From Zero to Sixty

Thanks to business guru Jim Collins, the idea has become part of every leadership culture: get the right people on the bus and then get them in the right seats on the bus.

It’s a good idea.

Few things matter more than hiring the right people and recruiting the right volunteers. But getting a quality person is only half the battle—you then have to make sure they are situated where they need to be organizationally. 

Meaning, you have to place them in a “seat” on the bus that fits their natural abilities and spiritual gifts, allows their natural passions to flow and is in accord with their personality type. Collins is right: getting the right people on the bus, and then getting them in the right seat, is critical.

Let’s set aside getting the right people on the bus… how do you know when someone is in the right seat?

I was asked this recently and gave an off-the-cuff answer that intuitively reflected my years of experience, but I had never stated it before. Upon reflection, I became even more convinced of its truth.

Here’s what I said:

“If they intuitively make the right decision 60% of the time, they are in the right seat. You can coach them up to 80-90% in terms of good decision making, but if they don’t bring that foundational 60% to the seat, it’s not a good fit.”

I’ve written about the five “Cs” of effective hiring: character, catalytic, chemistry, calling and competence. The 60% has to do with competence.

Competence has to do with the raw capability, the essential skills, needed to do a job. I’ve often commented that this is the least of the five, as it is the one thing that can, indeed, be taught.

I have hired countless numbers of people who had no background in ministry. In many ways, I like this. They bring their personal, educational and corporate skills to the table without preconceived notions regarding the practice of ministry. The basic competencies needed vary from role to role, but generally I look for the ability to get along with others, enthusiasm, a positive attitude and raw leadership gifts.

But there is one aspect of competence you can’t teach: the basic 60% of intuitively correct decision making. This cannot be taught, coached or mentored. When this isn’t present, no matter how much I’ve poured into them, they consistently make poor decisions in light of mission, vision, values and target. 

It’s like they just can’t “get it.”

I know I have the right person in the right seat when they come to me for coaching, share how they are going to handle a situation or a decision they are planning on making, and I am able to say, “That is exactly what I would do.” Or, whether I would have had the wisdom and insight to make the same call myself, I can wholeheartedly say, “That is a great decision.”

So when trying to find someone’s seat on the bus, realize what you can – and can’t – coach. You can get them from 60 to 80 or 90, but you can’t take anyone from zero to 60.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Jim Collins, From Good to Great.

James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary.

A Quiz Christians Need to Learn to Pass

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal noted that global spending on artificial intelligence is rising and shows no sign of slowing down:

“Organizations are expected to invest $35.8 billion in AI systems this year, up 44% over last year, according to International Data Corp. And AI spending is projected to more than double to $79.2 billion by 2022.

“Today, about half of all companies have at least one AI system installed and an additional 30% have pilot projects in place, according to a survey by the business and economics research arm of McKinsey & Co.”

In his book Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, MIT professor Max Tegmark classifies life forms into three levels of sophistication: Life 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0. Using the term hardware to refer to “matter” and software to refer to “information,” he deems that Life 1.0 is “life where both the hardware and software are evolved rather than designed.” Human beings are Life 2.0, “life whose hardware is evolved, but whose software is largely designed.”

Life 3.0 is life that “can design not only its software but also its hardware. In other words, Life 3.0 is the master of its own destiny, finally free from its evolutionary shackles.” So if something like bacteria is Life 1.0 and humans are Life 2.0, what is Life 3.0? 

Artificial intelligence. Or, more specifically, “artificial general intelligence” (AGI). Rudimentary forms of AI are already with us in everything from the facial recognition software in Apple’s iPhone X to our digital assistants Siri, Alexa and Cortana. The holy grail is AGI, which is AI reaching human-level intelligence and beyond, being able to accomplish virtually any goal, including learning. 

So in short, Life 1.0 is biological, Life 2.0 is cultural and Life 3.0 is technological.

So how much do you know about AI?

The same Wall Street Journal article put together a little quiz to see:

1. Below are definitions for artificial intelligence, deep learning, machine learning and natural language processing. Match each term to its definition:

A. _____ takes text or speech as input and can “read” or extract meaning from it.
B. _____ encompasses techniques used to teach computers to learn, reason, perceive, infer, communicate and make decisions similar to or better than humans.
C. _____ is a powerful statistical technique for classifying patterns using large training data sets and multilayer AI neural networks.
D. _____ is the science of getting computers to act intelligently without being explicitly programmed.

