Dare Number 1

I'm browsing the Fall issue of Biola Magazine and very much drawn to Brett McCracken's lead article "Prayer for Generation Tweet" (http://www.biola.edu/news/biolamag/articles/09fall/coverstory.cfm). Give it a read--it highlights some of the spiritual side-effects of being wired 24/7. Because of the fast-paced, frenetic culture of instant, constant communication, disciplines like silence, solitude, and prayer are becoming rarities--particularly for the younger generations. According the the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, younger people (ages 18-29) are the least likely group of American adults to pray on a daily basis, while older folks (65+) are the most likely to pray. McCracken names the issue: "In our hectic, 21st century world, some wonder whether many Christians are able to pray at length anymore--or even feel the need to. In our networked, hyperactive world of technological busybodies, God is most definitely still listening. But are we still praying?"

More and more I'm wondering if we need a little time each week to live "unplugged". Can we take a day, a morning, an afternoon, or an evening and turn off the screens? I'm doing this on my day off each week, purposely not checking email (definitely not work email) and also trying not to surf the web. It feels odd, honestly, but also good. So...Dare Number 1: Will you take the challenge and set some regular time in your week to unplug--and consider using part of that time to renew your relationship with God in prayer? Let me know if you attempt this--and what it's like for you.

Changing Social Etiquette in the Digital Age

I have a confession to make. Recently, during a meeting, I texted my wife. It wasn't casual conversation with her; it was to let her know I would be late in coming home. But I still felt guilty about it! It didn't take much of my time to do, but it distracted me from the conversation and it meant I wasn't fully participating or honoring those who were speaking at the time. Was what I did rude? Or was it socially acceptable, kind to my wife in fact, and a good use of my time?

Your answer may depend on what generation you belong to. From what I'm hearing from some younger friends, in the business world it's very acceptable to text during meetings, to respond to emails, even to check the Web. What might be considered distracting and inconsiderate by some, is for others a way of multitasking and engaging in conversations on different subjects with different people simultaneously. The times they are a-changing...

Not too long ago I got an emailed thank-you after we hosted some friends at our house. It's quite common to do this--to either text, email, or Facebook a friend to express one's thanks. Thank-you cards, I suspect, are falling on tough times. It used to be we sent or delivered real gifts in real time; now, virtual flowers, chocolates, and even kisses, are sent via Facebook. And invitations increasingly are coming in Evite format over the Internet. I bet it won't be too long until wedding invitations come this way. Good for the trees, yes. But somehow, it doesn't feel the same...will we lose something as well?

About a week ago, when a contentious subject arose at work, a colleague of mine bravely chose to meet with the person in person and not conduct the conversation via email. What a difference it made! No amount of emoticons can possibly convey what the human face and body language, combined with carefully chosen words, can communicate. Some topics are covered well digitally; others not so much. It takes thoughtfulness to discern which medium to use.

Let's not kid ourselves: the digital revolution and modern communications technology aren't just making our lives easier; in some cases, they may be making them more complicated. Marshall McLuhan's famous quote continues to be apt: "The medium is the message." I welcome your thoughts!

Information Consternation

Preface: I am now in early middle-age. That may explain some things, but not all things, that follow.

This week I forgot my PIN code to my bank ATM machine. Again. But this time it happened while I was in line at the supermarket, hoping to pay with my debit card and get some cash back. I entered my code...wrong. I tried again...wrong. I tried a third time (meanwhile people in line behind me are shuffling awkwardly and my face is growing redder by the minute). No luck. Heck with it, I'll use the Visa card, I muttered.

Later, in the privacy of my free time, I returned to a separate ATM kiosk and still...no luck. I hate it when this happens. But it's happening, I think, because I have so many passwords now. I go to my gym: I must program a password for the locker. I log on to write this blog--password. I log on to Yahoo, to work email, to EBay, to PayPal, to Amazon.com, to any and all web-interfaces, and a password is required. I'm told I shouldn't use the same one each time and so I don't, but I end up forgetting some along the way. Am I alone in this?!! Please say no!

Surely, this is one of the challenges in living at this point in history: the Internet presents information consternation, an overload of data, myriad security requirements, and much else that at times can freeze us in our tracks. Either that, or this middle-aged thing really stinks.

The Parable of the Ocean Liner

Once upon a time, in the gilded age of ocean travel, there was a great ocean liner. Sumptuously appointed, no cost was spared as it was outfitted. Its construction, technology, materials, finishings, and craftsmanship were unsurpassed. Mahogany, teak, walnut, marble, Tiffany glass, crystal, gold, copper, and brass--these were among the materials lavishly employed. The staffing--the captain and crew--were highly professional and well-trained. From design, to engineering, to meals and service, the ocean liner was top of its class. Its purpose? To speed the transport--and facilitate the comfort--of trans-continental passengers. Its navigation systems reflected the best science of its times. Passengers filled the ship as it sailed from continent to continent. There was even a waiting list for travelers to find a berth aboard.

Naturally, to deliver these services much activity occurred behind the scenes. Meetings of captain and crew were held with regularity. Staff in various departments--cooking, housekeeping, engineering, maintenance, navigation--all met regularly to be sure their tasks were coordinated, polished, and professional. After all, the paying passengers deserved this; and the mission was a worthy one--state-of-the-art world travel for the guests. In its heyday, the ocean liner received numerous awards and was well-rewarded by full bookings and the recognition and appreciation of governments and industry. It was an indispensable part of society and highly regarded.

