Hipster Homiletics: One Response to the Challenge of Slacktivism
By: Rob O’Lynn, ABD
I’m not exactly certain when it dawned on me that how we preach—how we communicate the gospel—was changing. It was probably when I was in graduate school about ten years ago. I was trying to get a handle on postmodernism and came across a new movement called the “emerging church.” As I stumbled across this group of church leaders, I began to resonate with one author in particular—Dan Kimball. He talked about going to the barber and talking religion with him, trying to figure out how to communicate the gospel to this non-Christian in an effective way. Honestly, that’s not too different from the story I once heard of Clyde Fant, a longtime SWBTS homiletics professor, who would play basketball with inner-city kids for the same reason. Good communicators are always honing on their craft.
Yet, Kimball also tells a story about being overwhelmed once when he went to a Christian bookstore to purchase a Bible. It was in that moment over a decade ago that I realized that Christianity was no longer the dominant culture in America. Yes, Christianity is still a major player in the culture game. However we no longer control the playing field. There are other players on the field. Other religions and the “nones” are pushing back at the blurring of traditional America with evangelical Christianity, causing us a moment of pause where we reflect on how to engage these new conversation partners about truth and mission. And while this piece is hardly the place to engage in that conversation, there is one group—one movement—that has developed over the last few years that thrives on engagement that comes in 1000 words of less—the “slacktivists.”
When I told one of my ministry students that I was writing this article, he asked if I would be trading my dapper khaki Dockers and Gibbs-style polo shirt for a pair of studded skinny jeans from Hollister and horn rims. I was born during the downward spiral of the Carter administration. I am a young Gen-Xer who works with Millennials, and that alone makes engagement challenging. Yet not impossible. “Slacktivists” offer a challenge to church, and this article hopes to offer a response that raises the bar on both sides.
First, what actually is “slacktivism”? Remember a couple of years ago when several of those high school and colleges students you know spontaneously changed their Facebook avatars to a “Stop Kony 2012” poster? Or, more recently, when your Instagram home screen looked like an assassian’s hit board due to all the red Xs for the #EndIt campaign? Essentially, “slacktivism” is a sociological term that has become just as much a cultural and political trademark of Millennials as it is a marketing term. Evgeny Morozov writes, “‘Slacktivism’ is an apt term to describe feel-good online activism that has zero political or social impact. It gives those who participate in ‘slacktivist’ campaigns an illusion of having a meaningful impact on the world without demanding anything more than joining a Facebook group.” To this, Laura Seay recently added, “Slacktivists don’t have to spend a Saturday doing hard labor to build a home or sacrifice a portion of their monthly entertainment budget to a cause. They don’t even have to move from behind the screens of their electronic devices.” And Micah White correctly notes that such apathetic activity is “ruining” activism.
While these comments are largely critical of the “slacktivist” movement, they point to an emerging truth: “Slacktivists” want to be engaged and make a difference in the world, they just don’t know how to do it effectively. There are two reasons for this. First, older generations have been largely negative of the “slacktivists.” Even the name denotes this, a derogatory term that is now a badge of honor. It can be seen in Seth Myers quip on Saturday Night Live when he stated that “slacktivits” will like a Facebook page advertising a cause because it is the least they can do, although it is also the most they can do. This points to Sarah Albers’ concern that there is a vacuum of meaningful organizations that “slacktivists” can learn from and belong to. Facebook has become the new Red Cross or Salvation Army, just with no actual effort exerted. Second, “slacktivists” have been largely ignored by older generations, something that Antonia Miran noted in her recent open letter to religious leaders. They are loud, proud and not going anywhere. Lest we forget, as Miran notes, “slacktivists” got the recent president elected (and re-elected) and are leading the way by leaps and bounds in climate activism.
So, as a preacher, professor and religious “leader,” here is my response to “slacktivism” (actually to my fellow church leaders): First, preach more than “token” content. The recent “State of the Bible” report from the Barna Group and ABS continues to demonstrate the rampant growth of Biblical illiteracy. Our preaching must once again wade through those rich stories and sermons that inform our faith so that “slacktivists” can learn the “what” of Christianity. Second, practice theological reflection. Miran is correct in saying that the Church needs an “update in substance.” They are searching and the Church should honor that search by modeling how to question, discern and evaluate matters of faith. Finally, develop concrete action plans for growth and service. If Kirk Kristofferson is correct, “slacktivists” will commit to “meaningful support” and “make tangible contributions” when they believe deeply in the cause. The days of object lessons and warm fuzzies are over for the church. Thus, as Adam Grant recommends, we must “make the behavior—not the signature—public.” Application of the gospel for spiritual growth and missional engagement only works when it is directly connected to a measurable set of assessments. The challenge of what to do with the “slacktivists” is great. However they want to be engaged and they are looking for something to commit to and believe in.
 Rob O’Lynn is assistant professor of Preaching at Kentucky Christian University.