Answers: A = Natural language processing; B = Artificial intelligence; C = Deep learning; D = Machine-learning

2. Which of the following sectors spends the most on AI systems?

A. Banking
B. Discrete manufacturing
C. Health care
D. Process manufacturing
E. Retail 

Answer: E. Retail companies will invest $5.9 billion this year, leading all other sectors.

3. What’s the upper end of the salary range for AI developers and machine-learning engineers?

A. $150,000
B. $175,000
C. $200,000
D. $225,000
E. $250,000 

Answer: C. AI developers and machine-learning engineers have annual salaries of up to $200,000, according to a report in January from the New York staffing firm Mondo.

4. What was the growth in job postings for machine-learning engineers between 2015 and 2018?

A. 68%
B. 136%
C. 204%
D. 272%
E. 344% 

Answer: E. There was 344% growth, according to job-search site Indeed.com.

5. Who invented the term artificial intelligence?

A. Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov
B. Dartmouth College mathematician John McCarthy
C. Mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing
D. Computer scientist Grace Hopper.
E. Former IBM chairman Thomas J. Watson 

Answer: B. John McCarthy came up with the term in the mid-1950s.

6. How much global economic activity will AI deliver between now and 2030?

A. $4 trillion
B. $9 trillion
C. $10 trillion
D. $13 trillion
E. $16 trillion 

Answer: D. AI has the potential to add approximately $13 trillion, or 1.2% additional global GDP growth per year, according to McKinsey & Co.

7. How many organizations have embedded at least one AI-backed function in their business processes?

A. 17
B. 24%
C. 39%
D. 47%
E. 56% 

Answer: D. 47%, according to McKinsey & Co. 

8. Who said AI “could spell the end of the human race”?

A. Tesla CEO Elon Musk
B. Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking
C. 2001: A Space Odyssey author Arthur C. Clarke
D. World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee
E. Microsoft Co-Founder Bill Gates 

Answer: B. Stephen Hawking

So how did you do? If not so well, it might be time to start studying. Actually, there’s no “might” about it.

It’s time.

The potential of AI for good – or ill – is staggering. As Tegmark notes, “we might build technology powerful enough to permanently end [social] scourges, or to end humanity itself. We might create societies that flourish like never before, on Earth and perhaps beyond, or a Kafkaesque global surveillance state so powerful that it could never be toppled.”

Tesla and SpaceZ CEO Elon Musk told the National Governors Association last fall that his exposure to AI technology suggests it poses “a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization.” Cosmologist Stephen Hawking agreed, saying that AI could prove “the worst event in the history of civilization.” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, however, calls such talk “irresponsible.”

Who is right?

No wonder it has been called the most important conversation of our time. Whether it proves to be, it is certainly a conversation that needs Christian minds that are informed and engaged.

So make sure the next time you take the quiz,

… you pass.

James Emery White

 

Sources

John McCormick, “Test Your Knowledge of Artificial Intelligence,” The Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2019, read online.

Max Tegmark, Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence (Knopf, 2017).

Marco della Cava, “Elon Musk Says AI Could Doom Human Civilization. Zuckerberg disagrees. Who’s right?”, USA Today, January 2, 2018, read online.

Are You Organized for Control or Growth?

One of the pastors on our staff was overheard saying to another staffer, “One of the things that makes Meck so different is that it is not organized for control, but organized for growth.”

He gets it.

It’s a simple, but profound, idea.

When you are organized for control, then your decision making, systems, processes… they’re all about controlling things. The goal is to make sure everything is done a certain way, or that everything done is allowed. It’s more about the preservation of the status quo than it is the challenge of it.

When you are organized for growth, you are structured for rapid decision making, fluid thinking, the absence of sacred cows, the ability to think outside of the box. You are constantly asking: “How can we do this better? What would be even more effective?”

And leaders are free to follow the conclusions.

I cannot begin to tell you how frustrating it is to lead a seminar or conference, lay out some simple decision or action that would radically improve a church’s health or effectiveness, and have it be met by a chorus of leaders saying, “We can’t do that.” And nine times out of 10, it’s not because they don’t have the money, the volunteers, the facility, or even the desire—it’s because they don’t have the freedom

They are not organized for growth, but for control.

