Social scientists have identified three distinct ages, which serve as a brief outline of history.

The Agricultural Age: the time period that spans most of known history to about 1860.  Named for the main occupation that involved over 90% of all workers - farming.  The main context was the small rural town. The key unit was the extended family.

The Industrial Age: the time period from 1860 to about 1956.  Named for the growth of industrial factories.  The main context was the city.  The key unit was the nuclear family.

The Information Age: the time period from 1956 to the present.  Named for the rapid growth of technology.  The main context is the world.  The key unit is the fractured family.

Information Explosion

John Naisbitt suggests that “we now mass-produce information the way we used to mass-produce cars.”  Note these signs of the information explosion:

Computers: Between 1946 and 1960 the number of computers grew from 1 to 10,000.  From 1960 to 1980, the total number grew to 10,000,000!  By the year 2000 there were around 80,000,000 in the United States alone.  In the year 2012 there were 1.1 billion computers being used worldwide.  It is estimated that by the year 2016 there will be 2 billion computers in use.

Publications: Approximately 9,600 different periodicals are published in the United States each year.  About 1,000 hard and paper back books are published internationally every day.  Printed information doubles every eight years.  Keeping up with our reading takes on new meaning.

Libraries: The world's great libraries are doubling in size every fourteen years.  In the early 1300s, the Sorbonne Library in Paris contained only 1,338 books and yet was thought to be the largest library in Europe.  Today, there are libraries with well over 8 million books each.

Periodicals: The Magazine Publishers Association notes that 265 more magazines are being published this year than last year, which works out to about one a day if magazine creators take weekends off.  Newsstands offer a choice of 2,500 different magazines.

Knowledge: More new information has been produced in the last thirty years than in the previous 5,000. Today information doubles about every four years! 

Dictionaries: The second edition of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language contained more than 315,000 words, had 2,500 pages, weighed 13.5 pounds, and had 50,000 new entries.

Business: U.S. businesses report that over half of their work forces have jobs that are information-related.  A fairly new position, the CIO or Chief Information Officer, is responsible for managing information in many businesses.

General: Getting a credit card approval in Paris involves a 46,000 mile journey over phone lines that takes place in five seconds.  A weekday edition of The New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime in 17th century England.

Information Overload

All of this information is good. Right?  Wrong!  Consider a few implications.

1. Travel: In 1914 the typical North American averaged 2,640 miles per year in travel.  Today the average car owner averages 12,500 miles per year with some traveling 30,000 or more miles per year!  Many people will travel over 3,000,000 miles in their lifetimes.  Implication:  People are tired, have less free time, and are more difficult to recruit.

2. Change: The world today is as different from fifty years ago as 1934 was from the time of Julius Caesar.  Within a couple of decades the share of the industrialized nations' work force engaged in manufacturing will be no more than 5% to 10%. "Knowledge workers" will take their place.  Implication: People oppose change, resist making friends, and wonder why they are lonely.

3. Saturation: In one year, the average North American will read or complete 3,000 notices and forms, read 100 newspapers and 36 magazines, watch 2,463 hours of television, listen to 730 hours of radio, buy 20 CDs and DVDs, talk on the telephone almost 61 hours and read 3 books.  Implication: People hear so much noise, so much informational cacophony that they are not going to hear you.

4. Specialization: The sheer volume of data makes it inevitable that we must focus on the narrow endeavor.  Our information explosion results in a fragmentation of knowledge leading to specialization, overspecialization, and sub specialization.  Implication:  People cannot see the big picture, tie the ends together, or see how the pieces relate.

5. Memory: People are plagued with Chinese-dinner memory dysfunction!  They forget what they learn within one hour!  Created by placing an emphasis on short-term memory characterized by cramming unnecessary information for unnecessary tests to get unnecessary grades.  Implication: People hear Information, learn it, and lose it without much effect on their lives.

6. Inaccuracies: The General Accounting Office of the IRS found that of the letters written to the IRS by people with tax questions, 53% were answered correctly, 31% contained major errors, and 16% were unclear or incomplete.  When the IRS received phone calls 36% of the callers were given wrong answers!  Implication:  People know information is out there, have difficulty getting it, and make mistakes without it.

7. Amnesia: Overload Amnesia results when the brain shuts down to protect itself.  You cannot recall even simple information such as a friend's name when trying to introduce them to another person.  Note: Often happens in classrooms, conferences, lectures, and while attending church.  Implication: People hear more than they understand, forget what they already know, and resist learning more.

8. Confusion: Everyone knows the feeling of buying a high-technology product (DVD?), getting it home, and not understanding how to program it.  Each new form the IRS adds for Income Tax preparation reportedly adds an additional twenty minutes of time for completion.  Implication: People don't know how to use what they learn, make mistakes when they try, and fell guilty about it.

