American generational history is defined by marker events.
Terrible assassinations. Catastrophic disasters. Tragic failures. Bloody wars. Economic depressions. From Bunker Hill to Gettysburg to Vietnam, America has been shaped by Thomas Paine’s “the times that try men’s souls.”
For those born in the last half of the 20th century, no event proved more horrific than the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. That moment was our generation’s “Pearl Harbor.” In its wake came transformational change in how America socialized, worked, learned, played, and churched.
In telephone vocabulary, 9-1-1 is an emergency assistance call. So it’s strangely fitting that September 11, 2001, sounded a wake-up call to our national institutions.
Every fabric of American life was changing.
Over the next two decades our political affinities solidified into “red” and “blue” partisanship. Prior to the contentious 2000 Bush-Gore presidential election, the national media used “red” and “blue” interchangeably. Tim Russert of NBC News changed all that in 2000 when he began using the terms “red states” and “blue states.”
In the past 20 years, American social institutions and clubs—from the Elks to Rotary to Toastmasters—have aged, stagnated, and declined in membership. Masonic lodges have declined over 50 percent. As one Mason lamented a decade ago in Ethos magazine, “People just aren’t interested in what the Masons represent anymore.”
The American church also stagnated and declined as the millennial generation graduated from high school and bade farewell to church. According to Gallup, 70 percent of Americans attended a church, synagogue, or mosque in 1999. In 2021, for the first time ever, religious service attendance was below 50 percent. Church membership has plummeted 20 percent since 2000 while “non-affiliation” soared from 8 to 21 percent, according to Gallup.
The American church can no longer deny the decline or disconnect.
Three buildings were attacked on September 11, 2001.
And from the rubble of steel and concrete, three clear, transformative “3D” shifts have risen in America. The American church, in particular, needs to heed these three innovative swings. In my book GenTech: An American Story of Technology, Change and Who We Really Are, I argue how technology tattoos generational psyches, and that there has been more technological change in the past 20 years than in the previous two centuries.
Since the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center fell, America has experienced the emergence of tablet, touch screen, mobile, wireless, streaming, and cloud technologies. We’ve embraced Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and other social media. We’ve shifted our lifestyles to “smart” technology (phones, doorbells, televisions, speakers). We now “Google,” “Alexa,” and “Siri.” Robots, drones, holograms, self-driving cars, Sling, Uber, and Zoom have become culturally mainstream.
The times have changed . . . fast.
And it’s in this new 3D culture we live.
The attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., exposed a rising post-analog culture. In the wake of September 11, America comfortably adopted new digital formats. In fact, only weeks after the attacks, Apple released the iPod—a digital music player that became the season’s top Christmas present. In 2007 Apple unveiled the iPhone, which revolutionized communication. Three years later the iPad transformed learning, gaming, and information technology.
Church, do you have an “app for that”?
In 2004, Facebook reimagined “friendship.” Two years later, Twitter microwaved communications into 140 characters (at that time). Social media introduced a new lexicon: meme, tweet, viral, and troll. Digital photographs transformed boring text websites into imaginative visual spaces. In 2012, digital eventually bankrupted Kodak, which resisted cultural change (despite Kodak inventing the digital camera). COVID-19 exploited this digital culture. We quickly shifted to shop by app, gather by Zoom, interact by FaceTime, and church by livestream.
In a post-COVID-19 culture, the digital church has distinct advantages. In fact, the coronavirus freed the American church to explore community in other spaces. A Zoom small group. Streamed worship. Instructional teaching through YouTube. Bible study on Facebook Live. My post-virus life group features a “Zoom” cohort. We improved how we gathered.
The churches with the best success in reaching the under-40 crowd are immersive in the digital culture. It’s not a fad or temporary trend. The digital culture is here and churches who refuse to embrace it might soon experience their own “Kodak moment.”
A second transformative shift in the past 20 years has involved diversity.