And if they tried to get the permission needed by whatever authority is in place, they would be shut down because that “authority” is not trained, sensitized or inclined to make such decisions. If anything, they are vested in the status quo. So the ones best able to make decisions are not allowed to; the ones least qualified are. Or decision making is so radically democratized and shared, requiring so much time to act, that you lose the window of time to act!

I know there are a wide number of approaches to church government, from “elder rule” to a more congregationally based approach. Yet most forms of church government have three features that dominate their structure: committees, policies and majority rule. 

None of these terms are found in the Bible, and all three can kill you.

For example, committees keep the people who are doing the ministry from making the decisions about the ministry. Authority and responsibility become separate from one another. An effective structure, on the other hand, lets the individuals who are the most intimately involved in a particular ministry and the best qualified make the day-in, day-out decisions regarding that ministry. 

The problem with policies is what Philip Howard calls the death of common sense. A policy makes decisions and directs procedure independent of the situation. In many ways, this is considered to be the strength of a policy. The dilemma is that it removes judgment from the process.

For example, a few years ago the federal government bought hammers using a specification manual that was 33 pages long. Why not just trust people to go out and buy hammers? And if they can’t be trusted to do that, then get different people in the position.

Another problem with policies is that they can become an end unto themselves. Rather than the policies serving the organization, the organization begins to serve the policies. Pretty soon how things are done becomes far more important than what is done. 

Here’s a great question for your church structure that I believe was first suggested to my thinking in something I read by (or heard from) George Barna: “Suppose your church had an opportunity to implement a ministry that had a high potential for positive impact, but needed to get started immediately. Could your church spring into action within hours or, at the most, a few days?”

Some of the most strategic decisions we’ve ever made had to be made within days, if not hours. And we were structured to be able to do it.

Now, about majority rule. Majority rule is rooted in American democracy and, as a result, has often been incorporated unthinkingly into the church. The first misgiving about majority rule is noted by Yale University Professor Marshall Edelson, who writes how an excess of consensus, or an over-enthusiasm for democratic principles, can render an organization impotent in terms of actually doing anything. 

The second misgiving about majority rule (and one far more serious) is the Bible teaches that the church is a family. 

In most family structures, the immature (children) outnumber, or at least equal, the mature (parents). In my family, there were two parents and four children. If we had voted on everything, we would have had ice cream for dinner every night, no bedtimes and lived at Disney World.

The church is a family and, therefore, should be understood to have differing levels of spiritual maturity present in the lives of its members. If every decision is made by the majority instead of the most spiritually mature, then there is a very strong chance that the majority could mislead the church.   

This is precisely what happened with the Israelites. Moses sent 12 spies into the Promised Land in order to report back to the people whether it was everything God promised. All 12 agreed that the land was flowing with milk and honey, but the majority said that the land could not be taken. Only two, Caleb and Joshua, were convinced that God wanted them to possess the land. 

The people went with the majority, and it kept them out of the Promised Land.

Here’s the key to good structure: let leaders lead. I’m not talking about setting anyone up to be autocratic or dictatorial, and there should certainly be appropriate accountability. But don’t let that become a euphemism for control. A good structure releases the leadership gift mentioned in Romans 12 as fully as one would allow any other gift to be made manifest.

Yes, there will be some who might feel a loss of “control.”

But the church as a whole might begin to feel a sense of growth.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Philip Howard, The Death of Common Sense.

Allan Cox with Julie Liesse, Redefining Corporate Soul.

The Obvious Reason They’re Not Having Sex

According to the latest information from the General Social Survey, the “share of U.S. adults reporting [having] no sex in the past year reached an all-time high in 2018.” Further, among the “23% of adults – or nearly 1 in 4 – who spent the year in a celibate state, a much larger than expected number of them were 20-something men.”

The overall rise is not so surprising. The 60-and-older demographic jumped from 18% of the population in 1996 to 26% in 2018. That group has consistently reported around 50% having no sex, so when their numerical size grows, so will the overall percentage.

But it’s the younger demographic that is intriguing observers. “The portion of Americans 18 to 29 reporting no sex in the past year more than doubled between 2008 and 2018, to 23%.”

