Net Kids Article

"Gospel Message" #3, 2000

by Ralph V. Harvey
Field Director for GMU, Austria, Germany and Czech Republic


I wrote the following article for the GOSPEL MESSAGE #3 in 2000, which focused on technology in missions. Ten years later, the kids I wrote about are in college or have already graduated! During a lecture at a missions seminar in Philadelphia Biblical University in January, 2009, I read my description of the "N-Generation" in this article and asked if it described them as students. All nodded in approval!

“And the gospel must first be published among all nations.” —Mark 13:10

The TV remote control and the computer mouse are the leading symbols of the 20th century, according to Japanese sociologist Naoki Masamura. He believes that these simple plastic instruments are indicative of the tremendous social transformation from “residentialism” to “neo-nomadism” during the last century.

Neo-nomadism, says Masamura, is characterized not by wandering about from one place to another, but rather by the nagging restlessness of the human mind. If there is too much talk in a TV film or excessive advertising during a ball game, zap! — we change channels. If it takes too long for a website to load on our PC monitor, click! — we try another.

I happened to read Masamura’s arguments at a time when I was considering the dangers and pitfalls facing the emerging “N Generation.”

Heritage of restlessness
At 62, I am one of the oldest computer-literate persons in Austria. Having been engaged in some sort of youth work during our entire missionary career has helped keep my wife, Verna, and I abreast of whatever is on the minds of young people. For 10 years, we did youth work in the inner city of Linz. We also operated a youth center and published a youth magazine. Since 1984 we have been involved in the establishment and operation of the Austrian Bible Institute. Together with one of our graduates, we helped establish Jungschar, a national youth organization similar to Awana. Hundreds of young people in more than 60 clubs all over Austria hear the gospel through this organization. We are now getting involved with “Net Kids,” members of the N Generation.

Net Kids were born into our fast-moving society by no choice of their own, yet they seem to thrive in the Information Age as though it were the most natural environment for human beings. Taking a closer look, however, many of these kids are, by their own admission, bored to death.

Cable and satellite television offer countless channels of entertainment and information at the press of a button. Pressing another button on the remote control switches the consumer’s attention to CDs playing in surround sound. Another button activates the VCR or DVD player. When kids are bored with that, they turn to their computers for diversion. Multi-gigabyte hard drives packed with information and entertainment cannot fulfill the insatiable appetite that characterizes Net Kids. Even the endless offerings of the World Wide Web fall short of their expectations.

Via the remote control or the mouse, the entire world lies at their fingertips, yet the most frequently heard statement among youth is “I’m bored!”

Masamura sees this development as one more step in the evolutionary process. The era of nest-builders with traditional values is past; the 20th century has left today’s young people a heritage of restlessness.

Today, many adults zap their way through relationships, and the old “till-death-do-us-part” marriages have given way to open-ended “lifestyle partnerships.” The same is true in the workplace. People surf through career opportunities, changing professions more often than their parents changed jobs. Most work is project-oriented. Groups of independent service providers form for specific projects and then dissolve.

The results of this lifestyle permeate every area of society. Like the classic nomads of the plains, the zapper/surfer gives little attention to building for the future and entertains few long-range ambitions. Survival is the primary motivation, for security is no longer an option. Working within a large organization or independently, each is responsible for his or her own destiny. Everyone is boss today.

Nomads have no need for roots; where they live is determined by the project at hand. However, their constantly changing addresses not only rob governments of the fertile soil in which they normally thrive, but also create a problem for local churches. Networking with other churches in the discipleship of Christians and in following up new believers takes on new significance as people move around.

The 20th century ushered in the zappers and surfers, but the first generation to come of age in the 21st century may be incapable of personal relationships and destitute of long-term commitments. Who will be their missionaries? Most certainly, it will be representatives of the N Generation.

Not just surfing
Net Kids are very different from their predecessors. Recent generations thrived on a diet of television, fast food and the standard classroom fare. With little supervision or guidance, they dutifully indulged and soaked it all up. They learned to react and respond. They were fast with a joystick and could tell you which films, TV shows and CDs were cool and which were a drag. They wore what their peers wore; drank, smoked and talked like their peers; and tried to be different only by piercing a different part of their bodies.

Net Kids are a different breed. They are not just consumers and copiers of their peers. They don’t simply respond to impulses, but are taking an active role in their own education, choosing and devising unorthodox ways of doing things, intent upon steering their own future. Like their predecessors, they too are familiar with the mouse and remote, but they are not content merely to surf channels and the Net seeking entertainment. They are searching for reliable answers to questions few others are even asking. And they demand to know why no one is asking. You can’t put these kids off by saying, “Everyone knows that!”

