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!