being taught by a lengthy sermon, we customize and maybe even entertain through our ‘fun’ interactive prayer stations that involve doing things or creating things or adapting things. To my cost, I’ve found that decisions and directions need to be taken transparently and ready for scrutiny, with discussion and collaboration rather than decided upon by ‘leaders’ with the expertise behind closed doors.
I’m also thinking about some of our former youth group members now in their twenties who have set up their own ‘mission’ projects in other parts of the world without really worrying about church structures or proper ways of doing things. Some people might see them as renegade for just going out and doing it off their own back or is just typical of the way this generation thinks? I listened to one such lady yesterday in a talk she was giving as she explained how she went on mission to Rwanda, was changed by it and responded by setting up her own charity in this country. She has since bought a house in Rwanda and now houses about 35 kids who used to be street children. They are fed, housed, and schooled where none of that existed before. She’s a student in the UK now but still runs this charity from her bedroom and plans to visit again in her summer break. It was all deeply challenging stuff.
All these things, Google, the Café Church model and these innovating altruists all fit Tapscott’s model and that has really got me thinking. The book is 300 odd pages, but if you don’t fancy the big read well lucky for you I discovered today that the book also has a blog so stick it in your RSS reader and see how you get on.