And not only that, it is young men driving the rise. “Since 2008, the share of men younger than 30 reporting no sex has nearly tripled.”  This is “a much steeper increase than the 8 percentage point increase reported among their female peers.”

DeclineInSex.jpg

Those interviewed on the data by The Washington Post gave varying reasons for the phenomenon. Some said it was “primarily attributable to partnering up later in life.” Or because they “don’t have a live-in partner.” Or it’s attributable to a drop in “labor force participation in men,” since researchers see a “connection between labor force participation and stable relationships.” Young men “are also more likely to be living with their parents than young women.” And at the risk of stating the obvious, “when you’re living at home it’s probably harder to bring sexual partners into your bedroom.”

But it was the final potential factor, almost buried amid the other explanations, that I would argue is the real culprit. 

Technology.

Not in the sense that “there’s a lot more things to do at 10 o’clock at night now than there were 20 years ago… streaming video, social media, console games…”

No, not that. I would argue for “technology” as the culprit in terms of pornography. The largest free pornographic sharing site was launched in August of 2006. As of February 2014, it was the 83rd most popular website overall. According to SimilarWeb, as of February 2019, three of the top 10 most visited websites in the world were adult in nature.

Does that timing seem coincidence?

No other generation has had pornography so available, and in such degrees, at such a young age. Seventy percent of all 18- to 34-year-olds are regular viewers. The average age to begin viewing? Eleven. It’s been called the “wallpaper” of their lives. In 2014, one porn site alone had more than 15.35 billion visits. No, that is not a typo. That’s billion with a “b”. To put that into perspective, at the end of 2015 the entire population of the world was just more than 7 billion.

And what is this doing?

One thing we’re learning is that the more someone is exposed to pornography, the more it harms their relationship with their current, or future, spouse/partner. It is absolutely bogus to say that watching porn enhances a sexual life. Instead, it cheapens it. 

Porn quickly becomes a substitute for sexual intimacy. 

So I’m not surprised by the latest findings of a drop in sexual activity among younger men. But let’s be clear: they are certainly being sexual.

It’s just not with a physical person.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Christopher Ingraham, “The Share of Americans Not Having Sex Has Reached a Record High,” The Washington Post, March 29, 2019, read online.

Holly Finn, “Online Pornography’s Effects, and a New Way to Fight Them,” The Wall Street Journal, May 3, 2013, read online.

Niamh Horan, “Porn Now the Wallpaper of Our Lives,” Independent, October 18, 2015, read online.

The Other Slippery Slope and the End of Time

One of the more well-known ideas about cultural change is the “slippery slope.” The notion is that when you take a step down a slippery slope, you are at risk of losing your footing and can end up sliding all the way down to the bottom—no matter how determined you were to walk only a certain distance down the slope. The term is often applied to first steps that seem innocent enough, or at least few would sensationalize, yet they are steps that put you at risk for sliding further than anyone would have envisioned.

Typically, this is cast in terms of moral steps—i.e., you begin with accepting homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle and you end up with gay marriage or, more to the point, any number of other imagined sexual liaisons being affirmed that were previously considered immoral.

But there is another slippery slope that is taking hold. It’s the slope marked with signs that read “tolerance,” “discrimination,” and “hate.” Specifically, it’s placing such signs on areas of simple, but profound, moral disagreement. If I believe that homoerotic behavior is against my personal beliefs, deeply rooted in conviction and religious faith, then I am considered intolerant—someone who engages in discrimination and part of a “hate” group. It doesn’t matter that I am not socially or legally intolerant. It doesn’t matter that I do not engage in economic discrimination nor that I have any “hate” in my heart at all. 

I disagree; therefore, I am practicing discrimination. I am intolerant. I am a hater. 

Further, this disagreement is now license for any and all available punitive action as a result of that labeling. I was reminded of that anew with three stories from last week’s news.

First, Chick-fil-A was prevented from servicing the San Antonio airport because of its “anti-LGBTQ” views. This was not based on the privately owned company refusing service to anyone from the LGBTQ community or refusing to hire them at their restaurants. No, it was simply because they give money to the Salvation Army as well as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, both of which adhere to a biblical view of sexuality and marriage. And, as Christian organizations, they do not feel biblically free to place a practicing homosexual in leadership. 

