If only 2017’s on-trend phrases were merely used to further Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy career and sell watered down American lager. Instead, you can barely turn on the (real) news without hearing a politician, commentator or person on the street decry ‘fake news’. Fake news: the in-no-way-long-awaited sequel to 2016’s ‘post-truth’. For the uninitiated, fake news is exactly what it says on the tin - news stories, presented as accurate (so not satire) that are, in some way, fabricated. Post-truth is a more general term, describing the fast-and-loose approach to reality that many politicians take, such as the Leave campaign’s claim that £350 million a week would be spent on the NHS if the UK left the EU.
At the time of writing, the incoming President of the USA is calling an intelligence briefing about his relationship with Russian ‘fake news’, while his opponents are similarly having to dispel myths that he’s already managed to save the American automobile industry. I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that politicians’ relationship with the truth has always been sketchy, but it seems that right now it’s a mere afterthought.
The fake news and post-truth phenomenons don’t exist in isolation; I think it’s pretty unlikely they’d be as prevalent in any other point in human history. Fake news and post-truth aren’t scary because they’re fake; they’re scary because they’re believable, because there’s a hint of truth to them. Anyone can spot a lie, but a slight, perhaps even nuanced, spin on the truth is harder to spot. In many ways, this approach is more of a heightened reality, an exaggeration, than outright deception. And that’s why it’s such a 21st-Century disease, because this isn’t something the rest of us are immune from. If one was to carefully analyse the social media output of those involved in ministry and those we minister to, my hunch would be that there would be a whiff of fake news about it: a dash of hyperbole in our anecdotes, the odd overestimation of attendance here, a bit of Photoshop there. The real truth is that for all of us, the basic facts just don’t do the job anymore, we all need a bit of extra spice.
In this month’s issue, Nigel Pimlott takes a deep look at the ‘Post-truth pantomime’ (p.44) and what it means for our ministry. One of the key responses he suggests is to be vulnerable. Politicians aren’t vulnerable; their post-truth attitude is born out of a desire to present a perfected version of themselves to voters. As youth and children’s workers, what we present to those we work with is absolutely vital, and in a post-truth culture, a vulnerable, honest attitude can be transformative. Elsewhere in this issue, we hear from Kara Powell from the Fuller Youth Institute and reflect on their Growing young research (p.22). A key hallmark they identified in churches that were growing among younger age groups was taking Jesus’ message seriously. This is what she says that looks like: “[Those churches] were very quick to point young people to the grace and love of Jesus Christ, instead of the shame and fear that so often exists in our culture today and has infiltrated the Church. They were very quick to say: ‘It’s OK to have doubts, it’s OK to have struggles,’ they didn’t expect young people to be perfect.”
When we model honesty and vulnerability in a society which promotes the opposite, we unlock the same in our children and young people. When we allow people to express doubt and worry in a world so cocksure of their fabricated realities, we create safe spaces for those we work with to wrestle with the mess of life. In humility and integrity, our youth and children’s ministry might just hold the antidote to our post-truth malaise.