A recent study revealed that 18 to 22-year-olds are the loneliest age group today. There are a variety of factors that contribute to this troubling statistic. One, of course, is the prevalent use of technology in our society today. While devices help us connect to people in new and beneficial ways, there are some drawbacks. Empathy, for example, has decreased as technology has increased. One study reported that college students are 40 percent less empathetic than they were 20 or 30 years ago, prior to the widespread use of the internet. Screens dull our ability to feel the pain and joy of others and to connect with them emotionally. This presents a threat to deep, committed relationships that are impossible to maintain without continuing empathetic interaction.
While Millennials and Generation Z are especially adept at communicating online, valuable intimacy often gets lost in virtual communications. Quantified Communications reports that an average adult today makes eye contact between 30 and 60 percent of the time in conversation, but emotional connection is built when eye contact is made during 60 to 70 percent of the conversation. When there is less eye contact, fewer connections are made. Virtual connections, while valuable, cannot replace the emotional connection and sense of well being that occurs with eye contact, touch, and physical presence.
Leaders and managers today often report that young staff lack the relational skills and emotional intelligence to connect with others effectively. In many ways, it is the older generations who must take responsibility for this. When we hand a 5-year-old a device instead of answering their tenth question about giraffes or princesses, we rob them of an opportunity to develop face-to-face communication skills and connect with us in a way that is meaningful to them. When we miss the body language or facial expressions of a 10 or 12-year-old in our life because we are busy checking our social media feed, we lose the opportunity to model good emotional intelligence. When we avoid a conversation with an 18 or 20-year-old in our life because we assume their earbuds mean they don’t want to talk to us, or we fear rejection, we miss an opportunity to demonstrate sincere interest or unconditional love.
Young people today need opportunities to practice healthy relational skills, and they desperately need to see them modeled. Many leaders, mentors, teachers and parents I talk to, however, do not know even where to start in actively engaging the young people in their lives. What I have found, in interacting regularly with 5 to 25-year-olds, is that there is great power in a good question and active listening. I have yet to encounter a young person who did not respond positively to someone sincerely asking about their perspectives and concerns. True, there might be an eye roll or two at first, but when they see you persist in your interest in them, despite their eye roll, trust and respect begin to develop.
So, what does a good question entail? First of all, it must be open-ended. If it allows the young person to respond with a simple “yes,” “no,” “good” or “bad,” a grunt or sigh, it is not a good question. Instead, it should require some thoughtfulness. Instead of asking, “Did you have a good day at school?” try something like “What was the best part of your day at school?” The response to a good question should give you some insight into the young person’s life and provide an opportunity for a follow up question. For example, if they respond that the best part of their day was chatting with a friend, you could follow up with a question like, “Tell me about your friend? How did you meet?” A good question can thus communicate that you care about what they care about. Check out some other great sample questions here.
Good questions are one of the most powerful ways to demonstrate interest, gain empathy, and develop deep connections. As a result, they are a critical tool for all of us as we interact in a society that is increasingly distracted and busy. Make it a goal to practice asking good questions and taking the time to listen actively to the responses.
As a sophomore in college, I served as a student leader. Our team was responsible for providing peer mentoring, planning student programs, and helping with various campus activities. We were volunteers, with leadership responsibilities piled on top of classes, homework, and part-time jobs. It was important for us to stay focused on the goal. One of our team leaders often encouraged us by saying, “It’s all about the one!” It didn’t matter if attendance at an event was low, if one lonely student came and found community and new friends, it was worth it. If we had a test looming the next day, but a student struggling with depression showed up at our door, giving up some sleep and taking time to encourage her was meaningful. That slogan helped keep us focused on how critical investing in just one person can be!
Our culture is obsessed with numbers as indicators of success. We measure success as the amount in the budget; the number of customers, guests, sales or conversions; or the size of our facilities. While there are great reasons for this, it can also be a distraction. I am often asked how to create a successful leadership development or ministry program for youth and young adults. Mass methods are only marginally effective. The best way to engage with and develop a young person is one-on-one, or in small teams and communities. Millennials and Generation Z have access to information unlike any other generation in the history of the world. They don’t need another great program; they need to process. Indeed, the number one predictor of a young person retaining their faith is a meaningful relationship with an older believer. Trusted mentors and friends and safe spaces in the frenzied worlds of youth today can provide opportunities for the development of strong values and convictions.
I call this period that we are in the “season of a remnant.” Regardless of your setting, it is unlikely that we will accomplish significant change or impact in young lives and perspectives through large group trainings, conferences, or classes. Relationships, community and meaningful conversation are where the most formative experiences occur. Wondering why a young people has a specific political view? Engage them in a conversation (not a lecture!) about it. Wanting to instill an essential character trait or leadership quality in a young mentee? Model it for them, inviting them to share in a meaningful leadership experience. Hoping to share faith or truth with a generation that desperately needs it? Begin with “the one” or a few…a remnant.