But according to Think Progress, which complained to the San Antonio council, this amounts to discrimination against the LGBTQ community. Translation: Christians will not be allowed to hold to Christian values, no matter how much they refute actual discrimination against the LGBTQ community. As a result, without allowing Chick-fil-A to explain such differences, Councilman Roberto Trevino said in a statement following the vote that their stance was about being a “champion of equality and inclusion,” refusing “anti-LGBTQ behavior” and ensuring everyone feels “welcome when they walk through our airport.”

Next, there was the pastor with videos on YouTube who taught the biblical view on homosexuality. An employee at YouTube complained, which led to the video ads being banned. Why? It was deemed “homophobic.” If you were to watch them, it was clear there was nothing homophobic about them; just biblical teaching. Even making it clear that homoerotic behavior was no greater a sexual sin than any other. But again, Google (the parent company of YouTube) immediately labeled it as “disparaging” of others – intolerant, discriminatory and hateful – for choosing to embrace and espouse a counter-ethic.

Finally, a woman in the U.K. who is a devout Catholic did not refer to a transgender person in the way the transgender person felt was the appropriate sex. This led to a six-month-long police investigation. Though the “mis-gendering” flowed from her religious convictions about “what it means to be male and what it means to be female,” the investigation was pursued under the guise of a “hate crime.”

The new slippery slope is clear: it is no longer about acceptance or tolerance or equal rights—it is about the refusal for anyone to disagree. And if you do disagree, you should be penalized in whatever way possible: refused participation in the economy, silenced in the public sphere and, if needed, criminally prosecuted.

It seems like I’ve read about this cultural scenario before… oh, yes… I remember now. The book of Revelation in the New Testament.

Maybe the end times are closer than we think.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Kelly Tyko, “Chick-fil-A Banned from Opening at San Antonio Airport, Council Members Cite LGBTQ Issues,” USA Today, March 22, 2019, read online.

Samuel Smith, “Google Banned Christian YouTube Ad on Homosexuality After Backlash from Employees,” The Christian Post, March 20, 2019, read online.

Martin Evans and Gabriella Swerling, “Devout Catholic ‘Who Used Wrong Pronoun to Describe Transgender Girl’ to Be Interviewed by Police,” The Telegraph, March 20, 2019, read online.

The Tale of Two Graphs

They say a picture tells the story of a thousand words.

According to the General Social Survey (GSS), Evangelicals are holding relatively steady at just under a quarter of the American population (22.5%), though in a long-term decline since the mid-’90s.

ChangingReligiousLandscape.jpg

The “nones”, however, are skyrocketing and by GSS calculations now represent 23.1% of the population. 

ChangingReligiousLandscape_NoReligion.jpg

Let the story be told.

James Emery White

 

Sources

“Results of the 2018 General Social Survey Now Available to the Public,” NORC at the University of Chicago, March 19, 2019, read online.

 Ryan P. Burge, “Evangelicals Show No Decline, Despite Trump and Nones,” Christianity Today, March 21, 2019, read online.

A True Megashift: From the Physical to the Digital

This past week, LifeWay decided to close all 170 of its physical stores. The Christian bookstore will instead move all of its efforts online.

They are not alone in their decision.

Retail banking is experiencing a steep decline in branch visits. In 2017 alone, 1,700 branches closed. 

The older model for books and banks was bricks. Banks, for example, put their stock in physical branches, which is why there are (were) so many of them. The idea was that the means for expanding customer base was branch location and convenience. Putting a branch every 3-5 miles was the key to customer attraction and retention. 

No longer. 

Think… when you want to buy a book, where do you turn? 

Amazon. 

When you have banking needs, do you think branch? 

No, you think phone.

Banks aren’t stupid. They are realizing that when they eliminate a branch, they eliminate high costs (brick and mortar buildings are expensive, not to mention staffing them). Further, they can then re-invest those resources into cheaper and more efficient online services. They are even able to make the digital experience more convenient and personalized.

Win-win for both the bank and the customer.

So what does the future hold?

Let’s stick with banks.

Analysts are pointing to five powerful paths to connect with customers:

1.   Online and mobile for secure electronic transfers on all tech platforms and for nearly all transaction types, including payments and trading.

2.   Telephonic services for information, problem solving and help. Artificial intelligence offers a great way to support this channel.

