L. Gregory Jones and Nathan Jones: Deep trends affecting Christian institutions
We can’t ignore them. So our challenge is to cultivate patterns of discernment on how to adapt faithfully and creatively to them.
October 23, 2012 | Vibrant institutions are characterized by traditioned innovation. They continually engage their traditions in ways that create space for innovative engagement in the future. Innovation often seems like a mysterious gift, given only to those geniuses and visionaries who win MacArthur grants and Nobel Prizes.
Yet a closer look at the inner workings of innovation reveals something different. Innovative leaders do not merely rely on their intelligence, nor do they merely engage their traditions in creative ways. They pay attention to their contexts.
Indeed, leaders marked by traditioned innovation pay attention to deep trends that are shaping society and its institutions.
These trends give leaders the raw material that enables them to retrieve key insights and practices from their traditions, tinker with new ideas and solutions in their organizations, and adapt to substantive cultural changes. Vibrant institutions are marked by this kind of leadership that helps to transform wicked problems into innovative, generative solutions.
We describe here seven “deep trends” affecting Christian institutions to provoke conversation about the contexts in which traditioned innovation can occur. We characterize these as “deep trends” because they are more pervasive and perduring than temporary fads or loose speculation.
While they are not guaranteed to keep occurring, it would take major interventions to redirect them, and we think such interventions are unlikely. So the challenge is to cultivate patterns of discernment, guided by the Holy Spirit, on how to adapt faithfully and creatively to them rather than to pretend they don’t exist or to acknowledge but ignore them.
1. The digital revolution
Love it or hate it, we are in the midst of a digital revolution that is fundamentally reshaping much of our daily lives. And too often we find ourselves caught between unreserved enthusiasts for the latest technological fads and Luddite fearmongers telling us that those fads threaten all that is good about life. We need to develop opposable minds that can wrestle with the diverse blessings and burdens that the digital revolution offers.
A young pastor recently noted that “Facebooking” and tweeting are two of his most important ministerial responsibilities. Within minutes of posting a church status update, he can receive dozens of “Likes” and spark a vibrant conversation among parishioners in the comments section. Without Facebook, he wonders, how could such a wide-ranging and immediate encounter take place? Have the church and other Christian institutions ever seen such a powerful mechanism for communication?
Yet at the same time, as virtual relations become increasingly habitual, their drawbacks become more apparent.
Words on a screen can never replace words spoken from mouths; not only can the tonal ambiguity of text lead to unnecessary conflict, but reliance on virtual means of communication can impair our ability to have profound experiences together in the flesh. At its worst, social technology can serve as a surrogate for embodied relationships, leaving us strangely disconnected from the body of Christ.
Beyond its social functions, technology has also generated new possibilities for collaboration and education.
Videoconferencing allows diverse people from various contexts to engage one another, broadening the horizons of each in the process. While the demands of time, travel and money have often closed off collaborative opportunities in the past, videoconferencing ameliorates many of those constraints (and offers environmental benefits as well).
Educational technology, too, offers significant avenues for reshaping the way teachers teach and students learn. Apple, for example, has begun developing student-centric programs, designed to serve the particular learning style of each child. Moreover, experiments in distance learning have expanded from Internet startups at the fringe to rigorous programs at top-tier universities. Stanford’s open-source program has attracted tens of thousands of learners to its free Internet content.
Our growing dependence on technology for sociality, collaboration and education is affecting yet another aspect of our lives: how we think. On one hand, human beings have never had such immediate access to facts and figures, exposure to such a wide range of thoughts and research, or the ability to communicate those thoughts so freely to anyone at any time. On the other hand, this flood of technological stimulation has affected our ability to remain attentive to a single pursuit for a long period of time. How can we best understand the benefits and constraints of technology on our thinking? On the cultivation of wisdom?
Any strategy that institutions develop must take into account the ways that the digital revolution is changing basic patterns of remembering, perceiving, connecting and living daily life -- for good and for ill.
Rather than offering either uncritical praise of the benefits of technology or Luddite criticism of any new invention, we first need to acknowledge that the digital revolution is with us to stay. We then need to develop opposable ways of thinking so we can develop strategies of traditioned innovation.