Digital Natives and the Church That Meets Online

Our culture is very obsessed with dividing all the current generations by their ages and labels.

“Boomers here”
“Gen X there”
“Millennials that way”
“Gen Z–stop–just sit down, Gen Z”

(No hate towards Gen Z, just pointing out the stereotype.)

BBC shared an interesting article if you want to learn more about the key characteristics within each group. You can read that here

According to the article, these are the age ranges for different generations:

The Silent Generation: born 1926-1945

Baby Boomers: born 1946-1964

Generation X: born 1966-1980*

Millennials (Generation Y): born 1980-1995

Generation Z: born somewhere between 1993-2010

Generation Alpha: born 2010 and after

*you’ll note the gap between 1964-1966…I guess there was a birthing hiatus?

I’m sure different articles will have differing timelines for these groups, but I don’t really want to rehash the differences between us, except where they pertain to our use of technology. Millennials and Gen Z are starting to be referred to as “digital natives,” which will help explain much of this extra-unusual clash between the younger and older folks.

According to this article on Wikipedia, which I’m glad we can finally use for citing sources again:

“The term digital native describes a person who has grown up in the information age. The term… was coined by Marc Prensky, an American writer, speaker and technologist who wrote several articles referencing this subject. This term specifically applied to the generation that grew up in the “digital age,” predominantly regarding individuals born after the year 1980.”

I was grateful that someone had given this concept a term, because I hadn’t arrived there yet. 

As a millennial myself, I’ve been trying to figure out why my generation seems to be an absolute mess. But rather than blaming the Boomers and Gen X for the pervasive technology that they’ve handed down to us, I finally realized that we just have to start making our own rules. No one knows what the rules for technology are, particularly where it overlaps with social interaction and civility, and it has left our generation somewhat uncouth in the department.

Tech is a tool. Tools need rules.

Tools need instruction manuals and safety guides explaining how they are supposed to work, and how you can use them without losing an eye or a hand or a reproductive organ. 

But our generation has been thrown into so much technology, it’s like we’ve been let loose in a warehouse of neon power tools and someone yelled “Have fun!” and locked us in. 

“Wow, what does this do?”

“Whoa! It makes noise!”

“Ha! This spins funny…ohhhh! Aah!”


Entertaining, for sure. Dangerous, definitely.

Tools need rules.

As a millennial, my childhood consisted of corded telephones, then cordless ones. As a teen I had a tiny brick-shaped cell phone (which fell apart every time I dropped it), then a flip phone, then a smartphone (which wasn’t very smart and took terrible pictures), to a smarter phone which takes better pictures than my first digital camera.

When I was a kid, phones were for talking. As an adult, I spend hours on my phone each day, and only use it for calling people a few times a week. 

When I was a kid, email and instant messenger were the hot topics. Those were accessible by a computer, originally, yet within the decade they could be sent and received in a device that fit in your hand. One of my early bosses had a Blackberry with all the full keypad buttons, and I was amazed that you could send an email from your phone. What a concept. What a time to be alive!

But tools need rules. 

Without rules, our phones are closer to us than our families, our spouses, our children, and even. Without boundaries, we spend more time in our customized, personalized digital world than we do in real-time relationship with the people we’re supposed to be investing in. We can spend all day in bed, ignoring the world, blissfully distracted from the devastation these tools cause in the lives of the people we’re neglecting.

One thing I’ve been working on is my “digital well-being,” a term I discovered in my phone settings (of all places) where it tracks how much time I’m on my phone, and shows a pie chart of how much time I spend in each app. This feature also enables me to set app timers for anything I want to limit my usage on. When I realized I had spent nearly four hours on Facebook in just one day–broken up over minutes and hours, of course–I realized something had to change. I set an app timer for 30 minutes, and when that time is up, the app shuts off. Now, admittedly, I can override that any time I want to, and I usually do, but my primary goal is to keep it within an hour a day. The 30 minute timer reminds me how close I am to it, so I can recalibrate how I’ve been spending my time. It also forces me to ask why I spend so much time on it:

Am I bored? 

Am I tired?

Am I addicted to checking my phone?

Am I avoiding a task I should be working on?

Am I avoiding a feeling that represents something I need to work on? (For example, I’ve found that when I’m frustrated, I’ll hop on Facebook to avoid working through a situation.)

And the ultimate fan favorite: Is there sin in my life that I’m trying to distract myself from?