Insights for Ministry

Most churches have their roots in the Agricultural and Industrial Age.  This often leads to stress, as some programs that worked in the past are not as effective today. Consider that an 11 o'clock worship service time is a throwback to the Agricultural Age when churches had to give farmers time to complete the morning chores, hitch the horse to the wagon, and drive into town.  By the time most farmers completed this routine, 11:00 a.m. was the logical time for morning church services to begin.  Today, many churches find earlier hours for worship services often attract more people.

The models of ministry developed in the Agricultural and Industrial Ages are colliding head on with the Information Age. Pastors and church leaders are under pressure to develop new models of effective ministry.  In general, churches must begin to turn their attention toward making information understandable, rather than simply dumping more data on their people.

Here are a few insights local churches should consider as they seek to minister effectively in the Information Age.

Insight #1:  Develop high touch ministries.

High Tech-High Touch is the new buzzword of the Information Age.  A university study found that students were able to retain information longer in a library when librarians made contact with them lightly touching their arms while answering questions.  Churches should . . . Place an emphasis on relationships.  Expand small groups. •Use counseling centers.  Train members in the Stephen Ministries.

Insight #2:  Offer a variety of ministries.

M.O.P.S. (Mother's of Preschoolers), celebrate recovery, and never-married singles groups are a few of the new ministries being developed in many churches.  New ones are continually needed.  Churches should . . . Employ workers who are specialists in their fields.  Present Bible studies which speak to felt needs.  Target new ministries to new groups of people.  Deploy ministries away from the church facilities.

Insight #3:  Remain flexible.

People are busy.  Yesterday a husband would come home from work to a prepared meal.  Today he finds a note on the kitchen counter that reads, "Honey. If you get home before I do, please start dinner."  Churches should . . . Conduct alternate services.  Expand opportunities throughout the week.  Hold a Friday or Saturday evening service.  Shorten services.

Insight #4:  Establish a clear purpose.

Ideas do not come from maintenance but from conviction of purpose that burns in the heart and spreads to others.  Churches should . . . Clarify their purpose.  Present things in concrete terms rather than philosophical ones.  Increase ownership through regular communication.  Explain their purpose through real life stories.

Insight #5:  Keep it simple.

Pastors labor under the misconception that it is better to have too much information than too little.  Psychologist George Miller found years ago that only seven pieces of information, such as digits of a telephone number, could be held easily in a person's mind for short-term memory.  Churches should . . . Simplify everything.  Make sermons clearer.  Make traffic patterns, instructions, and signs obvious.  Announce only what is of interest to everyone.

Insight #6:  Practice good communication.

A survey done by the Opinion Research Corporation found that fewer than half of employees rated their companies with favor when it came to letting them know what was going on in the company.  Executives rate communication problems as their chief difficulty.  Churches should . . . Tie communication to images.  Use stories.  Half of our learning is fact; the other side is stories and ideas.  Use humor.  Research suggests that putting people in a good mood by telling them jokes helps them think through their problems with creativity.  Communicate everything five different ways.

Insight #7:  Be patient in decision-making.

Churches are taking more time to make decisions.  They are being careful and taking the time to search for additional information.  Pastoral search used to take three to six months.  Today it is taking nine to twelve months.  Churches should . . .Ask good questions.  Determine criteria for making a decision before beginning research.  Use decision-making grids.  Look for consensus rather than unanimous decisions.

Insight #8:  Trust others for advice.

Major book publishers produce around 150 books a year, but receive around 2,500 manuscripts per year!  There is an inability to keep up with produced information.  Leaders must accept the fact that they cannot know it all.  Churches should . . . Use consultants - they have a broader base of experience and understanding to interpret information.  Ask questions.  Don't wait forever to make a decision.  You will never have all the information you would like.

Insight #9:  Focus on application.

People only remember 15% of what they hear.  George Simmel, a sociologist, was the first to recognize that in urban life people protect themselves from information overload "which results in an incapacity . . . to react to new situations with the appropriate energy."  Churches should . . . Focus on known information rather than dumping new information.  Show people how.  Concentrate on the basics.  Preach and teach topically.

Insight #10:  Emphasize long-term growth.

People are being forced to adapt to a new life-pace.  They must confront novel situations and master new ways of doing things in ever-shorter intervals.  Churches should . . . Develop home Bible studies, which teach people to find information for themselves.  Narrow information to what people really need to know.  Use a variety of teaching techniques; not every one learns the same way.

Getting through the noise level is going to get harder as the amount of available information expands.  Growing churches will be those who make information understandable and practical.