The Bible and Generation Google
In 1875 Charles Spurgeon gave a speech to Bible Society in which he urged fresh confidence in the Bible. He said:
'I do not know whether you see that lion – it is very distinctly before my eyes; a number of persons advance to attack him, while a host of us would defend the grand old monarch… Pardon me if I offer a quiet suggestion. Open the door and let the lion out!'
In our cultural moment, we need to recover our confidence in the Bible. This can feel particularly challenging for those of us working with young adults. A recent report on digital millennials found 40 per cent of Christians aged between 18 and 30 described their relationship with the Bible as ‘non-existent’ or ‘minimal’. Though 69 per cent considered it their ‘supreme authority’, in practice digital millennials admit to haphazard and infrequent engagement with the Bible.
Perhaps this is no surprise. Generation Google are plugged into a matrix of fragmented content through online platforms and social media channels. We inhabit hyperlinked multimedia ecosystems that encourage lateral surfing, not sustained linear engagement with a text like the Bible.
The attractional force of competing modes of communication should not be underestimated. A recent BBC article cited research suggesting young adults were on average having sex less frequently because they were too tired after binging on box sets. We might be forgiven for thinking that if even sex can’t compete in our digital age, what hope is there for the Bible?
But there are also signs of an emerging counter-narrative. Growing disillusionment with mindless consumption has provoked the rise of numerous podcast series, delivering sustained long-form content with surprising depth – including on the Bible. Equally, the meteoric rise of Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson is fascinating on a number of levels – not least that his bestselling book and online lectures draw deeply on the Bible. Millions of millennials (especially males), have downloaded his lecture series on Genesis.
I recently had a private conversation with Peterson and asked him what he intended to do next. He looked rather bemused and replied: ‘Well, Exodus of course!’ – as if I didn’t know what came next. I asked how far through the Bible he intends to go, to which he replied: ‘It depends how long I’ve got.' You may not appreciate his particular approach, but like it or not, he is teaching the Bible and digital millennials are eating it up.
What does this counter-narrative suggest? Perhaps we are witnessing a reaction to the way life’s horizons have collapsed inward in a selfie culture marked by consumerism – what Charles Taylor refers to as the ‘disenchantment of the world’. Perhaps there is a growing disillusionment with superficiality in a culture obsessed with image, brand and social profile. And perhaps this all adds up to a greater missional opportunity to present the grand narrative of the Bible as the true story of reality that makes sense of life.
After all, the Bible is a story – from the classic opening line (‘In the beginning'), to closing sequences that imagine a new creation. On the pages in between we discover the true human story that finds its shape and fulfilment in Christ. Framed this way, the Bible provides the architecture for an integrated vision of the world that restores a sense of belonging and purpose – two things Generation Google desire more than most. So perhaps in our cultural moment, presenting the Bible as a grand narrative that makes sense of life is an effective way to engage them.
How could this work? What might it look like in practice? I’m not entirely sure. But here are a couple of suggestions:
Communicate the Bible with altitude
Over the last two Sundays I’ve preached in a couple of churches, both with lots of young adults. They asked for specific messages to fit in with their series – one on vocation, the other on mission. In both instances I already had something in the locker that would have addressed the topic in smaller detail. But I decided to fly the plane at a higher altitude and give a big picture vision for each topic – the design of creation, the impact of the fall, Israel’s vocation, Christ’s intervention, the Church’s mission and the hope of new creation.
It wasn’t easy in 30 minutes, but the feedback was really encouraging – particularly the way it reframed our work and mission through the larger story of God’s purpose in the world. This specific approach won’t always be appropriate but we can regularly pull up to a higher altitude to give a glimpse of the larger landscape of the Bible as well as zooming in on specific texts.
Consider the Bible a mission resource
Over the last couple of years I’ve had the privilege of helping develop two resources – The Bible Course and more recently Talking Jesus. With both I’ve been surprised by the potency of the Bible in mission. I say surprised because previously I assumed that the Bible was something of a hindrance to mission – too big, complicated and controversial. But Talking Jesus research showed the opposite. When asked what about the major factor that brought them to faith, 22 per cent of adults said ‘The Bible’ and for young adults it was even higher – 27 per cent.
Did you hear that? Not an Alpha course, guest service or social action project (great though they are) but the naked text of the Bible. The extraordinary impact of the Uncover initiative on UK campuses backs this up – reading the Gospels with non-Christian friends is simple but surprisingly effective. We’ve also seen this in story after story from The Bible Course. Though originally designed for new Christians, it’s also attracting non-Christians who are more interested in the Bible than we realise. I met two people last night who had come to faith through doing course. One of them said: ‘I’ve never read a book before in my life. But now I’ve started reading the Bible’. ‘How far have you got?’ I asked. ‘Well I started at the beginning and I’ve just finished Ruth. I can’t put it down!’
In our cultural moment, we need to back the Bible and develop creative ways to release its missional potential for Generation Google. Or as Spurgeon put it: ‘Open the door and let the lion loose!’
Dr Andrew Ollerton works with Bible Society and is the author of The Bible Course. Follow him on Twitter @AndyOllerton