The first technological breakthrough may have been a sharp stick by Homo erectus and it seems to have served them well for a couple hundred thousand years. But when it comes to worship in the 21st century, technological breakthroughs barely last a generation. In today’s church there are effectively four adult technology generations: The Radio Generation, the Image Generation, the MTV Generation, and the Digital Generation.

Contrary to popular opinion, technology is a means, not an end. Its purpose in church is to facilitate authentic worship. However, each generation is immersed in the technology they were raised with to the point that their technology has largely shaped their learning style. It’s this “learning style” that either aids or gets in the way of worship. Use a familiar technology and it’s virtually invisible. Anything else just isn’t the same.

Each of the four adult generations was raised with and is comfortable with a different level of technology. In this post we’ll look at each generation and its dominant technology, and try to provide some insights for facilitating worship. In an upcoming post I’ll touch on how to bridge the generations in worship.

Two notes: first, this post is not about style. It’s not about which music works best or whether traditional or contemporary, liturgical or modern, emerging or alternative is the end-all, be-all answer for worship today. Second, this is a bell curve sort of overview. There are those at both ends of the generational spectrum who have never adapted to their own dominant technology and those who have leapt from one to another. This post addresses the vast majority in the middle. 

The Radio Generation

These are those who were born and raised before the 1950s and who are more familiar with the radio show Little Orphan Annie than with early television’s Toast of the Town. Magazines were mostly text with supporting images (with only a few obvious exceptions). The McGuffey Reader was popular in schools (largely text based).

  • Predominant Generational Image: Listening attentively with one ear towards the wireless.
  • Visualization: Process imagery through word pictures – there is little need for images.
  • Generational Participation: They listen attentively, concentrate, and evaluate what they’ve heard.
  • Generational Interactivity: They wait to have an in-depth conversation after the program is complete. They tend to use the words “Did you hear…?” and “I heard….” in conversation.
  • Dominant Technology: Amplification.
  • Learning Style: They tend to learn through lecture and storytelling and by reading.
  • Worship Preferences: Corporately focused worship; hymns that have a theological message; congregational reading and responsive readings; sermons should have multiple layers and be educationally based and logically constructed – exegetical, and theologically rich. Thought-provoking worship.

The Image Generation

This generation was born and raised with a television in their living rooms and magazines sporting images and text that supported the images. Fun with Dick and Jane books were popular in schools (largely image based).

  • Predominant Generational Image: Family eating TV dinners on folding metal TV trays watching television.
  • Visualization: Process information with and through image.
  • Generational Participation: Watching, feeling, thinking, and personalization.
  • Generational Interactivity: They tend to hold conversation during commercial breaks. They tend to use the words “Did you see…?” and “I saw….” in conversation.
  • Dominant Technology: Image-based screen technology.
  • Learning Style: They tend to learn through watching. Teaching tends to be individual focused and invitational – think Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Captain Kangaroo.
  • Worship Preferences: Individual-focused worship; words with images on screens; music that is personally focused (I and me); life-applicable sermons supported by imagery, drama, and video.

The MTV Generation

This generation was born and raised with a television in their bedrooms. Networks and cable offered 24/7 programming with global scope, racial diversity, and real-time reporting. Fast paced, always in color, and characterized by short attention spans. Sesame Street and Reading Rainbow were educational staples.

  • Predominant Generational Image: Latchkey kids in front of the babysitting TV.
  • Visualization: Process information through fast-paced video and multitasking. When it comes to video, little is left to the imagination.
  • Generational Participation: Experiential on both a personal and social basis.
  • Generational Interactivity: This generation is social-group driven (think the sitcom Friends). They tend to be casually conversational.
  • Dominant Technology: Video-driven; video games.
  • Learning Style: They tend to learn through movement and in-person interactivity. They depend on social-group shares and collaboration and prefer peer-learning.
  • Worship Preferences: Community/tribal based worship; video-driven; fast action/quick scenes; practical, relevant sermons with both personal and social applications.

The Digital Generation

This generation has been immersed in screen technology and cannot remember a time without the Internet, instant messaging, or cell phones. They are characterized as always on and always connected. Multitasking communications are the norm. Participation, interactivity, and connectivity are the educational expectations.

  • Predominant Generational Image: Texting and video-driven conversations.
  • Visualization: Process information in sound bites (and IM bites).
  • Generational Participation: Digital connections beyond themselves.
  • Generational Interactivity: This generation engages in constant connectivity and group sharing. Rarely does a member of the Digital Generation engage an activity without including a wider community through technology.
  • Dominant Technology: Digitally embedded, always connected.
  • Learning Style: They tend to learn through interactivity and participation. They depend on peer and network connectedness.
  • Worship Preferences: Interactive and impersonal participation, instant feedback loops, digital embedding, multiple streams, community connectedness, sermons are participatory, experiential, and digitally diverse, and they depend on crowd sourcing.

If you’d like to get more information on this, take a peek at this Church-Talk episode.

An upcoming post will look at specific ways to bridge the generational technology gaps.

Question: How would you reach each of these generations in worship based on their unique learning styles? Share your thoughts and ideas in the Comments section below.