Praying with the digital natives

It's hard to move into a new office without spending some time exploring the past.

Digging into a 20-year-old box, Drew University evangelism professor Leonard Sweet time-warped back to his Ph.D. studies as he dug through layers of onion-skin paper smudged with real ink and an ancient substance called "Wite-Out."

"I went from being an archeologist to, as I dug deeper, a paleontologist. I found carbon paper. This thing need to be carbon dated, it was so old," he said, speaking at a global forum for leaders from 150 Christian campuses. "I looked at this and I said, 'Sweet! This is from a defunct civilization.' But you know what? It was from MY civilization. I'm a Gutenberg person. ... My world was shaped by the book."

Now that world has passed away, even if the rulers of many fortresses haven't noticed.

Sweet believes there is one fact of life that clergy and religious educators must learn -- pronto. If they refuse to do so, he said, they will have as much success as someone who tries to make "a credit-card call from a rotary telephone." Here is that fact: "If you are born before 1962, you are an immigrant. If you are born after 1962, you are a native."

Calendar age isn't everything, Sweet conceded. It's theoretically possible to be a 70-year-old native or a 20-year-old immigrant, in the land of digital dialogues and postmodern parables. But immigrants who want to leap from the old "Carpe Diem" world into what he called the culture of "Carpe Manana," must be open to learning languages, customs and skills from the natives.

"I am an immigrant," he said. "I am having Ellis Island experiences every day."

While trained in church history, Sweet is best known for his attempts to peer into the future of the church. He draws rave reviews as a speaker in both liberal mainline and evangelical gatherings, while writing waves of books with trendy titles such as "Quantum Spirituality" and his futuristic trilogy "SoulSalsa," "AquaChurch" and "SoulTsunami."

The history of education has included three landmark events, said Sweet, speaking in Orlando last week to leaders of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. These were the creation of the Greek alphabet, the invention of the printing press and the arrival of the World Wide Web. Colleges and seminaries can handle the first two, but most are doing little to face the implications of that third shift, other than buying hardware and software. They have re-wired their campuses, but not their brains.

Immigrants lead these institutions and many have replaced their rose-tinted glasses with "black-out shades," said Sweet. Nevertheless, they know the natives are restless.

When seeking answers to big questions, the natives don't want to sit in orderly rows and sing tiny sets of hymn verses interspersed with bulletin-board announcements, all of which precede a long lecture called a sermon. When they sing, they prefer flowing songs that seem to last forever while they stand enraptured in an atmosphere of worship.

They are not pew people. What they want, said Sweet, is faith, and even education, that is "experiential," "participatory," "image-based" and "connective." They want a faith that is timeless and timely, at the same time. They want truth that touches all of their senses.

This will be traumatic for leaders of America's aging mainstream religious groups, said Sweet. They feel comfortable with people with blue hair, "unless it shows up on a 16-year-old kid." Many worship in sanctuaries containing images of a Savior with pierced hands and feet, yet they panic when young people show up who "look like they fell out of a tackle box."

Truth is, these natives are swimming in information, but they lack perspective, he said. They don't need the help or permission of authority figures to find their own information about politics, technology, morality and even religion.

That is when the immigrants must be willing to listen carefully to their questions, said Sweet. The natives have information, but many are asking, "Now, what do I do with it? How do I test what is good and what is bad information? How do I turn that information into knowledge and then that knowledge into wisdom?"