The attacks in 2001 opened up our perceptions and prejudices, first in how we viewed Islam but eventually to other cultures, lifestyles, and worldviews. America transitioned from a monochromatic universe into a marbled, colored multiverse. We had little choice. The U.S population exploded by 50 million people, from 281.4 million to 331.4 million, between 2000 and 2020.
Americans were also on the move. Neighborhoods shifted. Communities changed. Regions transformed. In 1970, the legal immigrant population in the U.S. was 9.6 million. Between 2000 and 2019, it grew from 31.1 to 44.9 million. By 2013, according to researchers, three out of four immigrants arrived from Mexico, Latin America, or Asia.
According to Statista, the non-Hispanic white population is expected to drop under 50 percent by 2060 (it was 80 percent in 1980). Meanwhile, the number of Hispanic Americans will increase from 17.8 to 27.5 percent, Asian Americans will rise from 5.7 to 9.1 percent, and Black Americans will go from 13.3 to 15 percent.
The bottom line is this: America is becoming more colorful.
But we’re also diversifying in other ways.
Consider the “blended” American family.
According to the 2020 census, Americans are waiting longer to marry, cohabitating more, and having fewer children. The rate of divorce was 14.9 per 1,000 marriages in 2019, the lowest rate since the mid-1960s. The rise of LGBTQ+ families in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court allowing same-sex marriage in all 50 states in 2015 is notable. More recently, transgender and nonbinary gender identification posted headlines.
While America is growing more diverse, evidence suggests the church (as well as other religious groups) is not. The great American melting pot has truly become a salad bar . . . at least for the religious. While there are exceptions, particularly in urban areas, most Americans attend a church, synagogue, or mosque that mirrors their ethnic culture.
Diversity creates difficulty for homogenous churches, especially in neighborhoods that no longer reflect their ethnicity or culture.
The internet decentralized everything it touched.
Back in September 2001, Americans still mostly shopped at malls (not Amazon). We found dates and marriage partners through local contexts (not eHarmony). Most people conducted research at libraries (not by using Google). And until COVID-19, we attended church at an address (not online).
In a flat (decentralized) culture, every person has a voice, space, and opportunity. YouTube made us filmmakers and news producers. SoundCloud gave us a microphone. Twitter afforded a platform for the “nobodies” to acquire followers. Have you heard of Ryan’s World? This 9-year-old YouTuber started off reviewing toys and now has about 30 million subscribers and almost 50 trillion views.
All the rules have changed in our brave new world.
The mission field has come to our door . . . or rather, our computer screen.
Decentralization isn’t without consequence. When everyone has a voice, it makes it harder to know what’s true. Just because a narrative is socially popular doesn’t make it ethically right or historically accurate. Social media has hijacked information and weaponized truth.
Decentralized culture embraces subjective truth and reimagines morality through popular opinions, feelings, and experiences. Any contrarian idea is considered “hateful” or “phobic” or “fake news.” It can even get you “canceled.”
In a pre-2000 culture, mass communication through mass media to reach the masses was effective. On the day New York and Washington, D.C., were attacked, Americans largely tuned into television, though younger adults were surfing news sources on the internet. Today, television is our last choice for news. We get our information virtually, instantly, and 24/7/365.
Similarly, the vast majority of Christians, particularly those under 60, now read their Bibles through online portals. They learn by Christian podcasts, videos, and blogs. They attend multiple livestream worship services. They communicate through email and text. They gather on social media.
A decentralized web culture makes all that happen.
In the coming years, historians and sociologists will likely bookend the early 21st century by two events: the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Will this period be the genesis of revival for the American church or her final hurrah? With the baby boom generation—the last American “church” generation—fading into history, many congregations are rapidly graying. The time is ripe for fresh models to embrace a digital, diverse, and decentralized culture.
Can we become more interactive, visual, nimble, and accessible without relinquishing truth? I believe so.
It’s why 9/11 matters.
It’s the day everything changed.