Doing Church in a Digital Age, Part 5--A Media "End Run"

I can tell I've been musing a bit too much on this subject of doing church in the age of the internet: now I'm getting thoughts come to me in the middle of the night! Last night, after having routinely checked my Twitter account to read up on Lance Armstrong's experiences at the Tour of Italy, it really smacked me: Lance is giving us a dramatic example of how it's now possible to do an "end run" on traditional media. At the moment, Lance is refusing to speak to the news reporters in Italy. Instead of giving them a few comments after a stage is finished, he goes straight to the team bus. (The reason for this has to do with apparent criticisms the media have made of him after he allegedly prompted the stage in Milan to be neutralized after he and other riders felt it was too dangerous to ride.) But just because Lance is refusing to speak to the world media in Italy doesn't mean he's silent! No, he has his Twitter account, followed by over 925,000 people (many of whom are reporters who quote from it!). Furthermore, Lance has linked his Twitter account to his site, where he uploads videos he and his friends make directly from the team bus, the training table, his hotel rooms, wherever. If you follow Twitter and link to Livestrong, you actually get more (and more personal) news on Lance than was ever possible before. And...(this is the great part, for Lance, at least)...he gets to control exactly what you see and hear. It's customized news reporting! All of us have been watching the end of printed newspapers; well, now we're watching the end of traditional news reporting in general! Talk about flattening! As more and more news consumers get used to this form of media (and reject the traditional forms of reporting, even those on the web!), how will churches keep up, I wonder? It's incredible: in the past six months, since Lance has been Tweeting, we're watching a major change in how news get reported. Along with this, across the world, YouTube videos are now posted by amateurs about news events well before traditional cameras ever get to the scene. Dizzying, eh?

Doing Church in a Digital Age, Part 4--Community

My brief foray into Facebook (it feels like it's now almost over, frankly) was revealing. It taught me many things: 1) it revealed I'm middle-aged (I saw pictures of my high school classmates and said to myself, "Who are these old people?!", only to realize they're most likely saying the same about me! Yikes! Where do the years go?); and 2) the Facebook function that yields recent updates from "friends'" on what they're doing has shown me, in some cases, that I may know what they had for breakfast with their kids, but I don't know where they're living, to whom they're married, or what they've been up to since we last connected in high school or college!

Thanks to our digital age, I now have more information about more "friends" but less contact and real-world connection to them to give me context for this information. If we communicate, it's likely "wall-to-wall" or maybe a message or an email but that's usually it. It raises for me this week's question about "Doing Church in a Digital Age--Community." In what ways does the internet culture foster community and in what ways does it hinder it? (By community, I mean a close web of supportive, nurturing relationships that meets mutual social and personal needs.) Is our virtual community making us broader but not deeper, relationally? Granted, for those relationships we're already in, a quick text, email, or IM can further dialog, keep us connected, brief us on the latest. But what of those Facebook "friends"? Or, as is the case in some virtual relationships, does instant and constant access electronically raise--or give the illusion of--expectations for actual relationship we cannot realistically meet?

My hunch is that electronic communication can be helpful if it's built on a foundation of historic, actual relationship. If we know one another well enough in real life, that is, if we understand nuances of history, humor, personal detail, etc about each other, then "140 characters" or less can be a fine way of staying in touch, at least superficially. Virtual relationship can augment, but not create, actual relationship. That's my opinion at the moment. But I'm open to correction. What say ye?

Doing Church in a Digital Age: Part 3--Distraction

Although I've sought to avoid jumping too quickly into editorializing, our discussion of "Doing Church in a Digital Age" will unavoidably press into this area of value-judgment. At some point we have to reflect on our perceptions of what this age yields for us both positively and negatively. As we move in that direction a bit, let me raise the question of "distraction." I don't know about you, but I find myself often distracted by the opportunity (always available, it seems) to check email, email others, surf the web for information, read the news/weather/sports/entertainment sites, blog, Tweet, text, or IM someone. When there's a lull in activity at home or at work, it's all too easy for me to go to a screen and get busy. And even when I'm enjoying off-line activities, the familiar sound of a text message arriving or a cell phone ringing can easily interrupt. It makes me wonder: how comfortable am I--are we--with silence and solitude? How trained are our ears in listening--to God, to our own hearts, to each other? Are these not indispensable in the spiritual life? I think of the experiences of Israel and of Jesus in the wilderness for 40 years and 40 days respectively--stripped down, traveling light, focused on God--without urban amenities or a rich diet of entertainment and information.

How do we do when we're without our cell phones or computer screens? By filling these empty spaces with cyber-activity what are we missing out on? Is there an aspect of over-stimulation, or some adrenal connection, or even an addictive component to the digital age, I wonder? What would happen if we "fasted" from our screens for a day? How might we feel? What might we notice?

Your thoughts?

