At First Baptist Church of Asheville, N.C., we’ve been taking a close and hopeful look at the challenges and opportunities we face.
That crucial work continues, and I’ve suggested that, as we do it, we need to keep in mind some pervasive trends that characterize our cultural context.

The dominant trends, as I see them, are:

1. Individualism

This manifests itself either as the fear of or an insistence on being left alone.

Superficially, many people seem to be very self-centered, even self-indulgent, and concerned only for themselves, their most immediate and closest relationships, and their own success and well-being.

Deeper down, many of these apparently self-centered and self-indulgent people are dealing with – and attempting to mask – painful feelings of inadequacy and shame and gnawing anxieties about being devalued and depleted.

2. Economic Anxiety and Confusion over the Failures of Consumerism

The Great Recession has made many people more cautious and less generous. They have less confidence in or optimism about the future.

People also know that consumerism has not kept its promises of fulfillment, security and happiness.

But since they lack a compelling, attractive and more fulfilling alternative, they continue to turn toward excessive consumption (in its most extreme forms, it manifests as addiction) as a response to their needs. 

3. Disillusionment with Established Leaders and Traditional Institutions

This is rampant, and the disillusionment deepens in exasperated response to political gridlock and cultural polarization. 

Established leaders seem unable to lead, and, frustratingly, many ostensible leaders are willing to sacrifice the common good to their own narrow and short-term ambitions.

As a consequence, more and more people view traditional institutions, entrusted to these established leaders, as increasingly irrelevant to a good and meaningful future. 

There is greater cynicism about leaders and leadership and lower trust in traditional institutions of government, education and religion than I have known across all the years of my ministry.

4. High-Tech, High Touch Relationships and Modes of Gathering

Depending on the relational patterns of the users of various connecting technologies, those technologies can broker, enrich, extend, interfere with and isolate people from mutual and meaningful relationships.

High-tech does not have to be, but it can be, in tension with high touch. 

In fact, it’s more common these days for people to want and often to create ways of gathering (or congregating) that make good use of technology for nurturing relationships and for enriching the gatherings themselves.

Technology, in other words, isn’t simply a means of inviting people to and announcing opportunities for gathering.

It also has possibilities for enhancing the quality of a gathering as well as for real-time sharing of that experience with people not in the room.

What people want, in any case, are experiences and ways of being together that are authentic, transparent and real. 

It’s also true, by the way, that experiences of gathering need to be visually, aurally and tactilely rich.

Guy Sayles is pastor of First Baptist Church of Asheville, N.C. This column first appeared on his blog, From the Intersection.

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