3.   Enhanced ATMs with private, secure enclosures for large cash deposits, cashier’s checks, money orders, bonds and/or video chats. This personalizes service in more locations for customers while lowering overhead.

4.   House calls and business calls for investments, loans, notary services and new customer contacts. Think “Geek Squad” for banks, where bankers visit consumers. Customers consider it a tremendous positive when met on their terms and turf.

5.   A redefined in-branch experience that accounts for the other four connections.  

So what should banks do?

Again, analysts have their suggestions:

  • Leave the branch alone if your customers resist change and prefer traditional experiences. 

  • Keep the branch location but downsize and/or redesign it to better serve needs. This might work well with diversified customers in high-density, high-touch or high-service locations. Redefine the experience as you go; forge partnerships with food and beverage or other service businesses to split costs and reimagine customer care. 

  • Close the location—sublease or sell it. Know the main types of branch transactions and fill voids to retain current customers. You could replace branches with enhanced ATMs or position house-call bankers for regular area coverage.

  • Create connections customers value most. The days when customers met banks on their terms have turned around. Bankers must connect whenever and wherever customers have questions, post transactions or need financial services.

It doesn’t take a bank analyst to choose the option that holds the most potential: it’s creating connections that customers value most. And this realization is not just for books and banks. As a recent Fox News report chronicled:

Church, as we’ve known it for the past few generations, is over. Every church you’ve ever attended, or that you drive by on your way to a Sunday sporting event, was built on a physical attendance model that is location-centric.

As a result, church leaders and pastors have spent time every week encouraging, inviting and pleading with people to come to a specific place at a specific time on Sundays. This approach has created church staffing models, systems and ministry strategies focused on improving attendance. It’s also why there is an annual Top 100 list of America’s most-attended churches.

But that way of doing church is dead.

That may be an overstatement, but the sentiment is correct. Our culture has shifted from the physical to the digital, and church growth based on the physical must be rethought in light of the digital. There is a clear place for the physical – there is no escaping the biblical and theological mandate to gather and worship and practice the “one-anothers” – but the future of the growth of the church will not be realized through physical means as much as digital means. Meaning, it will be the digital that fuels the physical.

I won’t even attempt to lay-out the implications of this for various tactics.

Suffice it to say, the implications are staggering.

The bottom line is that we can no longer do “physical” church in a “digital” world.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Kate Shellnutt, “LifeWay to Close All 170 Christian Stores,” Christianity Today, March 20, 2019, read online.

Jim Kearney and Erik Steffensen, “Cutting the Branches: The Case for Letting Go of Physical Locations,” BAI, March 14, 2019, read online.

Dave Adamson, “Church as We Know It Is Over. Here’s What’s Next,” Fox News, March 11, 2019, read online.

The Real Varsity Blues

One of the more important cultural currents was first detailed in one of sociologist Neil Postman’s most provocative works titled The Disappearance of Childhood. His thesis was that children are being robbed of their innocence, their naiveté, their ability to even be a child. He contended that in our world, we ask children to embrace mature issues and themes, experiences and issues, long before they are ready. 

Postman argued that the very idea of childhood is that there is a time when a young person is sheltered from certain ideas, experiences, practices, expectations and knowledge. They are sheltered from adult secrets, particularly sexual ones. Certain facets of life – its mysteries, contradictions, tragedies, violence – are not considered suitable for children to know. Only as children grow into adulthood are they revealed in ways that they can assimilate psychologically, emotionally and spiritually.

Postman’s analysis, first offered in 1982, was prescient. Today, 12- and 13-year-old girls are among the highest paid models in America, presented to us as knowing and sexually enticing adults. 

Children’s literature no longer exists. Young Adult fiction is as mature in its themes as anything on the adult lists. 

The language of adults and children, including what they address in life, has become the same. It is virtually uncontested among sociologists that the behavior, language, attitudes and desires – and even the physical appearance – of adults and children are becoming indistinguishable. 

Even the children on TV act like adults. They do not differ significantly in their interests, language, dress or sexuality from the adults on the show, making the same knowing wisecracks and tossing out the same sexual innuendo. 

But when the line between the adult world and the child’s world becomes blurred (or no longer exists) childhood disappears.

But there is a new development that must be added to the cultural current. Along with the disappearance of childhood is now the prevention of adulthood.