Doing Church in the Digital Age: Part 2--Flattening

I'm grateful for the discussion generated after the last post. There's so much to chew on with this theme: "How has the age of the Internet impacted how we "do church"? In other words, how is our communication with one another affected? What new tools do we have for building community? What new challenges do we face with advances in communication technology? And, most importantly, for a church like ours in leadership transition, "How does this emerging culture of the Internet impact the leader and leadership structure we seek?"

This week I want to throw one major idea into the hopper: "flattening." One thing is abundantly clear when it comes to the internet, the old pyramidal structures of society have dramatically flattened. Here's what I mean: it used to be that the higher up in an organization you were, the less direct communication the average person could have with you. In print media, a pundit or columnist could write an article and you were privileged to read it, but not invited to respond to, let alone communicate directly with, the writer (unless, of course, you took time to write a letter to the editor). Now, we have organizations (churches, government, businesses, entertainment) where you're permitted, even encouraged, to communicate directly with the CEO, leadership structure, pastor, church board, or star. You can follow their Twitter feeds and leave a message for them; you can read their blogs (like this one!) and leave your thoughts for them and others to consider; you can write on their Facebook wall if you're a "friend"; you can often email a columnist or leave a note after an article on the online version (the New York Times does this a lot, I see). What this is doing is flattening the way we relate to each other. It's creating instant access, or at least the expectation of that. It's also creating an intricate web of interaction that goes in multiple directions and no longer just one way, top down. A conversation is created by such online communication; there's no longer just a fiat pronounced from on high, which people may take or leave. Instead, people are now invited into an online "town hall meeting", as it were.

How does this impact a church, I wonder? Surely, it invites church leaders to create some sort of space online where dialog is encouraged--it wouldn't be a stretch for pastors and church boards to have sites where readers and congregants can leave feedback and ideas--and possibly even have real-time instant messaging during certain hours. It might also mean that some version of a sermon is posted online and people can then interact with its themes and leave comments, questions, and thoughts for others to engage and ponder. Granted, things could get messy--and we can't manage every detail or take time to respond to every suggestion. But...could the benefits outweigh the cost in time, effort, or messiness, I wonder?

What thoughts do you have about "flattening" as it relates to "doing church"?

Doing Church in a Digital Age: Part 1

As our church moves through a pastoral transition and prepares to look for a new head of staff, it occurs to me that this is an excellent time to review the changing culture in which our church finds itself, particularly a culture shaped by rapid changes in communications technology. My hope is that our congregation and church leadership will be able to name and understand changes around us which are affecting the way people engage each other, share information, contribute ideas, and keep pace with one another. All of this will shape how we view ministry, reach out to those around us, and seek someone to lead us.

This past Tuesday we teed up the idea with our church staff. I began by asking them the question: “In light of the digital age, in what specific ways has the culture around us changed?” Here’s what they replied:

“There seems to be less face to face communication; there is less silence; we now have a culture of immediacy, where there is a 24/7 availability and we can’t escape it. Things are always changing. When someone communicates with us, we can self-select a response (text, voice mail, email, instant message, etc)—and no matter what, people expect a response quickly. There is much less formality. We’ve moved from a word-based culture to an image-based one; we’ve gone from reading text to watching pictures or videos. With so much constant communication there is mixed or varied attention spans/levels. We can multi-task. There is increased fragmentation, constant distraction. Someone wondered: what happened to etiquette or manners? We have more social connections, someone observed, but are we actually less relational? We have to manage an ever-increasing volume of information. One person noted that there is a financial cost to staying up on technology. He also questioned the health consequences of micro- and radio-waves everywhere. Due to immediate accessibility, there is less hierarchy (organizations and society in general have become flatter). There is less privacy—people can easily find out information on others by Googling them.”

These are just raw reflections, not sorted or critiqued in any way. In fact, it was an effort for us not to label or criticize aspects of the digital age, particularly between the generations. What was evident to us all, I think, was that we live in a changing age and that churches cannot ignore changes and opportunities created by new technologies. For instance, having a dynamic website for a church is not an elective; it is required. It’s our front door to the world even more than our building! A stodgy, slow, non-intuitive web site communicates that we don’t care about or are not interested in younger, web-savvy generations (and, increasingly, older generations, too!). Many, if not most, people will visit a church’s website before they’ll set foot inside its buildings. Also, many visitors and members will want to listen online to sermons, teaching, and other offerings. This is a safe way to “test drive” a church. A seamless, interesting, easy-to-navigate web site is essential for a positive experience.

This is my first installment in what I hope will be several entries devoted to “Doing Church in a Digital Age.” In future blogs, I’d like to reflect on the ministry opportunities the digital age presents us with, how the internet culture is flattening and speeding up decision-making and how it creates communities which are self-policing and share authority and activity. I'd also like to think about what in Presbyterianism is essential to preserve in this changing culture...and what we might need to change. There’s much for us to think about! If you have ideas on this subject, please share them!