Two years ago my son asked to go for a spinning ride at an amusement park. He was excited about the experience, but as soon as that little car started to spin faster and faster I heard him shouting to the operator: ‘Stop!’ His little face was full of despair.
Sometimes I feel like asking God to stop the earth spinning just like in the days of Joshua (10:13). I am still young and consider myself open-minded but I also feel that I am not able to keep up with the pace of this world. Consider how fast globalization is taking place. Think about developments in IT and communications.
What strikes me most, however, are the changes in our culture. It really doesn’t matter where you live; urbanization and globalization are ongoing with no signs of reversal. This is happening even in places like China and Africa that used to be rural or tribal. But the urban milieu is my focus here, the urban cultural environment that moves constantly and challenges the church and the ways we communicate the Gospel.
All the lonely people, where do they all come from?
Zygmunt Bauman, the Polish sociologist, describes the global, postmodern urban culture as ‘liquid’ or ‘fluid’, by which he means that our urban society does notoffer a solid foundation or point of reference. The only near-absolute standards are relativism, individualism and hedonism. The result is a world in which the ego seems to reign. And individual egos destroy many of the collective expressions of our society from within, starting with the family and, of course, the church.
Certainly, more people are feeling isolated, abandoned and depressed in the agglomeration of the city than any other place. For instance, the last census in Brazil showed a significant increase in people who live alone. We are experiencing the growth of a whole new market of small apartments, small-quantity food packages, and services for single or solitary people. Marriage and divorce rates increased in recent years following the dilution of the idea and value of relationships. The flow of flirt-date-engage-marry became look-like-kiss-use-discard. The consequence is that people, viewed as objects, are suspicious of one another. A related phenomenon is growth of pet ownership. Cats, dogs, birds and even wild animals often fill a gap in human relationships.
Virtual social networks (e.g., Facebook) represent a paradox in human relationships. The boom of conversation enabled by these networks connects people from all parts of the world but, curiously, it functions with individuals in front of monitors with keyboards, generally not in real person-to-person interactions. With a push of a button anyone can ‘unfriend’ or delete a relationship.
These networks are, of course, interesting and valuable ways to connect people, but I do not see how they can replace the human need for real-time exchanges that involve eye contact and physical touch. Consider the so-called ‘flash mobs’, spontaneous gatherings of young people, organized through social networks, who perform an unexpected and typically pointless act then disperse. These mobs demonstrate that people need and want to relate to each other beyond their virtual environment.
All the lonely people, where do they all belong?
Of course the church needs to engage the paradigm shift in communications. But it is not simply a matter of transferring the doctrinal and pedagogical content of the church to a website or blog, or starting a Facebook ministry. It requires a profound reflection on how the church thinks, understands, and presents the living God.
Jesus developed his ministry among common people, away from the Temple, separated from much of the religious structure of Judaism. It was in that non-religious context that he met, interacted with and touched people from different ages, genders, backgrounds, religions and social classes – people carrying different experiences, problems, needs and hopes. He made himself a neighbor for everyone in those cities and villages of Galilee. Jesus became close to those who were distant from him and from his loving Father.
I am taken by the example of the new Christians in Acts (2.42-47) as they tried to imitate Jesus. That small community shared the teachings of their master; they prayed and healed people. They gladly and sincerely shared their lives, food, goods, and possessions. Doing so, they attracted the favor of all people.
The church needs to become closer to the people of our society so we can serve them as Christ and the first Christians did: avoiding impositions, identifying with them, having compassion on them because they are harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd (Mt. 9.36).
How can the church do that in our urban context? How can we be real, physical neighbors? Show people that there is hope in a loving father – the true Absolute – and in the network of a family in Christ? Isn’t this what the church is supposed to do; i.e., to be the embodiment of (this crazy idea of ) interdependence, support and accountability that defies individualism? Isn’t the church the solid response for ‘liquid’ relationships?
Communicating the person of Jesus
Here is what makes me feel dizzy today. As a professor, I affirm the truths of Scripture and teach doctrines, but often wonder if the younger generation, postmodern and individualistic, really understands or cares.
The absolute of God and the radical affirmation of Jesus as the way, the truth and the life is not merely a rational proposition. It is a revelation in which the very nature of existence is expressed in and through a person, Jesus, not by a doctrinal system. Instead of, or in addition to teaching doctrine, I should think about how I can live like Jesus or even personally represent Jesus to my students. How would Jesus engage this urban generation?
Today’s young people are more experimental than rational. They want to see and feel as much and as fast as they can. Personally, I strive to reduce the professor-student distance, using their language in the classroom, sitting in their circles at the cafeteria, informally mentoring them by chatting, playing soccer on weekends, and in other small ways. The result is that many students come to me to share their problems, doubts, ministry difficulties, and personal lives.
Some young pastors who graduated from our school spend a great deal of their time walking with and listening to their flock. They invest in discipleship, not only in teaching and preaching. Without assuming priest-like authority they dress, speak and behave like those they lead. These young pastors are part of the social network, naturally interacting with the group, and always accessible.
I like Youth For Christ’s slogan: ‘Anchored to the Rock, Geared to the Times’. This is the challenge before us, right now, in our families, churches and schools. I pray: God give us wisdom! Now, if we could just stop the world for a while and think it through…
The operator didn’t hear my son or see his distress, so my son looked at me, his father, asking for the ride to end or at least hoping for a glance that indicated confidence and steadiness. With that, he somehow knew that the ride would end and leave only some dizziness and a fuzzy hairstyle.