We’re Evangelizing in the Age of Algorithms
Being tethered to these convictions is critical because Christianity is competing today in the age of algorithms, where technology and entertainment create the rituals, experiences and conversions of our day—a concept we call digital Babylon. When algorithms predict who we want to know based on who we already know, there is no substitute for the gospel power of mutuality and faithfulness in relationships. The everyday work of knowing and allowing ourselves to be known by others is, in these Instagram-filtered days, countercultural. Evangelism can thrive in the Screen Age by focusing on hospitality, conversation and discernment.
In a study on habits and attitudes related to generosity, Barna found that Millennials, more than older generations, highly prize hospitality. To make space for others, to welcome them into your life, is understood by many young adults to be the very definition of generous. Increasing isolation and digital exhaustion prompt their strong cravings for analog relationships and warm human connection.
However, hospitality and conversation are not easy. As I’ve documented in Good Faith, evangelicals report high levels of discomfort and suspicion when it comes to outsiders. Here’s the unvarnished truth: If “evangelicals” want to live up to the name, that posture won’t help. Evangelism is quintessentially relational, a fundamental act of vulnerability and radical openness.
By anchoring to the unchanging truths of scripture and the reality of God, and patiently cultivating relationships of welcome and generosity, we can lean together into realities that do change. That’s the practice of cultural discernment. And make no mistake: The layers of change are exponential, orthogonal, unpredictable, complex. The world today is different from the one in which our institutional ways of doing evangelism were born. It is changed, and it continues to change.
That there is nothing new under the sun (Ecc. 1:9) and that God is doing a new thing (Is. 43:19) are both true, at the same time. The best way to live together by the sacred rhythms of God is to acknowledge and respond to both sides of the unchanging-changing reality of God’s work in the world.
One way to understand what’s changing is to be perpetual learners. Stay interested. Stay engaged. See the whole. Cultural discernment is one of the ways we can begin to revive evangelism.
For example, what are the evangelistic implications of understanding the “disenchanted world” of today’s society, where most people live as if there is no supernatural reality or transcendent purpose for human life?* Or what about the fact that we live in a distracted age? It’s not just about people having countless and increasing options for ways to spend their time; more deeply, it’s about changes in what interests and intrigues human beings. If people are more bored than ever (in church and elsewhere), making church more entertaining will not close the attention gap. Wise cultural discernment leads us to slow down, to dig beneath the surface of trends and to connect with hearts and minds, exercising patience as we rethink what it takes to be persuasive.
Having a clear understanding of our particular cultural moment helps us to become more effective evangelists—not because we get more clever and strategic but, rather that, in telling others about Jesus, we become more reliant on the God who doesn’t change but is always up to new things. Aslan is on the move. And we get the privilege of following where he leads.
Here’s one comparison of the past with the current cultural moment. In the past:
- Society was less respectful of the individual, even dehumanizing, treating people as expendable. The gospel response was, “Society may not value you, but God does.”
- Personal morality was a virtue and people experienced guilt due to moral failures. The gospel response was, “Jesus covers your guilt.”
- People’s needs were great; government provisions were minimal. The gospel response was to care for the needy through generosity and, in that way, gain a hearing for God’s good news.
In the post-Christian culture of today:
- More than ever, society works to uphold human dignity, providing protection for individuals. (Ironically, the Christian community’s response is often to focus on whether our own rights are upheld.)
- Citizens of the nation hold fewer moral values in common; social shame is often reserved for beliefs and behaviors that, not very long ago, were considered morally good. Some Christians’ response is to shame the shamers; others just try to keep their heads down.
- Society values generosity and charity; governments provide a more robust safety net. Many churches still meet the needs of marginalized people, but struggle against perceptions that they have ulterior motives.
And yet . . . people’s need for Jesus hasn’t changed. Many people today are missing a sense of purpose and meaning. People are asking deep questions of identity. Who am I? What does it mean to be human? Reviving evangelism will require a gospel response to these kinds of questions.
Our message of new life in Christ must connect to the inner yearnings for abundance, forgiveness, purpose, meaning, relationship and so on. That connection is where the best questions are asked, and where the truest answers are found. If we hope to share the good news in such a way that people can actually receive it, we must have a gospel response to what’s happening now.
Here’s another way to think of it: Cultural discernment is a new apologetics. We learn to connect Jesus to the reality of life today. This is not only being “trend wise,” but also being soft and sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit, who forms our efforts to know the times and gives us ears to hear what the Lord is saying.
Becoming radically relational, culturally discerning learners will equip us to swim against the all-pervasive algorithmic current.
* Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, for example, has provided helpful grounding for Barna’s research, allowing us to explore concepts like the new moral code and the centrality of self. James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) to Be Secular is a great primer on Taylor. Other helpful books include Disruptive Witness by Alan Noble and Strange Days by Mark Sayers.