It’s real-life stuff, folks. And we will pass these habits and patterns onto the next generation if we don’t surrender them to Jesus now. He’s called us to be more than mindless-scrollers.

Another thing we need to realize in our quest for healthy tech habits, is that we just aren’t wired to process this much information this quickly, all the time. It used to be that when you wanted to have a meeting and discuss something with a few people, you informed them in advance of the topic and the time you wanted to meet at. People had time to prepare as best they could, show up and discuss, and review later. 

Also, you could only be in one meeting or one conversation at a time. Now, with group emails and group texts, we are figuratively “in meetings” all day long. Even when we’re in meetings, we can be participating in several other conversations at once. And then, when we’re in bed, someone can still text us to talk about something else. 

Can you imagine going to bed, you’re halfway asleep, and then your neighbor or your boss–or some stranger on the internet who you were going to buy some wall art from–just hopped into your house, traipsed up the stairs, and waltzed into your bedroom to loudly announce that they had the stomach flu and weren’t able to meet up at Starbucks tomorrow at 9am?

This is insane. 

Social media, too, is one of those things that started farther away from our bodies, accessed only the computer or laptop, to something that accompanies us to the bathroom and then crawls into bed with us. It fits in our hands, and it goes everywhere we do. 

Like the phone, social media is a tool. And tools need rules.

Without social media boundaries, we vent everything from our deepest fears to our mildest annoyances on the internet for anyone to see. We type and post words we wouldn’t say to someone’s face–and rather than a healthy conversation with another person, where both people have a chance to listen, and a chance to speak, we’re just over here doing all the talking. And then we block people we don’t care to listen to any more. 

It’s not healthy, folks.

I’ve noticed an exceptionally odd trend, too, as I’ve gone through my Facebook “memories” feature: People don’t comment as much now as they did ten years ago. I’m reading through old posts where I would have all sorts of different people responding and contributing inside the thread. Now, people will thumbs-up the content but seldom comment.

I say “people,” but I’m people, too. I’ve become a consumer rather than a contributor.

After watching people getting chewed up and spit out repeatedly in public comments, however, I can’t say as I blame our hesitancy. 

Maybe I’m not the only one who is content to watch fellow human beings getting mutilated by the angry thumbs of another social media user–who is also, believe it or not, a fellow human being. Because one wrong move, and suddenly your personal profile falls under the microscope (or the knife, depending on your metaphorical preference) and if I disagree with you, I can say that you’re fat, ugly, and have the intelligence of a gnat. 

No offense to gnats.

The book of Proverbs personifies wisdom as a woman calling aloud to the public: “How long, inexperienced ones, will you love ignorance?” (Proverbs 1:22a, CSB) We are experiencing the results of ignorance in our online world. We long for wisdom, we long for something good and true and hope-filled.

I think for a while many of us were afraid of entering the comment threads, concerned we were “casting our pearls [of wisdom] before swine.” And sometimes that’s the case, especially when the thread starts fraying with fiercely belittling replies. 

But maybe, instead of scrolling past the weary and wounded (and wounding) souls on Facebook Lane and TikTok Street…perhaps we could be like the Good Samaritan, pausing in someone else’s pain and distress and offering a path towards wisdom and, ultimately, healing.

I was going to stop there, but I was reminded of one more thing:

We also can’t be the ones doing the hurting.

We’re supposed to be the salt of the earth, adding flavor and interest, not salt in other people’s wounds. I’ve seen a lot of posts from Christians who have adopted a “church vs world” or an “us vs them” attitude, where we’ve created enemies of the people God has called us to love and honor. We might think that our politics are right, and those who don’t vote the same way we do are wrong, but that doesn’t mean we get to be rude.

Christians don’t get to be assholes.

Because if all the world sees is a church committed to keeping them out and pushing them away, then people begin to think that Jesus despises them, too.

I’m pretty sure Paul would have sent a very not-timid letter to the Church That Meets Online. (He probably would’ve sent it by email, too, to be dispersed instantly abroad.) What we do online reflects the God we claim to serve, and Christians are not to quarrel, slander, or act hostile towards anyone. Christians are to be known for their love towards each other, and the world, simply because it’s the way God loves people. 

May God forgive us where we’ve muddied his name–in-person or online–and may his grace, his favor towards mankind, follow us wherever we go. May this generation be known for speaking grace-filled words–even in ungracious environments.

It’s what Jesus does.

Photo by Creative Christians on Unsplash

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