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!


Forrest Buckner said...

Cool thoughts and summary Carl.

I had a couple more thoughts to add. First, I really appreciate the angle you are taking on this by trying not to primarily criticize the changes in our world. A friend at another church recently told me in regards to technological innovation and communication things like texting that can seem distracting, "We decided we could either fight against it or we could harness it for our purposes." That seems right on to me in many ways. How can we harness these different movements for inviting people toward Jesus?

I also appreciate the attempt to not be critical at first because criticism can increase the gap between those immersed in the "new" ways of doing things and those who are not. If every person who has not used Facebook criticizes it for being impersonal, not making real relational connection, only being surface level, those for whom Facebook is a huge part of their lives and relationships will be offended and pushed away. I even saw glimpses of that in our conversation yesterday - certain people making judgments of the technology and others getting defensive.

I do think there is a place for critical discussion about these trends, but I would suggest that follows a prolonged period of study and seeking to understand. I appreciate that you are trying to do that, but I think it will be an uphill battle. Thanks!

Carl Hofmann said...

Forrest, good insights! I think your sensitivity to the various feelings and generations involved is a good reminder: we need to listen long and hard--not just for details, but for the heart. That may be one of the things God wants to do in us in this season! Thanks.

Robin Dean said...

Carl, I like your perspective. I, too, think that the snowball is picking up speed at an ever increasing rate. As Forrest said, we should try to harness it's energy for Jesus, staying true to Biblical teaching. The website presents an important first impression of an organization. I frequently visit an organization's website before I attend or get involved in their activities. I use it to find out what the organization is all about and to see if they have their act together in this digital age, where people expect immediate gratification and response. Often, when I find a website frustrating to navigate, or one which has no depth, or just down right boring, I rule it out. I'm all for using this resource to communicate truth and draw others to Christ. I think it would behoove us, to pray for the Holy Spirit's guidance in our website efforts, funding it adequately with quality resources, both academic and financial.

john said...

here's a silly little thing... i have the bible on my iphone. but people always give me dirty looks like i'm sending text messages when i use it.

Robin Dean said...

Me, too. I have my Bible on my palm. It's so cool! I have it with me all the time!

Allan Harvey said...

Great topic. I have three thoughts (enough for a sermon!)

First, these technologies are like many other new things -- it is easy for the church to either put its head in the sand and do blanket condemnation, or to uncritically embrace everything, and both of those approaches are unwise. One can see both extremes in Evangelical reactions to aspects of science, or to postmodern thought, or to Biblical scholarship (more commonly the head-in-the-sand problem for these 3 examples). What is needed is to wrestle with everything honestly and prayerfully to discern faithful responses to various aspects of what is often a mixed bag.

Re the Website, for me what makes a website the most "lame" is when the information is outdated or wrong. I like the design of the FPC website OK, but don't like how the page that says it will have the bulletin every Thursday is usually lying, or how we still had Phase II and North links for months after those were obsolete. Designing a cool site is one thing, but often (it isn't just our problem) the commitment and resources to maintain it is where things fall down.

Finally, a thought on social media. A friend recently observed that if you're an extrovert, Facebook really makes sense, but an introvert won't "get it" (explaining why she was on Facebook and I wasn't). Our church is already a hard place to be an introvert (many churches are). As we deal with these technologies, we need to do so in ways that don't marginalize the introverted among us.

Ann said...

These are great thoughts. Ryan and I are wrestling with the appropriate use of technology in our classrooms as well. One addition to the website might be a moderated discussion section on the sermon. I used to love meeting with Aaron & Heidi (former church members) after Sunday service and discussing the sermon. Sharing our perspectives, opinions and, yes, disagreements with the sermon both brought us closer as a community and helped the sermon's message "sink in". A community wide discussion board might do the same. And who knows, starting a conversation online might lead to meeting for lunch after service instead!

Allan - I agree with you on facebook. Ryan (extrovert) loves it and I (introvert) hate it :)

See you all soon.

Karen McBride said...

A lesson I learned clearly in decades of work with people managing info tech in higher education: the new technologies rarely replace the old ways, they supplement them, at least for a transitional period (sometimes a very long one). The possibilities accrue, each appealing to a different group -- and the groups themselves tend to get very selective about having what THEY prefer.

A mainline church like ours has characteristics that create inherent challenges in this kind of environment. Priorities include tradition and history, an unchanging but always relevant truth, multi-generational inclusiveness, community, mutual support. We need to express those priorities in ways that are fresh and immediate for those who need to see Christ in a "modern" setting, and comforting to those who need a familiar haven. As with so many other areas of life these days, that means that we have to do much of what we have been doing in more ways, both the old and the new, to meet the needs of our whole complex community.

We can perhaps think in several contexts:
-- public image of the church
-- accessibility of staff and lay leaders
-- group communication (small and large, both self-defined and age/interest categories)
-- sharing of message and meaning

The good news is that there's no right and wrong here, and no deadlines, just endless opportunity for creativity, experiment, and involvement of lots of people!

what a good conversation to raise, Carl.


Carl Hofmann said...

Thank you, Forrest, Robin, Allan, John, Ann, and Karen for your thoughtful comments! Stay tuned for more thoughts on the subject. I may begin with the idea of "flattening" which has implications for so many things. Appreciate all of your insights--keep 'em coming!

Anonymous said...

jamai you write so well tear came to my eyes. we are blessed to have you as our son in law. thanks ma

Carl Hofmann said...

Thank you, Ma, for checking in--and for leaving me a note!

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