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Can Barbie help us reach the missing generation?

The high profile doll has evolved to reflect millennial concerns for social justice. That's a language the church knows – and needs to rediscover. By Michael Shaw

I have to start with a confession: in my previous life I was a marketing manager who specialised in direct marketing and ultimately digital direct marketing. The stuff that fills your inboxes and pops up whenever you look at a website, that was me. Sorry. But I have repented and I hope you can forgive me.

I look at adverts with a critical eye, like a magician who looks for the distraction or the sleight of hand that most people miss. But marketing can help us, because marketers are able to quickly see trends that will determine whether their products succeed or fail.

Social media has helped, with marketers now able to see what people are saying about their product. Mattel has recently responded to trends on social media which have led to a radical change in its high profile Barbie doll. The company has seen that Millennials (the generation since the Millennium) are becoming increasingly frustrated with their product, and in an article in the Telegraph Magazine, Tania Missad, director of global brand insights, said this:

“We were seeing that Millenials are driven by social justice and attracted to brands with purpose and values, and they didn’t see Barbie in that category”

Millennials, generation Y and even generation X, make up a vast proportion of what in the UK has become known as the Missing Generation (in church circles); the Generation of 20/30 year olds that are no longer in church. I think Barbie can help us here, or rather the insights the research has given us. Millennials are driven by social justice. The church needs to realise this, because in this short but concise sentence is the key to reaching that missing generation!

Learning a new Language

The language of Justice is not new to the church, it is all over the Bible. The problem is that we have we have made it an eschatological issue. I believe that one day Jesus will return to judge the world, and I believe we will see Justice. But often the church does not see how justice is realised today.

One of our problems is that we have fundamentally misunderstood what the Bible means by Justice in two crucial ways. There are two words used in the Old Testament: mishpat, which we translate as justice, and tzadeqah which is often unhelpfully translated as “being righteous”, but could be translated “being just”. 

Tim Keller argues that we have not understood what the Bible (and in particular the Old Testament means by Justice), he says:

“When most modern people see the word “righteousness” in the Bible, they tend to think of it in terms of private morality, such as sexual chastity or diligence in prayer and Bible study. But in the Bible, tzadeqah refers to day-to-day living in which a person conducts all relationships in family and society with fairness, generosity and equity.”

And in translating the word mishpat we do not understand that:

“mishpat means more than just the punishment of wrongdoing. It also means giving people their rights. Deuteronomy 18 directs that the priests of the tabernacle should be supported by a certain percentage of the people’s income. This support is described as “the priests’ mishpat,” which means their due or their right. Mishpat, then, is giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care."

It is not then a process of learning a new language, nor is it going to the lowest of common denominator of being “relevant” it is about getting out our dictionaries and rediscovering the language of Justice.


Driven by social justice

What amazes me is that we have a Bible that is “driven by social justice” that speaks directly into our times. My reading this morning was Deuteronomy 10:17-19

“For the Lord your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords. He is the great God, the mighty and awesome God, who shows no partiality and cannot be bribed. He ensures that orphans and widows receive justice. He shows love to the foreigners living among you and gives them food and clothing. So you, too, must show love to foreigners, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.”

If that does not speak directly into the current refugee situation, what does? It also tells us that God is “driven by social justice”, it is part of his character and nature to look after widows, orphan and foreigners. So we are not pandering to a social trend, or a cultural fad, we are dealing with the timeless nature of the God we serve!

So what does this look like?

A few weeks ago I was preaching through the five marks of mission, (a very helpful outline by the Anglican church), and one of those elements is Justice. It was an okayish sermon, it got some response from most people in the church, but for a 21-year-old graduate it really inspired her. She has recently started a blog as a response. I should not have been surprised, as she's from a generation driven by social justice. While for others it just passed them by, for her it tapped into something innate within her and her generation.

The problem is that for most people of her age who have grown up in church, they are becoming increasingly bi-lingual. While their friends outside church are passionate about justice, campaigning, advocating and protesting, they see a church that hardly mentions these things.

At present the local university Christian Union is having its mission week, and while it's doing some awesome things, none of the talks, lunch bars or events have the word Justice in the title. This is not because they are not passionate about justice, it is because they have spent their lives being told that social justice is a secondary issue to salvation, being rescued from this nasty bad world and offered eternal life. The Justice that God is interested in is Judgement, when the ultimate act of justice is completed.

The sad thing is that they do not know, because they have never been shown, that the key to reaching their peers is not cooler worship, better speakers, clever apologetics with the ultimate goal of getting people to say “the prayer”, it is tapping into what drives their peers. That, as the marketers have discovered, is social justice!

If we are to reach the missing generation, we need to rediscover the heart of God for justice. There is nothing new in this, but it  has been shrouded, hidden, and yet we have the language to tap into a missing generation that hungers for justice. 

The Revd Michael Shaw is minister of Devonport Community Baptist Church, Plymouth

Baptist Times, 16/02/2016
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