A while back I was sat talking with a group of young Christians who would fit within what’s commonly called, ‘Gen Z,’ and one of them turned to me and said that the greatest issue facing her generation of believers was the proliferation of sources of authority.
Which is quite a claim, I don’t think it’s where most of us would draw attention to.
I’d been speaking to a group of church workers, because of my setting they were all Millennials and Gen Z. We’d been talking about Generation Z and the differences between the two generations. I’d drawn attention to four key areas that I think typify Gen Z: they are Digital Natives; they grew up in an Anxious Age; they’re Growing Up Slower; and they’ve been taught to Form Their Own Identities.
I’d been careful to highlight problems, but not to suggest that Generation Z are the problem, or that all of my four features are bad thingsTM for all they can all cause bad things. My own Millennial generation has plenty of its own problems. Every generation does.
Or for a more theological angle on this: sin wreaks systemic effects in time, and those systemic effects change with time. They aren’t necessarily better or worse, but understanding them is helpful to the task of pastoring.
I was struck by her suggestion that ‘authority’ was the problem. I think I’d be wary of calling any issue the ‘greatest,’ but more because I favour multivalent answers to complex problems. And I do actually talk like that.
Or, to put it another way, most problems are more complex than they look and are caused by a wide array of factors, many of which are difficult to determine. Which, to be fair, is difficult to read about and can end up feeling paralysing. I’m also a fan of spotting the long cause and would draw some of the features I see in Gen Z to factors as wide as Homer’s poetry, the fencing of English sheep fields in the 16th century, and the invention of the automobile.
Before we fall headlong down those rabbit warrens, which while interesting prove little beyond that everything effects everything else, let’s return to my friend’s point: there are too many sources of authority.
She wasn’t talking about authority in the sense you sometimes hear in the church that people with ‘authority’ have the ‘right’ to tell you what to do, which is true to an extent and is overblown into controlling cultures very easily, but in the wider sense of who do you trust to tell you the truth.
A number of examples were given; from your family to your friends, to your pastor, to what you find in Google, to what your favourite influencer thinks. In and of itself having more information is not intrinsically bad, though it has a deformative effect when we can’t manage or understand the rate of its flow. Her main point was this: for someone in Gen Z all of those sources are ranked as having the same credibility, it’s entirely flat.
Which sounds meritorious and democratic but is terrifying. Your pastor isn’t always going to be right, and he probably needs to realise that too (I certainly do), but he is going to be able to help you get to Jesus as your source of authority, help you search the scriptures, and tell you what the church thinks about the decisions you’re wrestling with, whatever they may be.
I call this feature of our culture Youtubeification. It’s a feature of our social media networks, everyone is a talking head now, everyone has a platform, everyone is a celebrity, and so everyone’s views are potentially worth considering as equally valuable.
I have a YouTube channel, though I haven’t posted on it in years now, and they’ve hardly been viewed by a lot of people, but there’s something intoxicating about the idea that people might want to hear what I have to say.
It’s an understandable draw but it isn’t great for our hearts.
He says. Writing on a website with a moderately wide reach around the world. Telling you what to do.
What’s the point? I guess the first is simply to notice that this is happening. Look for it in yourself and see where you find your sources of authority.
The second, and more substantive, point would be that flesh and blood matters. Someone who you only know mediated via a screen cannot know you as well as someone who is physically present with you. That’s because we’re bodies as much as we’re minds, the internet only engages parts of us, embodied conversation engages all of us.
You might want to push back on some of that, and that wouldn’t be unreasonable, it needs some nuance and I would accept that there are plenty of people where the people who know them ‘best’ are those who know them online—I just want to contend that you cannot be as fully known when mediated via devices as you can face-to-face, and that our deepest relationships are supposed to be face-to-face, side-by-side, flesh-and-blood relationships. This really matters.
You do not have to do everything your friends, or your pastors, say. But you should listen to them.
My final point is broader. Whoever you’re listening to, test everything they tell you by the scriptures. The Bible is our ultimate authority, and has so much to teach us that will impact on any decision you might be making.
Learn the Bible, test everything by it. You can still be wrong doing so, I’m sure I am on some issues—though if I knew where, of course I’d change my mind!—but you’ll have the right approach, and your Pastor will thank you for it. Even when you show him that he’s wrong, from the text.
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