Viral: How Social Networking Is Poised to Ignite Revival, Leonard Sweet. Colorado Springs, Colorado: Multnomah Books, 2012, 2011. 229 pages. Reviewed by Russell A. Whitfield.
Using the Power of Social Media Ignite Revival in our World!
Leonard Sweet has attempted to navigate the TGIF (Twitter, Google, I-Phone, Facebook) culture and believers towards uniting the Google and previous generations together for effective evangelism and discipleship. He is noted as a provocative thinker/writer that preaches and writes in a way to communicate the gospel effectively to bridge the worlds of academe and popular culture. Sweet’s book VIRAL has been written to appeal to the media-driven culture at first glance. Its content offers some fresh and practical insights that will help readers, young or old, use the power of social media to communicate the message of the gospel effectively. Sweet has diligently identified and distinguished between two different generations as a way to portray the need to embrace the changes the culture has seen towards a highly creative TGIF culture. The two generations, Google and Gutenbergers, have effectively demonstrated the truth of how culture shapes behavior and how we express our beliefs.
The Gutenbergers’ generation, of which Sweet identifies himself, represents those that bring the influences and insights from the fifteenth century to the twentieth century. This generation has been shaped by the space race, John Kennedy, the Cold War, the Beatles, and the movable-type technology perfected by Johannes Gutenberg in the 1400s. The second generation identified in this book is called the Googlers. In a world of the digitized, globalized group that spends much of its life getting to know one another in a virtual world, one finds a generation that is comfortable in the 21st-century age of media. The task of reconciling these two unique cultures in today’s media-driven world is no easy task. As Sweet envisions, the primary missional challenge of the church, for the next two decades, is to incarnate the gospel in a Google world.
As founder and president of SpiritVenture Ministries, as well as E. Stanley Jones professor of Evangelism of Drew University, and visiting distinguished professor of George Fox University, Sweet has communicated a passionate and visionary work for the purpose of uniting the Gutenberger and Googler generations towards the primary focus of the gospel. As a recognized Gutenberger, Sweet understands the evident changes technology has made on the world, and has embraced these changes in order to have a greater impact on the culture around him. His understanding about the common denominator of the basic needs of human longing, nourishment, community, and shelter that shapes how one thinks and behaves has launched his drive to incarnate the gospel in the media world. This book is described as a tale of two tribes that expresses the potentials, perils, promises, and problems of both the Googler tribe and the Gutenberger tribe. It offers a combination of humanity’s need for connection, acceptance, and community, as well as sense of belonging with the challenge of connecting to a Google world that faces all churches.
In his introduction, Sweet recognizes a Christian life that is “viral” and “dynamic”, the result of a faith being lived out. At the end of the introduction, the author offers his belief that the primary missional challenge of the church is to incarnate the gospel in the technological generation we face today.
The book is divided among five parts, outlined among fourteen chapters that include end of chapter interactives for unpacking the challenges faced by these two generations. The first section, Where are We?, includes four chapters to help its readers understand fully these two generations.
The chapter Logos and Logo, clearly distinguishes between personal connections and proving a point. Sweet points out the differences of the two generations as they individually approach the expression of the value of words. There is an urgent call for the church to be working to relate with the culture just as much as understanding the right words for right theology.
The next chapter, The Tale of Two Cultures, invites the readers to minister in a culture that may or may not look like theirs. In his description of the two cultures, Sweet makes a valid statement concerning individual preferences of these cultures and admits the frustration at times to be able to choose one’s own moment of ministry. As the church, we are to embrace the generation we have been assigned to with the love of God. Sweet ends the chapter with a section called “Getting to know your neighborhood”, to enlighten the church about the urgency to adapt faith to another culture.
After a chapter of discussing the two cultures and the changes that occurred among them, the author begins his next chapter, The God of Creative Change, with the idea that change originates from God. Sweet states that fear and trembling are two ingredients required of us all as we face the future generations. His readers will get an overwhelming sense for simplicity as the world becomes more complex.
The fourth chapter, Singing Strange Songs in the Lord’s Land, discusses the idea that every Christian should be “in” the world and not “of” the world. As Sweet uses the term “immigrant”, he recognizes the tendency to feel out of place in a world that is not familiar. The reader is urged to move into the TGIF culture with hopes of a Christian revival breeding from their acceptance.
