In this book, “Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World,” James Emery White seeks to not only describe the new cultural climate we live in, but also advocate a new way of doing mission in our world.
In describing our current cultural climate White tells us that we now have a “squishy religious center.” What he means is that as a result of increased secularization, privatization and pluralization in our world, people conceive of religion differently. Traditionally, as Peter Berger has shown, the role of religion was as a “sacred canopy” which covered our contemporary culture. Back in the day, religion had once “blanketed” most all of society and culture. But today, that canopy is gone, “replaced by millions of small tents under which we can choose to dwell.”
Secularization means there is less of a supportive context for faith. Privatization has made all things related to faith a private affair, like having a favorite color or food. And pluralization puts us face-to-face with the reality that there are multiple faiths and world views that contend for our attention. White says this leads to a squishy center where you have (a generous) 25% of Secularists on one end of the country and on the other end you have another 25% of true Christian believers. In between these two poles, we have 50% of the country. This is what White calls the “squishy center.” His figure goes something like this:
25% Secularists_________ (50% Squishy Center) _____________25% Believers
The people in the middle are “squishy” because these people tend to be soft and pliable in terms of being shaped. Their individual beliefs have little definition and even less conviction. The people in this squishy center tend to thus move toward whatever is culturally more influencing at the moment. Wherever the culture goes, they go. In the past, forces within culture would have moved many people to the “Believers” side, but culture has changed in such a way that White says people are moving more toward the “Secularists” side. Later on (pages 108-109), White sheds further light on this.
He says in thinking about the unchurched person in 1960, we could surmise reasonably some typical beliefs they had such as belief in the deity of Christ; a belief that truth exists and the Bible is trustworthy; would have had a church background and foundational knowledge of the essential truths of Christianity, etc. Given all of this, White would place the average person in 1960 at an “8” out of 10 in terms of their readiness to engage with and respond to the Gospel. His figure looks like this:
All it would take to move them from an 8 to a 10 (crossing the line of faith) was a bump. This is why “event” evangelism worked so well way back them. But White says this is no longer where the majority of people are and thus we need different strategies for moving forward. Today, White would put the typical unchurched person at a 3 and not an 8, precisely for the above said reasons:
These analogies were some of my favorite parts of the book. I think he is generally true and it definitely resonates with my own experience of what ministry is like in New England. Ministry cannot be event centric or event driven if what we are looking for is true discipleship. I see events as sparks that can lead to the fire, but they are by no means where the heat is found.
White then dedicates about 75 pages to what this should mean for our mission, and I’d like to highlight just one warning for us which he calls the “Curse of Knowledge.” This warning should affect the way we think about sharing God with our neighbors today. On page 112, He recommends we try something. Tap out the beats to “Happy Birthday” with your hand on a desk or chair or whatever is handy where you are reading this. You’re singing the song in your head while tapping out the beats with your hand or fingers. It takes only a few seconds.
Okay, once you do it, ask yourself, “Do I think most people would guess the song based on my beats?” It’s such a familiar song that, if you’re like most people, you probably imagine they would have. This was an actual experiment conducted at Stanford University. Researchers found that listeners were able to guess a song right only about 2.5 % of the time – getting three songs out of about 120.
But here’s what’s interesting. The person tapping thought those listening were getting it right at least 90% of the time. The difference was that the tapper was hearing the song in their head. When they were tapping, they couldn’t imagine the other person not hearing the song in the background. This is called the curse of knowledge. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it’s like not to know it. White concludes his analogy by asking,
“Have you forgotten what it’s like to be apart from Christ?…”
“The world needs you to remember.”
How about that, for new missional strategy?! If you ask me, it sounds like a great start…
*Full Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied*