The state-of-the-art classroom was filled with all the latest technology: computers, quality sound and video, wireless access, you name it. I was sitting in the back of the room as the students engaged with a guest teacher who was Skyped in from three time zones away.
Each student sat in front of a laptop. Next to every laptop sat some type of mobile device, mostly iPhones. From my seat in the back of the room, I could tell the students weren't giving their undivided attention to their Skype guest. Instead, they updated Facebook pages on their laptops or texted with their handhelds.
By the way, this wasn't a middle school or high school classroom. These were graduate students. When I shared my observation with the professor, he was quick to say he wasn't at all surprised.
"Over the course of the last few years, I've noticed a marked decline in my student's attention span, ability to think and ability to write. At times, it's almost pathetic. The quality of students and their work hasn't gotten better as you might think. It's gotten worse."
I've heard the same from teachers at every level of education. Sadly, I've even seen it happening with many of the students I teach.
'The Dumbest Generation'?
Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University, tackled this issue a couple of years ago in his best-selling book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future…or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30.
The book argues that as young people have used technology to connect with each other, they've become isolated from knowledge of the larger world. They don't think, relate, work, study, read or write in ways that make them better. Their cognitive abilities have declined.
Bauerlein says, "an anti-intellectual outlook prevails in their leisure lives, squashing the lessons of school; instead of producing a knowledgeable and querulous young mind, the youth culture of American society yields an adolescent consumer enmeshed in juvenile matters and secluded from adult realities." Not good.
Bauerlein goes on say the generation we minister to "wears anti-intellectualism on its sleeve, pronouncing book-reading an old-fashioned custom and snaps at people who rebuke them for it."
I hate to say it, but during the past few years, I've seen the same anti-intellectualism loose in the world of youth ministry that's shaped and driven by us. Depth, thoughtfulness and even the gnawing desire to go deep seems to be waning.
Think about how we spend our time. Many of us are consumed by building and maintaining our personal brand through a never-ending stream of tweets, texts, blogs and status updates. With only 24 hours in a day, something's got to give. When developing our tech-driven self-portrait and staying connected consumes so much time, I wonder if it's our spiritual and intellectual depth that suffers.
If youth ministry is increasingly marked by dumb rather than deep, we shouldn't be surprised. We live in the same technological world as Bauerlein's Dumbest Generation. We swim in the same soup of cultural values that elevates image and social connections above all else. Without knowing it, we are shaped by it all. If that's who we're becoming, chances are that what we've become is what we will begat as we shape the lives of the kids God's entrusted to our spiritual care. We can't take them any deeper than we're rooted or seeking to go ourselves.
In a recent conversation with the lead pastor of a megachurch, I asked him about what he's been reading. "I don't read books," he said. "I'm too busy." That attitude contradicts the wisdom of a respected friend who once told me "readers are leaders."
Say No to Dumbing Down
We need to do two things to prevent our being swept away by the anti-intellectual cultural tide of our times.
On one-hand, we consciously need to limit and manage our use of technology, especially because it's only developing at a rate that's going to consume more and more of our time and attention. No, there's nothing wrong with technology. We just need to be good stewards of time and attention.
On the other hand, we need to carve out time to engage in the discipline of reading and to read widely. I am convinced that reading is one of the most direct routes to a life and ministry marked by depth that we could choose to travel.
The apostle Paul charged young Timothy to go deep when he wrote, "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15).
Reading takes us deep, sharpens our cognitive abilities, develops our minds, shapes our hearts, gives us the ability to discern and hones our intuition. It makes us better youth workers.
I try to make time for reading every day, and I have also developed a reading plan that helps me read widely in the following categories:
• Scripture: God's special revelation is the everyday foundational must-read that offers the lens through which I view and evaluate all of life, including everything else I read!
• Biblical Studies: I try to work through at least one book in this category at all times. It could be a commentary or a series of written sermons. Recent favorites in this category include books by Timothy Keller.
• Theology: Shoot for a mix of classical (old school!) and contemporary theologians. My theology reading includes things such as the creeds and catechisms (repeatedly), systematic theology texts (check out Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology), and books by my favorite contemporary theologian John Stott (The Contemporary Christian and The Cross of Christ are two good starters). Also, Francis Schaeffer never gets old.
• History: Francis Bacon once said, "histories make men wise." Anything that opens up the past falls into this category. If you're interested in a certain period of history or event, read about it. Because I'm German, I spend a portion of my history-time reading about mid-20th century Germany and the rise of Nazism. What drives me is a desire to learn from the mistakes of those who allowed Hitler to rise to power.
• Memoir/Biography: I read about figures from history, interesting pop culture personalities, athletes, musicians, politicians, etc. These books tend to offer great insight into the human condition.
• Novels: Stories are powerful. A good novel or work of fiction not only offers a nice escape for me, but also prompts thinking about things in life that really matter.
• Personal Interest Books: This is my category; it's the stuff I like to read about the stuff I like. For me, it's books about baseball.
• Theme of the Year: Each year, I choose a topic I want to know more about. This year, I'm focusing on reading books about matters of justice.
• Social Sciences and Current Events: This is a category that helps me stay in touch with the world. I've found that knowing the world gives me the opportunity to see how God would have me apply the Word to the realities of the contemporary world.
• Newspaper: I start my day with the paper each morning. I make sure I scan every page—not just the sports section!
• Magazines: Because most of them are online, bookmark a few and check them out each month. I not only read those magazines that interest me, but I read those that interest the students I know. Magazine editors know kids. Reading the magazines they read offers a window into the world of their cares, concerns and problems, which in turn shapes the way I do ministry. Don't forget: The ads offer great insights, as well.
Deep youth workers do deep youth ministry, which yields deep kids. Without a commitment to depth, I'm afraid Mark Bauerlein might someday write about youth workers and our kids. I fear he would call it Dumb and Dumber. That's one book we don't want to read!
See the YWJ interview with Mark Bauerlein here.