The next part of the book deals with the first part of the acronym (TGIF) which is Twitter. The following chapters in this section deal with the ways Twitter can produce a better Christ follower, and how Twitter can change the world. Sweet informs the reader that from the start Twitter was poised to change things, which could help one become a better Christ-follower. The author gives five ways that Twitter can change a follower of Jesus: the art of following, the need of more sound bytes that can bite (concise truths that supply substance), it explores the surface levels, a new global community, and social solitude. They help the reader become transparent, stay in touch with so many people, remind the individual that they are human, reveals great value in keeping things simple, and help open the books to the stories that lie within each person’s tweets. In summary, Sweet refers to social media such as Twitter as a discipleship tool that can be used to transform and evangelize.
In the evangelical world, the idea of storytelling has become a hot topic of discussion. The concept of storytelling has been around since the days of Jesus. As the author moves to the Google section in the TGIF acronym, Sweet divides the book into three chapters titled: Jesus, Master Storyteller; The Infallible Story; and Turning a Tin Ear to Poetry. The culture today turns to Google for more than just learning, but a lifestyle. Instead of the use of drugs and alcohol to glue things back together, this generation turns to Google for the glue. A short phrase, just google it…, is the popular answer for those who have grasped the Google world of today. This culture looks for images and a story that is tangible with the use of the same ingredients Jesus used such as metaphors, paradox, parables, and stories. St. Francis of Assisi said it best as he worked to convey the Christmas story to an illiterate congregation. A familiar saying that has been coined to express St. Francis’ aim to use images as the sermon goes like this, Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary use words. This saying emphasizes the need to bring one’s “A” game to the task of sharing the greatest story ever told through scripture. Googlers are appreciated for their constant reminder to consider Jesus, the Master Storyteller, and accepting change that comes through a changing culture.
In the same section, Sweet makes a valid push for the power of poetry to be adhered by this generation. He uses the language in Ephesians 2:10 describing creation as God’s poiema (poetry) to encourage readers to adhere to the reading of poetry. As the author stated, “…our best hope for reorienting the church in the West and reversing the sundering of society from faith will dim” if this generation does not acquire the taste of poetry.
The fourth part of the book, iPhones, includes two chapters: The Advantages of the Whole Fruit and Trading the Orange for an Apple. The question is asked, “why would you want a device that only does one thing?”, when you can have one device that does it all. It is noted that Googlers approach life as “holistic thinkers.” In a comparison of apples and oranges, Sweet categorized Gutenberger generations as an orange and Googlers as apples who long for the “holistic” experience. He ends chapter ten comparing the body of Christ with an apple because with all its functions, they are all connected with each other. The next chapter in the fourth part of the book takes the metaphor of the apple and orange a step further to express pros and cons of the two approaches. The author’s aim is to bring the apple (Googlers) and the orange (Gutenbergers) back into working relationship. He ends the section emphasizing the need for the whole-brained approach for the “mind of Christ”, and unite these two generations.
The Fifth part of the book, Facebook, also includes two chapters: Cloud and Fire and Me and We in the TGIF World. The first chapter of this section begins with a discussion of how the two generations understand the idea of the “cloud of witnesses” or “communion of saints”. The Gutenberger’s view confines the “cloud of witnesses” to a particular church (physical and immediate) sanctuary, which proves neither helpful nor accurate. The Googlers view of the “cloud of witnesses” goes beyond the individual church sanctuary to a much larger form of the “great cloud of witnesses”, that views Facebook as its digital form.
Sweet argues that Facebook, like other TGIF media, does more to build and broaden family ties than quash them. He reminds his readers that the basic human need for those in community is to know and be known.
The final section sums up the idea behind the title, Viral. He coins the title of this section to portray the Google generation as a culture of revival. The final chapter, An Infectious Faith, aims to relate the TGIF culture to a Jesus revival. Sweet explains that revival is when a culture recognizes their participation of a body bigger than their selves and an organic way of behaving with it. He ends the chapter with hope and promise stating, God’s capital-C Church will endure and prosper.
Sweet concludes his book, after asking his readers to participate in this paradigm shift, expressing the idea of practicing cultural amphibianship, not cultural apartheid. The analogy he uses as he approaches being a Googler is the feeling of being like a frog. As a frog, Sweet recognizes that this book has been the lily pad that he has floated down the TGIF rapids, frightened and bewildered but too froggish to budge.
The book itself is written with the intention of its readers unpacking the concepts over time. Its complexity requires one to internalize the content of each section as they approach the text. I applaud Leonard Sweet for his efforts to put together a work that approaches two unique generations with an aim to unite them for God’s great purposes. It seems, however, that Sweet may have stretched the idea of the “great cloud of witnesses” to fit the digital form of facebook a little in order to convey the idea of a larger body found through social media. I recommend one reading this book and deciding for themselves.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Waterbrook Multnomah Publishers of their Blogger Review Program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”