Editor's Note: This is the third installment in a series of articles about Christians who rescue cultures. The first installment was The Servant; the second, The Courageous Coach. We hope that through this series you will be persuaded of God’s call for you to rescue the cultures you are in, that you will get ideas from the examples of others and that you will be encouraged to take action in rescuing the cultures around you.
James E. Holmes’ murderous rampage last week in Aurora, Colorado shows that intellectual growth and moral growth are not synonymous. Holmes was a highly intelligent student who graduated with an honors degree in neuroscience, won a prestigious grant from the National Institutes of Health and yet went on to methodically plan the events leading up to opening fire on a theater full of adults and children that killed 12 people and wounded 58 others.
What is so astounding about Holmes is that he appeared to be a normal young man who grew up in affluent suburban America. News reports paint a picture of Holmes as academically gifted and shy. That’s not unusual. In recent years, however, there were signs he began to struggle. He was living alone and appeared to have no close confidants. He dropped out of a Ph.D. program, couldn’t find a good job, and established a profile on a website used to find sexual partners. These signs point to a lonely individual who was looking to connect with women, and, lacking success in connecting, was most likely becoming increasingly frustrated. This is a combustible mix. Could something have been done to prevent Holmes from exploding in violence?
To begin, we want to point out that every human being is unique and we will never know for certain what was going on inside Holmes. Furthermore, factors in his life that may have contributed to his mental state do not relieve him from the responsibility of his actions should the court find that he was not criminally insane. That said, there are general observations we can make about the apparent patterns in his life that were unhealthy and unwise. To understand this, we need to view what we know about Holmes from a spiritual perspective and from a mental health perspective (because all truth is God’s truth and research often helps illuminate problems and guide us to find potential solutions).
News reports indicate that Holmes may have spent a considerable amount of time playing video games and seeking female sexual partners online. Research by Norman Nie at Stanford and others has shown that increased time spent online contributes to loneliness. Nie’s research concluded that an hour spent on the Internet reduces face-to-face contact with friends/co-workers/family by 23.5 minutes.
Today’s kids are at an increased risk for loneliness. Two decades ago, the average child under 18 spent about 15-20 hours/week digesting media content whereas today it has nearly tripled to almost 60 hours/week. Kids now devote more time to media than to any activity other than sleep.
Philip Zimbardo, former president of the American Psychological Association, has expressed his concern that adolescent boys’ brains are being physically rewired from excessive time spent online. He states that the average guy watches 10,000 hours of video games by the time he is 21 and the average adolescent male watches 50 porn video clips a week. Zimbardo describes an “arousal addiction” that boys are developing and says the one of the results is that it’s impairing their ability to connect with girls their age. He cites a recent Centers for Disease Control study that stated:
"regular porn users are more likely to report depression and poor physical health than nonusers are. ... The reason is that porn may start a cycle of isolation. ... Porn may become a substitute for healthy face-to-face interactions…"
In a recent American College Health Association survey of 29,939 college students, nearly 30% reported at times feeling so depressed they had difficulty functioning. Contributing to their stress is pressure from academic competition and competition for jobs, and the financial burden of increasingly expensive tuition costs. Younger kids are struggling, too. The mean age for depression in 1960 was 29. Today it is less than 15.
What Can Be Done: Create Cultures of Connection
God made us to connect. Jesus said the greatest two commandments are to love the Lord and our neighbors (Matthew 22:36-40) . All the research shows that connection = life and disconnection = death. Chronic loneliness makes people feel anxious and depressed and it shaves years off the length of their lives. Connecting in conversations and being loved by others reduces the levels of stress hormones in our bodies and the feelings of anxiety and depression that go along with these hormones.
Remember the three types of Cultures explained in part one of this series? The Dog-Eat-Dog Culture is a culture at home or at school where the powerful dominate others. The second type of culture is the Culture of Indifference where people are so busy chasing money, power and fame that they don’t take time to connect with others. The third type of culture is a Connection Culture where people intentionally connect with one another. Holmes, like all human beings, needed a culture of connection to thrive.
Connection is Biblical. Jesus prayed to God that believers would “all be one… so that the world will believe you sent me” (John 17:21 NLT). We are called to be ambassadors of reconciliation in the world by creating homes, neighborhoods, churches, workplaces and communities that are cultures of love and connection (2 Corinthians 5:20-21).
Several Christians we know are taking action to rescue the cultures that affect kids. One organization I (Michael) recently had the privilege of speaking at is Prestonwood Christian Academy (PCA) in Plano, Texas. Larry Taylor, PCA’s Head of School, says unhealthy home cultures, economic pressure to increase student-teacher ratios and the rising unhealthy influence of the media and entertainment industry are some of the greatest challenges facing educators today.
At PCA, teachers connect with their students by getting to know them. PCA supports this by keeping its student-teacher ratio at 14-to-1 versus the high-20s-to-1 or low 30s-to-1 seen in nearby public school districts. Because research has shown that students learn more when they interact with the material versus passively hearing it via lectures, PCA teachers have been trained to make the classroom more interactive and each teacher regularly meets with small groups of students following chapel services to discuss how Biblical truth applies to their lives.
Of course there are many Christian teachers who are making a difference by connecting and loving the students they interact within public schools and universities. Sajan George, CEO and founder of Matchbook Learning, is helping some of America’s bottom 5% of public schools adopt methods and technologies that will free up time for teachers to connect with students.
In the media and entertainment field, we’re encouraged to see the growing influence of bands such as 3 Union, three brothers, Brandon, Shaun and Ryan Boyd, who together bring a message of hope and love to students. The brothers’ parents, Bruce and Julie Boyd, are taking action to help kids, too. They are on staff with Campus Crusade where they speak at marriage seminars for Family Life, a ministry that helps create healthy marriages and families.
How about you? Is God calling you to play a part in rescuing cultures affecting kids? First and foremost, each of us should pray for the young people we know, for the kids in our community, and for the youth of our nation. In addition, the Lord may call you to become a teacher, administrator, or a marriage and family counselor. You might volunteer to support your local schools in the classroom, at special events, or by serving in the PTA or on the board of education You might provide prayer and financial support to ministries that are helping to rescue cultures affecting kids like those mentioned above. There are many opportunities to help rescue the cultures that affect kids. Pray about it today and ask God where he’d like you to make a difference.
Jason Pankau and Michael Lee Stallard are co-authors of Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team’s Passion, Creativity and Productivity (Thomas Nelson). Rev. Jason Pankau is president of Life Spring Network, a ministry that helps pastors and church leaders develop holistic, transformational, disciple-making communities, and he is the author of Beyond Self Help: The True Path to Harnessing God’s Wisdom, Realizing Life’s Potential and Living the Abundant Life (Xulon Press). Michael Lee Stallard is president of E Pluribus Partners, a leadership training, consulting and coaching firm that helps leaders develop “Connection Cultures” that boost productivity, innovation and performance.