Will and Ariel Durant, Pulitzer-prize winning historians, in discussing the inevitable decline of civilizations, write the following: “Nations die. Old regions grow arid, or suffer other change. Resilient man picks up his tools and his arts, and moves on, taking his memories with him.” I often reflect on this statement and think about my students and my children, their children and grandchildren. As the civilization we belong to undergoes change, what tools and memories do we want young people to possess as they move on to a new or changed civilization? What tools do we want to ensure they carry with them into an uncertain future? There will always be a resilient remnant and equipping them means we sometimes have to remain focused on “the one!”
Most of us are interested in ways to decrease stress, improve sleep, and stimulate brain growth and memory. And yet, research shows that silence does all of this and more. In a world where we carry our favorite music in our back pocket; engage in long-distance conversations anywhere, anytime; and listen to podcasts, audio books or funny Youtube videos on demand, silence is often elusive.
A recent study indicates that not only is silence difficult to find, but we actively avoid it. In an experiment where individuals were given the choice of sitting in silence with their thoughts, or inflicting an electrical shock upon themselves, the results were surprising. Even though participants had previously stated that they would pay money to avoid being shocked, 67% of the men and 25% of women chose to inflict it on themselves rather than sit quietly and think for 15 minutes.
While it can be difficult to carve out or choose time for silence, solitude and reflection, there are a few key reasons for us as leaders to do so:
1. Healthy Relationships
Relationships are critical to our health and wellbeing. In today’s busy, digitally-driven world, our longing for deep relationships is greater than ever. Often we substitute noise and a sense of connectedness for true relationships. Writer Johnathan Franzen describes that “our infatuation with technology provides an easy alternative to love.” Ironically, it is often silence and solitude that allow us the understanding and peace to engage in deep, caring, healthy relationships more regularly. Thomas Merton, in No Man Is an Island, explains: “The man who fears to be alone will never be anything but lonely, no matter how much he may surround himself with people. But the man who learns, in solitude and recollection, to be at peace with his own loneliness, and to prefer its reality to the illusion of merely natural companionship, comes to know the invisible companionship of God. Such a one is alone with God in all places, and he alone truly enjoys the companionship of other men, because he loves them in God.”
2. Effective Leadership
Leaders today are confronting increasingly complex problems in ever-changing environments. More than ever, we need time and space to clear the clutter from our minds and focus on the challenges we confront. Author and speaker, Sarah Ban Breathnach, explains, “Usually, when the distractions of daily life deplete our energy, the first thing we eliminate is the thing we need the most: quiet, reflective time. Time to dream, time to contemplate what's working and what's not, so that we can make changes for the better.” Kate Murphy, in her article, No Time to Think says, “You can’t solve or let go of problems if you don’t allow yourself time to think about them. It’s an imperative ignored by our culture, which values doing more than thinking and believes answers are in the palm of your hand rather than in your own head.” I would add that sometimes the answers are whispered in our heart. When we fail to listen, in silence and solitude, we may miss the best answers to issues we are facing.
3. Identity and Purpose
In a study by anthropologist Emily Martin, an eleven-year-old girl from a broken home, who bounces between three households, explains that in each of these households the rules are different and so is she. Her identity, like that of many of us today, is defined by an external context. This translates easily into the virtual world, where our identities can be fluid and adaptable. Unfortunately, this also makes us vulnerable to confusion, depression, and a lack of confidence. Silence and reflection is the space where we can listen to our own heart and identify our identity and purpose. Carl Sandburg describes this beautifully when he says the following: “A man must find time for himself. Time is what we spend our lives with. If we are not careful we find others spending it for us. . . It is necessary now and then to go away and experience loneliness; to sit on a rock in the forest and to ask, 'Who am I, and where have I been, and where am I going?' If one is not careful, one allows diversions to take up one's time—the stuff of life.”
As leaders, may we prioritize silence and reflection, benefiting from the rest and understanding that come from these disciplines. More importantly, may we model these critical practices for those younger than us who are in danger of living lives full of noise and distraction, without understanding the beauty and healing of silence and solitude.
We are living in a pivotal chapter of our nation’s story. A tumultuous time in biblical history holds great perspective for us as we navigate significant changes in America today. The story of God’s people in the Old Testament, like the experiences of people throughout history, is riddled with conflict, challenges, and change.
One of the most dramatic seasons of change for Judah was undoubtedly the Babyonian invasion, and resulting exile, that occurred beginning in 607 B.C. The first chapter of the book of Daniel recounts the initial invasion: "In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia." We can only imagine the anguish and distress these couple of sentences represented for the people of God. It is difficult for us as believers today to understand all that the temple meant to God’s people then.
Verse two of chapter one says: “And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God.” The dramatic devastation and change in the lives of His people was not a surprise to God. In fact, the Scripture says that it was the Lord who gave Nebuchadezzar success. Twenty years after this initial invasion, Nebuchadnezzar succeeded in capturing Jerusalem and destroying the temple.
The meaning and traditions tied to the temple, articles from the temple, and the city of Jerusalem are monumental, as ongoing conflicts yet today testify. Nonetheless, God allowed an ungodly leader’s success in capturing, destroying and carrying off key elements of worship and religion in Judah. Why? What can we learn from Judah’s history as we navigate our own season of transition?
