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...

4 comments:

Joshua Wait said...

Thanks for the invitation to contemplate the nature of church authority in the age of information. I appreciate the idea that such discussions can occur over a cup of coffee as well bringing the conversation into a relationship at a table.

It seems to me that the identity of religious authority first came to be challenged by Christ himself as he gave his uniquely divine insight into human religious organization. I think the benefit of the modern age is that each follower of Christ has an opportunity to live out their call to the common priesthood through the production of content in its new and various forms.

The challenge is perhaps still the same as in the time of Christ. Maybe more than "How does the authority of God resides with human leaders?" it is "How does humanity dare to live out the life we are all called to in Christ given the human propensity to accumulate power for itself?"

Thanks again for the great questions. I look forward to reading more.

John said...

i think these are challenges not only for the church, but for all institutions that have constructs of authority.

recently, i did some consulting on how the social web transforms and flattens organizations.

i don't feel that scripture gives a lot of concrete definition of church hierarchy, and most of it is a construct of culture. e.g. our structure of elders and deacons in pcusa might not look anything like the structure of the early church.

i do think churches that rely on strict hierarchy are challenged in this new age. however, i also find people who gravitate towards that culture, and may, in fact, self-select into those social groupings.

i almost have a post-modern view, that these different structures are not inherently superior or inferior, but that they are simply different.

Mitali Perkins said...

And as those called to keep a special eye on the powerless, we have to watch the digital divide to ensure that those without access to new media aren't even more marginalized ... although with equal access and the appropriate age-old but newly applied spiritual disciplines, this stuff can be hugely empowering.

Carl Hofmann said...

Good points, one and all! Here's a link to a very timely further exploration of this subject under the topic of "open source"--the flattening, democratizing empowerment of inviting laity into the heart of ministry. Happy reading!
http://www.christianitytoday.com/global/printer.html?/le/buildingleaders/equipping/opensourceactivists.html