While you were wondering where the millennials went…

January 26th, 2015

Two articles really grabbed my attention this morning: One is an Associated Press piece by Michael Weissenstein, “Cuban youth build secret computer network despite Wi-Fi ban.” The other is by Mark Tooley and is titled “Calvinist evangelicals in United Methodist Church!

The first is about how thousands of people in and around Havana, mostly youth and young adults, have defied the Cuban government and built a hidden network consisting of thousands of computers so they can chat with each other, play games and download music and movies.

The second discusses a young Calvinist congregation meeting in the sanctuary of a declining United Methodist church in Washington, D.C.

These two sets of circumstances parallel each other somewhat, and there are some valuable lessons here for establishment churches, aging companies and anyone else trying to figure out “what went wrong.”

Today if young people aren’t happy with a system, they’ll either find a better one or create their own.

True internet access is virtually unheard of in Cuba. Only a select few have private access, and public access (via government-run access points) is too expensive for the average Cuban. Enter Streetnet, aka SNet, a network that young Cubans have set up to fill the void. What existed didn't work for them, so they created something that does.

Consider the church world, where house churches and church networks are on the rise while mainline denominational churches are losing members. There are a number of reasons for this, of course, but could part of it be that most established churches are still doing things the way they did 40 or 50 years ago?

Young people have less patience nowadays to wait for better systems. They’ll make new ones themselves.

Youth and young adults usually find a way to connect with each other.

Youth in Cuba are connecting with each other the same way youth around the world are connecting — with technology. Ingenuity and resourcefulness have found a way, even in a communist country with little Internet access.

Tech makes it much easier for people to connect with others who share something in common. Churches that figure out how to help people do this have one less thing keeping them from growing.

One reason there are so many 20-somethings in the church Mark Tooley visited is that most people want to connect with others who are like them in some way — in this case age and the common experiences that go with it.

It’s why Christianity has theological “tribes” and it’s why age-level ministries developed in the first place. And it’s the reason why churches that have already lost most of their young people never seem to recover. When critical mass is gone, it’s hard to get it back.

Years ago, when I was working in Christian retail, I managed a bookstore in an urban mall. When I first took over the store, a large percentage of our customer base was white, middle-aged and mostly women. By the time I left a couple of years later, we had significantly more college-age customers, as well as more black and Latino customers. Part of that was because we tweaked the product assortment. But I believe most of it was because we hired people who were part of the communities our store wanted to appeal to.

Simply put, we got more college kids shopping in the store because we added more college kids to our team of employees.

In order to thrive nowadays, it helps if you know how to do a lot with a little.

I find it interesting that Mark Tooley had to go to the balcony to find a seat in the church he visited.

This means that on Sunday mornings, the church that owns the property is struggling with attendance in the same space that another congregation is filling on Sunday evenings. Think about how remarkable that is. (Rick Warren’s old wisdom that Sunday evenings are dead for churches may not be true anymore.)

And guess which church spends more on overhead and which has more money available for ministry. I don’t know what the guest church pays for rent, but as a former church treasurer, I can tell you that it probably doesn’t even come close to what the home church is spending to keep the place going.

In the AP article, we find out that Havana’s SNet (with more than 9,000 computers connected over the past five years) has been built for a cost of $200,000, maybe less. A 30-year-old systems engineer points out, “If I as a private citizen can put up a network with far less income than a government, a country should be able to do it, too, no?”

The article also notes that everything happens much faster and more efficiently over SNet than on the slow government connections, because on SNet, data passes from computer to computer without having to go through a central point. (That’s an object lesson that top-heavy, centralized denominations might want to consider.)

So under the nose of the Cuban government, young people with limited resources have built something that’s quite impressive. And without owning their own building, a young congregation in Washington, D.C. has also built something impressive.

Will the old guard adapt and catch up or remain in denial?

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