But, over time, changes in travel and technology cut into the liner's relevance and importance in global transportation. The advent of airplanes, of jet liners in particular, made the ocean liner seem ponderous, quaint, and outdated. Now, for the relative few who chose to travel by ship, the destination became less important, but the creature comforts remained paramount. The captain and crew still served with professionalism and excellence. The various staff still met frequently to plan the details of their unique services: the ordering of food and preparation of delicious meals; the maintenance of the boilers and engines; the cleaning of the rooms; the entertainment of the guests. Countless hours were spent in discussion and debate about the best ways to conduct these activities aboard the ship--but, sadly, fewer and fewer passengers chose this means of travel. In fact, the ship sailed less and less frequently, often remaining anchored in the harbor for months at a time.

Yet the meetings continued. The budgets were still developed--though, with fewer passengers, services and staff needed to be scaled back. Great debates occurred among the management and personnel about new furnishings for the ship: which carpets would look best (and which could be afforded)? Much capital was spent on repairs and maintenance. As the income from passengers all but dried up, hard choices needed to be made. Could the ship really expect to sail, with reduced crew, limited maintenance, and antiquated navigation systems? With great reluctance, it was finally concluded that the best way for the ship to have a role in society was for it to remain at port, moored in the harbor. Tours would be offered to those interested in exploring its history and viewing its staterooms and grand dining facilities. Minimal maintenance, therefore, was needed, just enough for its doors to remain open. The captain retired; the staff were let go. All that remained were tour guides dressed in period costumes, typical of the golden age of ocean travel--and fewer and fewer visitors paid the fees for entry.

Flickering Pixels!

Recently, I gave a shout-out for Shane Hipps' excellent book, The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture (Zondervan, 2005. See post below). I've since read his most recent book Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith (Zondervan, 2009). The latter is a popularized version of the former, taking the seminal ideas of his first book for church leaders and making them more palatable for everyday Christians. For those interested in this subject (and particularly for church leaders), the first book remains a must-read. But for those somewhat interested, really, for any thoughtful disciples, I'd suggest Flickering Pixels. It's more anecdotal and chatty than the earlier book and adds a small bit of new material. It's quickly digested--more of a bedtime read than a careful study book. It's a quick way to get the major arguments and insights of the first volume.

I share with you just a few quotations from Flickering Pixels, to give you a taste of its style and content:

"If oral culture is tribal and literate culture is individual, the electronic age is essentially a tribe of individuals" (107).

"If oral culture is intensely connected or empathic and print culture is distant or detached, then our electronic experience creates a kind of empathy at a distance" (108).

"I find it troubling that so many communities of faith are in hot pursuit of these [web] technologies. The Internet is seen as the Holy Grail of 'building community.' However, churches will find the unintended consequences of this medium coming back to bite them. The Internet is a lot of things, but it is emphatically not a neutral aid. Digital social networking inoculates people against the desire to be physically present with others in real social networks--networks like a church or a meal at someone's home. Being together becomes nice but nonessential" (115).

"Protestant Christianity is a by-product of a single medium--the printed Bible. Without printing no one could have challenged the authority of the pope. How disconcerting to have a faith yoked so closely to a medium that is now in the dusk of its life, at least its life as we currently know it. Our culture has a shrinking preference--and even aptitude--for reading books, especially complex ones. If the Bible is anything, it is complex, so it should not surprise us to see a growing biblical illiteracy in the electronic age" (146).

It's fair to ask if Hipps is, on the balance, overly critical of Internet technologies and what he perceives as their negative impact. While he does offer some very helpful pointers in the classic spiritual disciplines as useful countermeasures to the soul-stultifying aspects of the Web (and informs us of some of the rich practices of his Mennonite tradition), one wonders if he could explore more fully some of the positive, worthwhile aspects of digital technology (for example, couldn't texting be a great way to encourage people you're thinking of and praying for them? Couldn't social media networking pave the way for more frequent and focused face-to-face human contacts?). Whatever the case, this is an important read and one I highly recommend!

Changing Church Authority in an Age of Information

"Authority is often derived from information control. In other words, as access to information increases, centralized authority decreases." --Shane Hipps, The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture

New technologies often give rise to radical shifts in society--and society's structures. Certainly this was true with the invention of the printing press. As average people learned to read and had access to affordable reading material, Western democracy and individualism (as well as the Protestant Reformation) were made powerfully possible. In the Information Age, as more and more people have immediate access through the Internet to all kinds of information, how will churches, particularly historic denominational churches, adapt their leadership and authority structures?

When people today can read and immediately comment on online news articles and blogs, when their voices can be heard in real-time through Twitter's tweets and retweets, when new wall postings on Facebook can be read and responded to instantaneously, how can church leaders communicate with church members in ways that are faster and more flattened? Will the weekly bulletin, the monthly church newsletter, and an old generation website really do the trick? I somehow doubt it.

And how will we make an historical and theological case for an elected body of leaders (let alone church staff) who will make decisions for the church apart from these kinds of emerging input and involvement from others? How will we uphold the idea of a called, carefully selected, spiritually gifted leadership in an age where this will feel elitist and exclusive, an age where the democracy (and immediacy) of access to information is assumed?

I'm not arguing one way or another, yet. But I do think it's important--essential, even--to raise the questions. And we don't have the luxury to wait too long to address them. The train is pulling out of the station and I can hear the whistle blowing...