One of the consequences of the shift Samuel is noticing is going to be felt more in the next 6-8 years, I expect. Up till now, many of our major institutional leaders have been Baby Boomers or older Gen X. As such, they’re pre-digital. The batons being handed off now (and that have been getting handed off for the past 3-5 years) are mostly being passed from pre-digital leaders to digitally shaped leaders.
What I mean is that the younger Gen X and Millennial groups all grew up with digital tech all around them or digital tech began to insert itself into our lives while we were still living at home. For example, I was born in 1987. I remember a home without a computer. Then I remember a computer we had that ran in MS-DOS. (I had to memorize a string of words to enter in order to boot Sid Meier’s Colonization, which I sometimes played in the afternoons after finishing our day homeschooling.) And I remember when we got dial-up internet and, eventually, when we got wireless internet. If I recall correctly, I was in either middle school or high school when we got wireless high speed internet at home.
What this means is that the new generation of leaders coming into the pastorates of churches, large and small, and into leadership roles in non-profits, colleges, seminaries, and so on will increasingly be people who grew up with digital tech and were shaped by that in ways their predecessors were not.
What will this mean in practice? One worry I have is that our new batch of leaders are shaped in a world dominated by silos rather than broad coalitions. I’ve written about this before, and I’m getting this from Mark Sayers on Rebuilders, but one effect of the internet is that our communities we think with day to day have changed. Pre-internet, your dominant communal experiences all were offline and, therefore, geographical. By simple necessity, you coexisted with a wide range of people who believed radically different things than you did. But you were stuck together and so figuring out how to coexist was essential. In this era, leaders stood out because of their ability to find common ground and bring together disparate groups of people.
In contrast, the internet opens us up to a global array of individuals and allows us to form affinity-based online communities. As a result, our primary communal experiences no longer require us to endure amidst deep differences and bridge-building is no longer as important. Related, the way people stand out in homogeneous online networks is not through finding common ground with people outside the silo but, rather, by being the loudest, most extreme voice inside the silo. So all the incentive structures run in the opposite direction.
What worries me, in short, is that the batons being passed today are being passed on to people radically unprepared to lead diverse coalitions, whether those are churches, magazines, non-profits, or colleges. I could name some names here to illustrate the problem, but you can probably figure it out for yourself. Think of some prominent leaders between age 50 and 70. Now think about their plausible successors within their respective scenes. Can you think of examples where the possible successor is a better coalition builder than their predecessor? Can you even think of examples where you respect the possible successor more than the current leader? Can you think of examples where the possible successor is more disciplined than the current leader? If my theory about leaders being shaped by tech is true, then these kind of questions are the ones that will expose and define the problem.
Speaking personally, I cannot come up with many examples. And that’s not because the current leaders I’m thinking of are universally admirable, virtuous, and honorable. In several cases, I’m thinking of leaders who are fairly abject and disastrous and yet, somehow, still preferable to those I see waiting in the wings. And yet when the leaders being replaced are actually honorable, talented, and wise, I think the drop is harder.
Some batons will be passed in the short-term future. Whether those receiving them are ready or formed in the ways they’ll need to be to lead well is an open question. But the early returns frighten me.
What can be done? Well, those of us in our 30s and early 40s should make up for lost time while we still can. Get off the bird site, stop chasing trends, and start getting serious—that’ll mean taking intellectual formation seriously, but also spiritual formation. Read challenging books. Spend time in Scripture daily. Learn to identify the habits and postures of the terminally online and shun them. Learn to identify the virtues and disciplines of Christian leadership and adopt them. Learn to be rooted in a particular place.
That’s the work for us, or it ought to be at least.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).