A guest blog post by my friend and young American scholar / missionary candidate Drew Van Tiem looking at an important part of the culture of the 20 somethings and its implications for mission. Value your responses
Many are familiar with C.S. Lewis’ description of hell in The Great Divorce as a place where people choose to separate themselves from one another, moving further and further from each other. In this, they find themselves becoming less and less of what God intends humans to be. There is a degree to which this is taking place among American university students and 20somethings that are creating a similar hell, characterized by distance and separation keeping them from all that God has intended for them. To effectively do mission among them, we must be aware of the ways this separation and distance plays itself out and seek to effectively respond in a way of bringing people more to what God wants for them.
One of the strongest ways in which this plays itself out is the continual use of sarcasm and irony amongst 20somethings in the US. Christy Wampole, an American University professor, recently wrote an article for the New York Times entitled “How to Live Without Irony.” She is writing about this demographic, a group that she claims operates in the form and mode of irony and sarcasm as a way of life. She’s absolutely right. As an American 20something myself, instance after instance in my own life came to mind as I read her article. I work at a coffee shop, where the majority of the workers are in their 20s. The sarcasm and irony are constant. A sarcastic remark is no longer a quick exit from the work at hand—it’s the commentary on all the work that is taking place. At first, it might seem just to be friends and colleagues making light of the jobs that can be stressful or un-pleasurable. But continue it for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week and it’s clear that there is little break from the sarcasm or irony. It remains, even in the moments where a real conversation could take place.
When someone uses irony or sarcasm, as Wampole writes, it’s a way to distance himself from any number of things. Often, it’s a way discredit himself or his abilities. I do this far too often. If someone asks for advice, I give it, but finish by saying, “But what do I know? Those are just my initial thoughts.” Or if I worry I can’t do something flawlessly, even if it’s something I’m talented at, I’ll claim I can’t do it or I’ll say, “Well, I’ve never been trained at this, but I’ll give it a shot.” By doing this, I deflect responsibility if it all goes haywire. This is common among my generation. We disable anyone else from discrediting us by doing it to ourselves first. Or, in our best form, if we make a mistake we will then make a joke about it, claiming that we never really cared about it in the first place trying to show that we’re above worrying about what others think, that mistakes don’t affect us, that we’re emotionally detached. But for most, this isn’t really the case.
We see this creation of distance and separation very clearly in the way that 20somethings use technology, particularly social media and devices. It’s true that we are all interconnected more than ever before. The problem, as we know, is that this all an artificial connection. The more we have become dependent on phones and social media sites, the further apart we have become from the people closest to us. Indeed, the very things that are meant to keep people closer together, that are meant to “help you connect and share with the people in your life,” have enabled us to distance ourselves from one another. They keep us from real conversation, and even from the ability to look each other in the eye and speak seriously to one another.
Our constant distancing hurts us most in our relationships. Not only is conversation lost, but even more lost is intimacy. We fail to take risks, to be vulnerable. When a friend is uncomfortable with another—maybe they don’t know how to express love and affection for the other person, or maybe they fear a lack of reciprocation—they distance themselves keeping them each other at arm’s length from a conversation that might lead to statements of vulnerability. It’s easier to take the discontentment of having decent friendships than to take the necessary risks to reach the intimate friendships that are desired.
So what are the implications of this for ministry and mission? How ought one minister effectively to those who so frequently choose separation? How can I, as someone who sometimes participates in the actions myself, live in a way that challenges these tendencies so as to encourage the work of God in other’s lives?
If all of this is about distance, then the simple solution is proximity. We need to be present. Full, embodied, incarnate, right-next-to-you-touching-your-skin, presence. No pixels, no tools, just real human interaction where we look at body language, we listen for tone, and we leave knowing we were together.
What’s needed is not only a physical presence and proximity (though that’s as necessary as anything), but also emotional proximity. We must take risks and be vulnerable. Though this is uncomfortable to many, it’s the only way forward to the intimacy that we were created for and that we all desire. We must be willing to open a door to the messiness, hurt, and even darkness in our lives.
Now, obviously, a complete transparency and openness is foolish and will leave us open to people who will not be sensitive or loving. We must be wise and smart in our openness and self-disclosure, choosing those we believe to be trustworthy and caring. But therein lies the catch—if we must show and prove to others that we ourselves are trustworthy, we must ourselves be willing to open up, ready for the reality that the other may not know how to best respond right away, having rarely experienced it from others before.
Ultimately, the best way to respond to all of this is with humility. Humility is best defined as being nothing more yet nothing less than what God has made us to be. If we can truly live this out, we can stop using all the devices of distance and separation. We can put our phones down and do the joyous work of listening and responding to those beside us. If we can live humbly, we can begin to quietly, firmly, gently claim all the gifts that God has given us. We don’t have to discredit ourselves or separate ourselves from our work—we can know our limits, yet equally know and execute our gifts. If we can live humbly, we can know that we are made in the image of God and that our worth comes from Him—giving us the security to open up, to show a little dirt or pain, and offer ourselves as a safe person for others.
The beauty of humility is that people of all age groups and demographics respond well to it. If we can be humble in all the ways just mentioned, people will see and take notice. They will believe us when we respond to their insecurities. If someone belittles herself or discredits her abilities, we can lovingly rebuke her and claim God’s gifts over her. When someone uses sarcasm and irony repeatedly to keep seriousness at bay, we can be serious with him, treating him as the important and valuable person he is. Once we’ve done it with ourselves, we can more easily see and gently push others to claim their gifts, talents, and God-given purpose.
So it is we find the way forward in ministering to a culture of distance and separation. Proximity and presence, risk and vulnerability, humility in its fullest sense. Indeed, we follow the lead of the One who took away everything that separated us from Him, came to us, chose risk and vulnerability, and demonstrated humility, enabling us to become all that God intended and desired.