On Religion

February 21, 2014

God and millenials: it's complicated

When pollster David Kinnaman went to college two decades ago, his Generation X life was surrounded by electronic screens and all the gadgets that connected to them.

There were TV screens, movie screens and new computers, some of which even had speakers. There were VCRs, CD players, cassette recorders, video cameras and other cool devices. The hottest trend was "email" that allowed students to do something Baby Boomers could only dream about -- send private, instant messages to friends in nearby dorms or around the world.

Pop culture was huge. Technology was powerful. But today, all those devices have evolved into one life-changing screen carried by millions of the so-called Millennials -- the smartphone. And through these screens stream the myriad channels, icons, brands, apps and voices that are shaping a generation.

But what religious leaders and educators must understand is that this updated "screen culture" has created the opposite of a unified youth culture, said Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, a faith-centered research firm. While it's accurate, for example, to say pop culture is in "some ways the new religion," that doesn't mean all digital consumers raised during past quarter century share one faith -- quite the opposite.

"Pop culture is becoming a new religious grid, it's becoming the filter through which they examine and interpret their reality," he said, speaking at a national conference in Los Angeles held by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (the global network in which I teach, through the Washington Journalism Center).

The smartphone "screen age is dictating this new 20-something reality," which should affect everything from how churches address sexuality to how colleges teach the Bible, he added. "How it is that we will disciple in this ... digital Babylon is terribly important for us to consider."

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