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Leading in Digital Babylon


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by David Kinnaman

Our team at Barna continues to explore today’s generation of younger Christians, the vitality of churches and nonprofits, and the tsunami of cultural change happening around us. I am convinced that we are facing an era of ministry that might be described as digital Babylon: an immersive, reality-redefining experience driven by ubiquitous access to interconnected screens and unprecedented volume of content.

The rules of digital Babylon are different from those of the past. This is a generation that is rethinking its relationship to institutions and causes.

  • They don’t need to go to a bank to do banking, nor to a record store to buy music.
  • They can easily access much published content online.
  • Do they need to go to a church building to find Jesus?
  • Do they need our nonprofit or our infrastructure to engage their God-given cause?

Like the biblical stories of Babylon, what our organizations need are exiles. We need digital natives. Our team is advocating for more “reverse mentoring,” allowing the next generation to provide significant input into the lives, visions, and operations of our efforts. The good news about millennials is that, unlike Gen X, they tend to see the value of institutions. They actually want to help reinvent and revitalize institutions. They can be naive and narcissistic, but their idealism, their comfort with complexity, and their digital — as well as visual — acuity can be incredible assets to our organizations and our efforts.

What does this mean?

The old corporate model of hierarchical leadership development won’t cut it. We can’t simply think of the millennials (or the Gen Xers) on our teams as the minor leagues — players who might get their shot in the distant future. Instead, we need to have an active interplay of differently aged leaders working together — like Esther and Mordecai, for example. We need to call the next generation to greater courage and vision, but not just for some scarcely visible future. They’re called to lead now, alongside us.

Of course, that may mean we have different roles and responsibilities. But any viable process of leadership development must now cultivate the flattened, all-access, socially networked, always-on, peer-driven, and radically transparent culture in which millennials feel most comfortable. Christian organizations now need millennials more than they need us.

How can we make this happen?

1. Make sure you spend plenty of time with millennials on your team and even those not on your team. Nothing can replace the high value of time spent in shared experiences. Consider how to create a culture of apprenticeship in your organization — not merely transference of ideas and ideals, and best practices.

2. Spend time together, realize that this is going to change the way you think about your job, technology, culture, the gospel, and your calling. If spending time with younger leaders doesn’t change you in major ways, you’re doing it wrong.

3. Pay attention to the work environment, from space and computers, to policies and office culture. Get their input, but be willing to be direct. At Barna, we talk a lot about having a truth-plus-love culture.

4. You’ve got to come to appreciate the fact that “digital Babylon” is different than “mainstream” Jerusalem — a culture of faith and homogeneity, perhaps like the “golden years” in which many of our ministries were inaugurated. Today, life is more complex, more accelerated, more unpredictable. I have come to believe that, like the prophet Jeremiah, we have to have a proper understanding and acceptance, really, of our Babylon-like world (see for instance, Jeremiah 24, 28 and 29).

It doesn’t do us any good to deny the realities of our current culture. Instead, we need the help of millennials to live faithfully in this new digitally-rich environment.

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David Kinnaman is president and majority owner of Barna Group, a leading research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture. He is the author of two bestsellers, unChristian and YOU LOST ME. The post is an excerpt from the 2013 Summer edition of Outcomes Magazine.

Want to become more savvy in a digital culture?  Check out what’s being offered this fall at the CLA Online Academy. Learn new ways to positively advance your nonprofit ministry in a wired world.

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  1. […] you are living in a digital Bablyon, you can take the posture that you are leading the natives into understanding what makes the most […]

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