In the 1990s, I was introduced to a new technology that only required my attention every three days or so: the Internet. I would plug the phone cord into my computer and sit through a sequence of bings, bongs, and white noise until I heard those three exciting words, "You've got mail!" I was instantly connected to the world through my desktop, and the possibilities were endless and fun. Then something changed. Today the Internet is not so fun. It mostly represents work and obligation and distraction, as attested by my return from a recent vacation, when I was greeted by more than 700 messages. The thought of more email now makes me cringe.
Like most church leaders, I try to maintain the crumbling margins in my life against a world of Facebook posts, phone calls, tweets, text messages, 24/7 news coverage, and constant connection.
Analysis of this colossal shift in culture is not new. Thousands of articles, books, and blogs have been written on how the pace at which we are living is chipping away at our already thin boundaries. A recent New York Times article states that 20 percent of Americans are taking some type of psychological drug to cope with the pressures of our brave new world. Our stress and inability to disconnect for rest and reflection is leading us to early graves.
How has constant connection and endless distraction changed the church's task? How are we to advance our ministries without compounding the problem? How do we shepherd overwhelmed sheep?
How followers have changed
Possibly the biggest transition since the onslaught of media-saturated culture is that the church's trajectory is being shaped less by where church leaders are trying to direct it and more by the responses of their followers. A leader's course matters less when those being led won't or can't follow due to an avalanche of distraction, competing messages, and overly stressed lives.
Most of the training we receive focuses on the ways of a leader. Allow me to suggest a more pertinent question: How do digital-age believers follow? They are now showing at least three significant traits.
Resistance to commit
Overwhelmed people don't commit, at least not long-term. Sure, recruitment has always been an uphill battle, but now the grade is steeper than ever. People don't search for ways they can be involved; they focus on what they can avoid. The default answer of those we lead is "no" or at best, "maybe." They're looking for subtraction, not addition.
This dynamic has hobbled many key events that churches have used for years to shape the lives of their members. Take for example my church's yearly men's conference. I'm regularly told that these events are life-changing, but these verbal affirmations don't match the statistics. Conference attendance has dwindled over the last seven years. By 2011, 70 percent of our attendees were not committing to the event until less than three weeks before the opening session began. Without advance commitments, the event was impossible to plan. It became too much of a fiscal risk to secure retreat center spots that might not fill, so this year we pulled the plug altogether.
I have heard many leaders blame this on the economy or some lack of spiritual fervency, but I could not disagree more. The culprit is not lack of money or spiritual merit, but lack of margin. These spiritual touchstone events have degraded into one more option in an already over-saturated calendar.