Have you ever had the experience of traveling to another country where the native language was not your own?
If you have ever done this, you know it can be a very awkward and frustrating experience!
While body language, visuals, and translators can help you communicate with those who speak a different language, nothing beats speaking and interpreting the language of the culture you are in yourself!
Many of us in the world of ministry and nonprofit life tend to find ourselves in this exact sticky situation. We have found ourselves in a unique culture that we haven’t learned the language of quite yet.
If you’ve been in the game long enough, you know that the culture of 2021 is drastically different than it was in the 80s or 90s. Why is it so dramatically different? Two words: digital media.
Digital media has completely changed how we share and receive information, communicate, and relate to one another. The effects on communication have been made abundantly clear over the past decade or so.
We have traded phone calls for text messages.
We have traded dates for dating apps.
We have traded arguing over a cup of coffee to arguing in the comment section.
For many Millennials and Gen Zers, memes, TV show references, and TikTok videos are now acceptable forms of communication.
You may look at these examples and find yourself grumbling (we’ve been there too!). But there is something profound we can learn from this shift in communication: the tides of language have shifted, and if we don’t learn to ride the wave, we will lose our impact on the next generation.
This blog is not a call to learn the latest TikTok dance trend and share it with all the 20-somethings you know. Instead, the purpose of this blog is to equip you with the tools to learn the language of our current culture! The most important thing to remember here is that the message (the Gospel, your vision statement, etc.) shouldn’t change, but your method should.
Let’s go back to the traveling example. Long-term missionaries, by and large, are trained in the native tongue of the places they will be doing mission work in. Why? Because they cannot expect to effectively preach the Gospel to someone if they are preaching it in an entirely different language than the hearers know.
We see an incredible example of this in Acts when Peter preaches the gospel to dozens of different cultures through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
Acts 2:6 says: “When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken.”
Whether it is by the power of the Spirit or by language education, the same importance remains: you must be able to speak the language of your audience to make a significant impact.
How do we go about learning this language and speaking it effectively? Keep reading to learn how.
We could stop right here.
The biggest stumbling block to speaking the language of our current culture is a lack of actually speaking with those we are trying to reach. This may seem like we are pointing out the obvious, but it is a point we must hit if we ever want to move forward.
All the research studies and statistics on Generation Z or Millennials mean absolutely nothing if we don’t get to know the members of these generations ourselves!
The best way to learn a language is not by just studying it on paper or in a class but by actually immersing yourself in the culture where the language is natively spoken. What does this look like practically?
For parents of older teenagers or young adults, this means hanging out with your kids and their friends and learning about them. Inquire about their interests, their passions, their value systems. This may seem like the most awkward encounter ever, but it is a wonderful way to connect with your children and learn about their culture.
For the rest of us, this may mean opening up the conversation with young adults in your church, organization, or nonprofit. While this can be a bit more difficult practically if you are not directly involved with their day-to-day life, being willing to have conversations with younger people is of great value.
While having a personal connection and conversation with younger generations is a great starting point, it is not the end all be all. As mentioned above, not all of us have a relationship with those in the younger generations. So how do we reach them? We do this through the world of digital.
Almost ¾ of Generation Z spend their free time online, clocking in at almost 3 hours of social media usage per day (an hour longer than most Millennials). However, if we look at these numbers in a slightly different light, Gen Z spends 1 day per week online, with some probably averaging at a much higher usage rate.
It’s safe to say that the current dwelling place of the current culture is online. If online is where our audience is, online is where we must reach them.
Going back to the missionary example, imagine a mission team training to preach the Gospel to a small remote tribe in Africa. But to reach those people, they decide to hop on a plane with Bolivia as the destination. Do you see how ridiculous this sounds? How could they possibly reach the African tribe while on an entirely different continent?
This is what we do with the current culture. We try to reach them without even visiting the destination where they are located: the digital world.
To reach our audience, we have to go where they are, and where they are is online.
Jargon is almost like the “inside jokes” of a friend group. These are phrases used that are typically only communicated and understood within the context of that particular group.
We have a ton of jargon in America that, as an American native, you may not even give a second thought to. (That phrase in the last sentence is one of them!) A few other examples of jargon, or slang, are:
If you’re American, you read this list and know the actual meaning behind each of these phrases. But if you’re someone from Korea, Mexico, or Iran, you may have no clue what these phrases are getting at.
This is the subtle power of jargon and slang. If you’re not familiar with the culture in which these phrases are used, you feel pretty confused and left out.
Our current culture speaks a different language with its own established jargon. There are subtleties in the current digital language that are only learned through being immersed in that culture.
At present day, a lot of these slang phrases are pulled directly from digital content, especially trending memes and videos.
The language of the current culture requires knowledge of the ever-changing trends and popular pieces of media. This means we cannot be lackadaisical and believe we have the language figured out and go from there. It is a constant learning process.
While most languages don’t change in their general makeup, there is a ton of jargon that shifts and develops through the lifetime of the language. This goes the same for the language of media!
The digital world we live in has had a huge impact on our attention spans. This does not mean the younger generations are less intelligent or unwilling to learn; quite the contrary. Gen Z especially highly values knowledge. They value and desire authenticity. They have very little patience for fluff or unnecessary or irrelevant information.
This is probably one of the reasons videos have risen in popularity. They require less time to consume, speak to the visual and auditory learner, and communicate in a creative and engaging way.
Videos also can quickly capture the attention of the viewer, which is great news. On average, Gen Z pays attention to content for eight seconds — four fewer seconds than millennials. Video lends itself to grab the interest of the viewer quickly through powerful visual and auditory elements.
An important part of these videos is continuing to reach those who learn by reading. TikTok videos and Instagram Reels hone in on this learning style through the use of manual and auto-generated captions.
Videos are vital to use because they are the only media in which you can attune to all types of learning styles. Video captures the attention of a generation that doesn’t have time to wait for the content to get good.
Although video should be a primary tool you use to speak the language of the digital culture, it does not mean that static images are dead and useless.
Design, when it is especially eye-catching, is immensely powerful. The age-old saying that “a picture tells a thousand words” still stands true today. There is something about good art that piques our imagination and invites us to dive deeper.
Design captivates us. It can fill us with wonder and appreciation for its beauty. It has an uncanny ability to evoke emotions in its viewers and uniquely touch their hearts.
In other words, the design speaks to us. It is precisely where authentic digital engagement begins.
One of the more popular ways design can impact and speak to the current culture is through thoughtful quotes or statements captured in a design piece. Morgan Harper Nichols has almost 2 million followers on her Instagram account where she mixes beautiful poetry and quotes with captivating artwork and design.
These types of images inspire and encourage people to stop, ponder, and share them with others. Many churches and nonprofits have followed suit and used the mix of wordplay and design to engage their audience. Elevation Church uses sermon quotes, scriptures, and other encouragements throughout their Instagram grid.
These images speak the language of the culture by giving them the convenience of an easy-to-read graphic mixed with incredible eye-catching artwork.
We mentioned earlier that what this current generation craves is authenticity. Young people are highly trained to see through past the smoke and mirrors and see the real you. So if you’re trying to fit in their culture without knowing the language, they will see right through the façade.
There is no guidebook on how to be authentic. Authenticity simply comes down to being confident in your mission, owning your shortcomings, and not trying to be someone you are not..
Be yourself! Be willing to admit you don’t know it all. Be curious and be open to learning.
Speaking the language of our current culture can be intimidating, but if you take the time to immerse yourself in the culture, learn its nuances, and use the right tools, you will be fluent in the culture of media in no time!
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