I recently wrapped up a unit in my undergraduate spiritual formations course by asking students to identify and describe current cultural factors that impact spiritual formation in U. S. churches. Their responses were intriguing. They provided poignant insight on the culture as a whole as well as their subculture specifically. As members of a demographic that is leaving the church in droves (18-22 yrs), I believe we should listen to and learn from their perspective. Here is a compiled, summarized and categorized look at their responses:
The vast majority of students identified the impact of technology on spiritual formations. The style and scope of this influence varies greatly. Students recognized positive and negative aspects of social media and digital accessibility.
Social media impacts the communal aspects of Christianity. Students pointed out the positive impact of accountability and interaction through Facebook, Twitter and other forums. Wisely, they also discussed the negative implications of virtual community. They recognize that many Christians have virtual “friends” and “followers” but lack the Biblical community that requires face-to-face interaction. Students also pointed out the danger of making private devotional activities public. They expressed concerns about posting or tweeting Bible verses for public endorsement rather than personal edification. Amber Kellum wrote, “Such an atmosphere can often lead to seeking Jesus inwardly for the purpose of receiving outward praise, rather than out of a desire and devotion to and for the Lord.”
Accessibility of Bibles and devotional material through technology offers a double edged sword. Through our class, students discovered access to classic devotion writers, often free online or through open sources on e-readers. Digital Bibles also provide access to Scripture while on the go. Of course, students also pointed out the obvious dangers of distraction inherent in technological advances. Tessa Chavka noted that accessibility of the Bible on her phone is often mitigated by the distractions that the same phone introduces into her time of study. “My phone has become another limb on my body and although I do use it to read my devotional and my Bible, it is a distraction more than anything.”
The philosophical impact of post-modernism in the church is undeniable. Students recognize the impact of post-modernism in two other –ism’s: spiritualism and individualism.
Several students pointed out the increased contemporary interest in spirituality. They pointed to movies like The Twilight Series as evidence of cultural intrigue with spiritual things. Of course, they noted that this interest in the spiritual frequently excludes Christianity. Ironically, many modern representations of Christianity minimize the spiritual component; effectively pushing those who are curious about spiritual things to alternative forms of spirituality.
The most pervasive characteristic of post-modernism is the emphasis on individualism and tolerance. Students recognized the impact of individualism in Bible studies where people say, “I see where that verse might mean that to you, but to me it means __________________.” This tolerance extends beyond the church to the culture at large. Non-believers attack Christian beliefs and values as intolerant and dogmatic. Christians face temptation to weaken their moral convictions in the face of public scrutiny.
Elizabeth Thomason noted the impact of individualism in the cultural obsession with self-help and self-improvement. She pointed out that some confuse spiritual formation with the common self-help literature. When this is the case, believers seek to “improve” based on their own power and ability, neglecting the work of the Spirit in the process of spiritual formation.
3. Social Justice
Several students noted that their generation has an interest in social justice. They want to clothe, feed, and house individuals in the name of Jesus. They want to see the Gospel in action. Organizations like Toms shoes reveal the social conscience of this generation. However, students also recognize that increased social action runs the risk of diluting the gospel. They fear that some socially-active Christians lose sight of the Christian component of the action. Students worried that some activism results from the desire to be trendy rather than the desire to be Christ-like.
4. Theological Awareness
The increased hunger for theological awareness represents a positive reaction to post-modernism’s assault on absolutes. As Nick Jefson wrote, “There is a rebellion against the idea of no true truth, and the trend is to identify, explain, defend and live out the truth in Scriptures. This desire to know truth and live out truth drives many Christians to improve their own spiritual lives and to search for meaning within the context of the church.” I believe this student’s assessment of the hunger for theological awareness in his generation is accurate. I am encouraged to see students engage in theological dialogue and thought. Many refuse to accept water-downed substitutes for faith. Instead, they actively pursue a robust faith firmly rooted in Scripture.
As you can see from these observations, we are blessed to have bright, thoughtful students at Anderson University. I am thankful for the privilege of working with them. They challenge and inspire me. I hope this list challenges you to think through the impact of contemporary culture on spiritual formations. What items would you add to this list? Reply and let us learn from your insight.
Kristopher Barnett is a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity in Biblical Languages (2001) and a Ph.D. in theology with a concentration in preaching (2008). His dissertation was A Historical/Critical Analysis of Dialogical Preaching. His undergrad work was completed at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas with a B.A. in Communication (1997).
Prior to joining the Christian studies faculty at Anderson University, Dr. Barnett served as pastor to three different churches; Forestburg Baptist Church (TX), Ridglea West Baptist Church (TX) and most recently, East Pickens Baptist Church (SC). Prior to pastoral ministry, he served as youth minister at two churches and did a youth internship at another.
Kris Barnett is the author of What Now?, a companion guide to the Bible. He is a member of the Evangelical Homiletic Society and has twice presented papers at the EHS conference (Wake Forest, NC and Birmingham, AL). Dr. Barnett enjoys filling the pulpit for local churches and serving in an interim role for churches seeking a pastor.
Dr. Barnett is married to Kelly, who is a graduate of ASU with a Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in psychology. They have four children, Kenzie, Karsen, Noah, and Kassie.