Writing for the New York Times, Claire Cain Miller and Jonah Engle Bromwich note that “helicopter” parenting has been replaced by “snowplow” parenting—and it’s robbing children of adulthood.

Prompted by the recent “Varsity Blues” investigation into college admissions tampering, which has dominated the recent news cycle, the idea is that “today’s ‘snowplow parents’ keep their children’s futures obstacle-free—even when it means crossing ethical and legal boundaries.”

Or, as one parent described her parenting strategy for her son: “I did not helicopter parent him. I was a co-pilot.”

Most know that the phrase “helicopter parenting” refers to parents hovering over their child in a protective stance, overseeing any and all activities. Things have changed. “Some… mothers and fathers now are more like snowplows: machines chugging ahead, clearing any obstacles in their child’s path to success, so they don’t have to encounter failure, frustration or lost opportunities.”

But what does this really accomplish?

As the authors of the New York Times article observed, it accomplishes the “robbing” of adulthood. Their children may get into the elite colleges and universities – the culmination of years of snowplowing at every other level – but then these college freshmen “have had to come home from Emory or Brown because they don’t have the minimal kinds of adult skills that one needs to be in college.”

Their observations are worth noting:

“One came home because there was a rat in the dorm room. Some didn’t like their roommates. Others said it was too much work and they had never learned independent study skills. One didn’t like to eat food with sauce. Her whole life, her parents had helped her avoid sauce, calling friends before going to their houses for dinner. At college, she didn’t know how to cope with the cafeteria options—covered in sauce.

“Here are parents who have spent 18 years grooming their kids with what they perceive as advantages, but they’re not.... The point is to prepare the kid for the road, instead of preparing the road for the kid.”

Yes.

So we have the disappearance of childhood on the front end, and the removal of adulthood on the back end. Which leaves us with what? 

Neither children nor adults, innocence nor maturity. 

And that’s the real “Varsity Blues.”

James Emery White

 

Sources

Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood.

Claire Cain Miller and Jonah Engel Bromwich, “How Parents Are Robbing Their Children of Adulthood,” The New York Times, March 16, 2019, read online.

Jennifer Medina, Katie Benner and Kate Taylor, “Actresses, Business Leaders and Other Wealthy Parents Charged in U.S. College Entry Fraud,” The New York Times, March 12, 2019, read online.

The Importance of Remembering Camp Meetings

Is “contemporary” really contemporary?

No.

People talk about dusting off tired methods, inane traditions and outmoded approaches to outreach in order to drag the church kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

They were saying the same thing in the 19th century.

And in the 16th.

And in the….

You get the point.

Lesslie Newbigin reminded us that: “The gospel is addressed to human beings... If the gospel is to be understood... it has to be communicated in the language of those to whom it is addressed and has to be clothed in symbols which are meaningful to them.” This has long been understood.

Historian Nathan Hatch has noted that it is the embrace of new approaches to worship, ministry, evangelism – and even organization – that have historically fueled the Christian movement, particularly in the North American context and its success at initially withstanding the onslaught of the Enlightenment. 

Hatch contends that it was the wave of popular religious movements that broke upon the United States in the half century after independence that did more to Christianize American society than anything before, or since. Most to the point, Hatch observes that religious leaders “went outside normal... frameworks to develop large followings by the democratic art of persuasion... they were alike in their ability to portray, in compelling terms, the deepest hopes and aspirations of popular constituencies.”

Consider the camp meeting, championed by Francis Asbury, but initially met with great skepticism by Methodist authorities. They perceived “a manifest subversiveness in the form and structure of the camp meeting itself, which openly defied ecclesiastical standards of time, space, authority and liturgical form.” Camp meetings encouraged “uncensored testimonials... the public sharing of private ecstasy; overt physical display and emotional release; loud and spontaneous response to preaching; and the use of folk music that would have chilled the marrow of Charles Wesley.” Yet the camp meetings brought together three to four million Americans annually, an estimated one-third of the total population of the time. It was a phenomenally successful instrument for popular recruitment and, without question, used greatly by God. Asbury simply referred to them as “fishing with a large net.” This “audience-centered” approach, writes Hatch, “meant that the church prospered.” 