America is in significant cultural upheaval. Perspectives are changing. Values that were once held dear are being discarded. Established institutions and methods are being questioned and often rejected. In the midst of the ensuing chaos, the church is being forced to grapple with significant questions. In many cases, it can feel like the temple has been invaded, that the articles of the temple are being carried off into a foreign land by strangers who do not appreciate what they represent. The battering rams are pounding on the gates, and every faith-based institution--from missions agencies, to churches, schools, non-profit organizations, seminaries, publishing houses, and advocacy groups--is facing an identity crisis. I imagine some of the emotions felt by Christian leaders today reflect those of Judah’s leaders when the Babylonian soldiers entered Jerusalem.
Here is what encourages me: God was not shocked by Nebuchadezzar’s actions, and God is definitely not surprised by the changes we are facing today! In fact, Scripture points to the fact that many who went into exile prospered where God had placed them (Jeremiah 29). Of course, it was not what they wanted, but it was what they needed. Decades later, when God opened the door for some of them to return to Judah and rebuild Jerusalem, there was a renewed sense of purpose, focus, and dedication to the Lord.
The book of Daniel continues with the story of Daniel and his three faithful friends. Carried from Judah to Babylon, and forced into service in the king’s palace, these young men represented a transitional generation. They developed as leaders in the midst of upheaval for their people and led in a place and culture foreign to the mentors and leaders of their youth. In this regard, I believe they resemble young leaders today. God is raising up a remnant of young, godly leaders who will succeed as Daniel and his friends did in leading faithfully in the midst of adverse or complex situations. They are a Daniel Generation. Theirs is not an easy path; it will require sacrifice, wisdom, surrender and faith. In some ways, young people today are poorly equipped for the challenges they will face. This is where inter-generational understanding, mentoring, collaboration and leadership are critical. Leaders of all ages must engage to seek timely wisdom, and share perspectives, skills, and truths that will be needed in the days ahead.
It is important to note that if Daniel and his friends had refused to learn the language and literature of their new culture, they would have been ineffective. Instead, they successfully advised and served powerful and ungodly leaders in the land. For young leaders today, the challenge is to walk as Daniel did. He did not succumb to the influences and temptations of the culture around him, yet he did learn to navigate it and allow God to use him within it. We need the wisdom and favor that God gave Daniel to walk with truth, grace, and influence. It is time for a Daniel Generation to live and serve faithfully amid an ungodly culture, in humility glorifying the one true God!
Tim Elmore, in his book Generation iY, explains the fact that most young people today learn and interact through “uploading.” They engage in forums and activities via devices where they can share opinions, perspectives and preferences, and receive instant feedback. Nonetheless, many of our formal leadership and learning environments continue to implement “downloading” methods to engage, lead and teach those in our care. We talk at people, give orders or directions, and provide important information without stopping to receive input, give explanations or engage in discussion.
Once upon a time, not that long ago, many lived by the motto that children were to be seen and not heard. That philosophy was applied to many in "follower" positions such as students, soldiers or employees. While this perhaps made life easier for those parenting, teaching, or managing, it could result in decisions or information based on limited understanding. The ideas and desires of those in leadership roles were "downloaded" to the followers and silent obedience was often expected. Some leaders still adhere to this top-down approach to managing followers.
Since childhood, Millennials and Generation Z have been taught and encouraged to be seen and heard! They are accustomed to having input…whether it is choosing a favorite game on their device, posting a response on social media, or texting their vote to a favorite television show, they are uploading generations. If we want young members to feel engaged and committed to our teams, whether in the office, pew or classroom, we must allow participation, discussion, and “uploading.”
While there are some negative consequences from this need to be heard, there are also many benefits. Active participation can lead to increased creativity, understanding of diverse perspectives, and greater engagement and ownership. Regardless of the pros and cons, leaders today must understand that those they lead or teach are used to "uploading." Failure to provide opportunities for them to do so limits our ability to gain respect and earn the right to speak constructively into the lives of those around us. At times we need to address the negative aspects of our "uploading" culture. First, however, we must prove we are leaders who intentionally listen to those we lead.
Ideas for "uploading" as a leader:
*Ask open-ended questions regularly; allow the time and space to actively listen and ask follow up questions as we learn from those on our teams.
*Be sure that training and learning experiences incorporate as much discussion and active participation (uploading) as lecture and instruction (downloading).
*Request ideas, and when possible and appropriate, allow students or employees to pursue a course of action they value (even if it seems a bit problematic). Encouragingly help them navigate the challenges or consequences of the decision/action. This can help teach effective decision making, critical thinking and problem solving, equipping future leaders with needed understanding and skills.
*After listening to the input of others, there will be times when as a leader you need to make an unpopular or hard decision. When this occurs, explain your reasons, and honestly engage and answer questions. This becomes a mentoring opportunity and demonstrates transparency.
Dr. Jolene Erlacher is a wife, mommy, author, speaker, college instructor and coffee drinker who is passionate about empowering the next generation of leaders for effective service!