This is a generation of kids that doesn’t swallow everything it is fed and that is asking parents, educators, clergymen and politicians some embarrassing questions. Net Kids are aware that much of the information offered by schools, churches, the media and the Web is unreliable. They get disgusted with older people who keep forwarding ridiculous “true” stories, chain letters, virus warnings and other e-mail scams without first checking them out. Here in Austria, they also protest hanging crucifixes, saying mandatory prayers and attending obligatory religious instruction classes in public schools.

The N Generation is highly critical in its search for genuineness, always questioning and testing the postulates of acclaimed or self-proclaimed experts. Net Kids accept nothing at face value, wanting instead to think their way to their own conclusions.

If this is an accurate description of the N Generation, then it is not just “surfing,” but going much deeper. We have a great opportunity to share the gospel in this generation’s staked territory, the World Wide Web. The Web can ensnare and lead young people to destruction, or it can be the Net that rescues them and leads them to “the Way, the Truth and the Life.”

The rod of the Lord*
Preaching the gospel to this generation will be a tremendous challenge. Are we up to it? Acts 2:40 calls for a departure from the corrupt generation, and some Net Kids may be doing just that. Representatives of a “corrupt generation” forbade prayer and the Bible in American schools, but while many Net Kids investigate and reject religion, some of them are coming to the conclusion, “We must obey God more than man!”

In Oslo, 30,000 teenagers have heard the gospel in recent rallies. What great evangelist is behind this movement? None! Teens simply print out flyers on their inkjet printers, inviting fellow students to “come hear us preach.” They take turns sharing their experiences with Jesus Christ, and their peers listen. The children’s crusades of the Middle Ages were organized by the church and resulted in many tragic deaths. These crusades are organized by the kids themselves, and many are being saved. This sounds great, but there are many disturbing aspects. Where are the spiritual fathers and the church? How about long-term commitment? What role does the cross play? We can’t allow the Net Kids to do all the questioning, nor should we expect them to find answers without help.

In the fourth chapter of Exodus, God called Moses to lead His people out of enslavement. Moses gave the classic excuses in his reluctance to obey. He asked, “Who am I for such a gigantic task?” but God answered, “That is not important; just tell Pharaoh that I AM sent you.” Moses argued that he wasn’t a good speaker, so God gave him a “remote” — a surrogate speaker named Aaron. As a last resort, Moses claimed he had nothing. God responded, “What is that in your hand?” It was not a mouse, but it was a rod that could produce mice, flies, frogs and other frightening things, even turning into a snake. The rod of Moses became the rod of the Lord, and what he held in his hand eventually led to the deliverance of God’s people.

Moses agreed to go, but he had no idea what he was getting into. In his mind, this was to be a short-term commitment to a special project that would soon be completed. His short-term mission experience turned into a lifelong career of faithful service. The same rod that brought pestilence to Egypt later brought water from a rock to quench the thirst of God’s people.

Perhaps the zappers and surfers of the N Generation have something in their hands that God could use to free thousands of people from their enslavement to sin. For the first time in history, we have access to every people, nation and language. The Information Age must not be monopolized by the devil.

Ralph and Verna Harvey have been GMU missionaries in Austria for 37 years. Ralph is chairman of the Public Relations Committee of the Association of Evangelical Churches in Austria, which is in the process of developing an evangelistic Internet ministry.

Ralph Harvey, Austria

*In my original article I wrote in the second sentence under “The Rod of the Lord”: When God pours out His Spirit upon all flesh in the end times, the kids become visionaries while senior citizens dream (Acts 2:17-18).” This was deleted by the editors, probably because they feared the words could be misunderstood. See my article: "Does God Still Speak in Dreams and Visions?

Ralph’s Comments in a Missionary Forum on technology in missions (same issue):

Internet saves us about $100 per month in telephone, fax and postage costs. The speed at which news and information travels is astounding. I have a brother who lives in Littleton, Colorado. After the shootings in Columbine High School, I immediately translated first-hand reports of this tragic incident from a Christian viewpoint and passed the information on. As a result, the testimony of those martyred Christians was not only subject material for numerous youth meetings in Austria, Germany and Switzerland, but it was aired on several radio stations. A popular Christian youth magazine asked me to write a major article, which had a good impact on youth throughout German-speaking Europe. Christians must learn to recognize opportunity and react quickly in order to take advantage of the Internet’s potential. Setting priorities must include criteria for changing them.

At a recent youth rally in Salzburg, many of those attending came from non-Christian backgrounds. Each young person was given a sheet of paper and asked to illustrate a specific part of the weekend theme. We made digital photos of the pictures and, along with the accompanying text, burned them onto CD-ROMs for each participant. It cost only about $2 per CD to multiply the testimony of this event.