The dynamic of many great movements of God has been the embrace of unconventional methods that connected with the audience in order to present Christ. Consider Luther’s move away from Latin when attempting to convey the Scriptures to the German people. He knew that he could be far more effective, and establish rapport with the peasantry far more compellingly, if he spoke in simple German and had the Bible translated into the German language. William Tyndale, in another context and with another language, did the same a generation before. Or think of Dwight Moody who preached in theaters and circuses and used songs written by Ira Sankey that echoed the popular styles of the day (e.g., the waltz). During his famous World’s Fair campaign of 1893 in Chicago, shortly before his death, Moody even advertised his ministry in the amusement columns of newspapers.

Every generation must translate the gospel into its unique cultural context. This is very different from transforming the message of the gospel into something that was never intended by the biblical witness. Transformation of the message must be avoided at all costs. Translation, however, is essential for a winsome and compelling presentation of the gospel of Christ. Charles Colson wisely wrote that: “Many churches… have found the right balance; behind all the music and skits and fanfare stands a solidly orthodox message that deepens the spiritual life of the members. That is the key. What matters is not whether a church uses skits or contemporary music or squash courts. What matters is biblical fidelity.” 

Yes.

James Emery White


Sources

James Emery White, Serious Times (InterVarsity Press). 

Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.

Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity

Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism

James Gilbert, Redeeming Culture: American Religion in an Age of Science.

Millard Erickson, Christian Theology.

Charles Colson with Ellen Santilli Vaughn, The Body.

The Allure of Buddhism

I’ve come to a cultural conclusion: While Hinduism dominates our theology, Buddhism dominates our practice.

Why Buddhism Is True, by Robert Wright, became a best seller in 2017. Four in 10 American adults now say they meditate at least weekly. Major companies like Google, Apple and General Mills have adopted Buddhist meditation programs for their employees.

Which means Buddhism will win the popular mind. There’s an old Latin tag, lex orandi, lex credendi. It literally reads “the law of praying, the law of believing.” The idea is that what is prayed paves the way for what may or will be believed.

Hinduism marks the philosophy of everything from The Matrix to Star Wars. But Buddhism is what we increasingly practice. Or, more to the point, pray.

So why Buddhism?

In an article for the Atlantic Monthly, Olga Khazan writes about why so many Americans are turning to Buddhism. Short answer? Mental health. And, to be sure, mental health is the new holy grail of our inner world. She writes that it’s not about “spiritual enlightenment or a faith community, but rather hoping for a quick boost of cognitive healing.” People have run out of options. “Mental health disorders are up in Western societies, and the answer doesn’t seem to be church attendance, which is down. There’s always therapy, but it’s so expensive. My meditation class was $12.”

So why Buddhism? Khazan is worth quoting here at length:

The ancient religion, some find, helps them manage the slings and arrows and subtweets of modern life. Many people are stressed out by the constant drama of the current administration, and work hours have overwhelmed the day. There’s something newly appealing about a practice that instructs you to just sit....

What’s different—and perhaps reassuring—about Buddhism is that it’s an existing religion practiced by half a billion people. Because relatively few Caucasian Americans grew up Buddhist, they generally don’t associate any familial baggage with it like some do with, say, the Christianity or Judaism of their childhoods. 

Much like “cafeteria Catholics” ignore parts of the religion that don’t resonate with them, some Westerners focus on only certain elements of Buddhist philosophy and don’t endorse, say, Buddhism’s view of reincarnation or worship of the Buddha. Call them “buffet Buddhists.”

Taken out of their Buddhist context, practices like meditation “become like a dry sponge,” McMahan said, “soaking up whatever values are around.” 

Yes. And that is the appeal of Buddhism. It gives us the easy appeal of spirituality without the accountability.

The Tibetan mountaintop monasteries, the shaved heads, the flowing robes, the exotic locations, the meditation… it all seems to hold the promise of the experience of the spiritual. Yet you don’t have to join anything, or really believe in anything.

But that’s not real spirituality.

It’s little more than your own voice.

As one person put it, “As a Catholic, I struggle with some of the religious concepts, but it doesn’t prevent me from adopting the Buddhist techniques and philosophies.”

Lex orandi, lex credendi.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Olga Khazan, “Why So Many Americans Are Turning to Buddhism,” The Atlantic, March 7, 2019, read online.

Hannah H. Kim, “The Meditation Industry,” Sage: Business Researcher, January 29, 2018, read online.