The Challenges of Customization

As we continue to reflect on the challenges and opportunities for the church in a digital age, "customization" seems to be a very important topic. If you've discovered the wonders of Pandora (, you know what I mean. Pandora is a customizable online radio station, free of charge, where you become your own deejay. You can select your own genre-based channels, with all kinds of sub-categories (I never knew there were so many kinds of country music!). Pandora makes suggestions of artists and songs and you rank them, thumbs up or thumbs down. Out comes your own music station with only the songs YOU like. No advertisements, just uninterrupted listening pleasure. In a word: customization. For your music.

Of course, you can subscribe to your self-chosen diet of podcasts--you get to listen to your favorite subjects (even sermons!) when you want to listen to them. You get your preachers in your way on your schedule. Do you see where I'm going with this?

As print media moves the way of the dinosaur, as we have literally hundreds of cable channels to choose from (and which we can now DVR or TiVo to watch when we want), as we create our own customized home pages on the web (have you tried iGoogle? It's a self-created page with all your favorite news and entertainment feeds)--as we can now customize our online experience to meet our personal needs, style, and whim, older options become obsolete. Remember when we all used to watch one of the three network news channels at the same hour? When we got a lot of our news from the local paper? When our main choices were "take it or leave it"? Times have radically changed.

Two critiques I'd offer at this point, one for people, one for churches. For people, I'd question the starting point of customization. As the DayTimer ad proclaims: "It's all about you!" Customization's delight is that it is indeed all about us: we get only what we want, as much as we want, when we want it. What's wrong with this picture?

For followers of Jesus Christ, the Suffering Servant of God who came to offer his life as a ransom for many, the motto is not "It's all about you." Rather, it's about dying to self in order to live. "If any wish to become my followers," says Jesus, "let them deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me." He also said, "for those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it." Jesus says the way to life is not through catering to the self, but dying to the self. Try making that your website's philosophy! The goal, Christians have said for centuries, is to learn to follow Jesus and sacrifice yourself and your needs in order to love and serve God and neighbor. And for those of us bent on customizing our lives to meet our every need ("save your preferences!"), this is getting tougher. That's a thought for us as people. Now, for the church...

My hope is that churches who seek to reach out to a digital generation will be, as Jesus urged, "shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves." I hope we can discover how to harness the benefits of technology while not uncritically accepting all their aspects. For many of us, our 21st century spiritual formation agenda must include a challenge to thoughtfully navigate these challenges and opportunities. Churches must strive to understand the emerging benefits and costs (not just financial!) of the internet age. And most importantly, we'll need to read between the lines to see the hidden human cost: how does even this subject of customization influence the spiritual life?

We've got our work cut out for us as church leaders: understanding and employing these emerging technologies even as we build our websites, market our ministries, and offer our programs, all the while recognizing the possible pitfalls to the inner life and the growth of genuine community--not to mention the worship and service of God.


Wendy Redal said...

Carl, I love the fact that you are pondering these huge and critically important issues. There is so much I'd like to reply to! (When I am not sitting here feeling guilty that I should be getting Bryn to bed...)

I also love the irony that here we are using these digital connections (I was reminded to check your blog via your Facebook post) and yet we share similar concerns over the impact of digital technology on the spiritual life and common culture. I will soon have a post up at (I write the eco-travel blog for Gaiam Life) espousing tech-free time in the natural world, in order to experience it fully. I'll share the link once it's up.

Thanks for all you are writing about in this vein; I look forward to more conversation.

Carl Hofmann said...

Thanks, as always, Wendy, for your thoughtful remarks and discipleship! "Shrewd as serpents, innocent as doves" is the way forward for us with respect to many of these innovations and technological advancements, it seems to me.

This is a very important time in our church life for us to be asking and answering some of these questions.