Media, the media landscape that we knew, as familiar as it was, as easy conceptually as it was to deal with the idea that professionals broadcast messages to amateurs, is increasingly slipping away. In a world where media is global, social, ubiquitous and cheap, in a world of media where the former audience are now increasingly full participants, in that world, media is less and less often about crafting a single message to be consumed by individuals. It is more and more often a way of creating an environment for convening and supporting groups. — Clay Shirky
Did you know that the moment we are living through is the largest increase in expressive capability in human history?
Clay Shirky in his TED talk on “How Social Media Can Make History” reflects on the history of our media revolutions. He says that the printing press, telegraph and telephone enabled us to create conversations, one to one. And recorded media like movies, radio and TV allowed us a way to communicate to groups, one to many. The internet, however, is the first media in history that supports groups and conversations all at once, many to many. The Internet has also become a site of coordination, because groups that see, hear, watch or listen to something can now gather around and talk to each other as well. This means that the former audience of media can also be producers of media. We just need to look to media platforms such as twitter, facebook, U-Tube, and blog sites as examples.
You might be wondering at this point — What does this have to do with the church?
It seems to me that with every revolution in media there has also been a theological, cultural and practical revolution in church. So it might be helpful to draw some comparisons from the past to help us understand how the church could respond to the new social media revolution of today.
Here are some big generalities:
- The printing press — the Protestant Reformation and the age of reason
- The telegraph and telephone — the end of the use of circuit riders as a way to reach large numbers of people spread out over vast geographical areas
- Movies, radio and TV — the rise of the professional pastor and organized/program churches
It makes sense that the church as we know it today finds its comfort zone in a world shaped by movies, radio and TV. It is not a far leap to think about a Sunday morning worship service as a professional broadcast news program. The journalist/professional pastor broadcasts the news/message to an audience/congregation. It is well-crafted from a reliable news source that conveys a particular set of truths. As professional pastors we hope that the message will captivate the audience and make them want to come back for more. The object with this model is to get butts in seats so that we can communicate the truth/message to as many people as possible. In order to do this we need to construct large worship spaces for the one to many mode of communication. In this paradigm vitality is measured in terms of worship attendance, financial support and programs.
The new church start model that works in this scenario is to start enough small groups that can eventually feed into and support the Sunday morning show. We strive to launch a new worship service with at least 200 butts in seats in order to build enough financial capacity to support the infrastructure that produces the worship experience. One unexpected consequence of this model is that we naturally shape and form more people into being Consumers of Christianity rather than Disciples of Christ if we use small group formation as a means to an end.
But what happens to traditional church when we move beyond the confines of being an audience for a professional broadcast message and want to be full participants in the social media milieu instead? What happens when in that process we discover that there are multiple stories with multiple truths?
I recently read the following question on a facebook post:
“It seems that more and more people I meet are reading the Bible, getting together in small groups, serving in the community, and giving financially. So why aren’t they worshiping weekly in an organized church?”
I immediately thought about my teenage daughters’ favorite expression when they want to rib me about my out-dated assumptions, “Mom, that is so last century.”
Maybe it is time to expand our working assumptions about church and look to social media as a guide to what church can become.
- What would it look like for us to think about creating a church that was a platform for creating environments for convening and supporting groups that want to be shaped and formed in the ways of Christ?
- What if we embraced and blessed those small groups, Bible studies and service groups as the church, as expressions of worship?
- Instead of the gathered church, what if we measured vitality in terms of the transformation of the scattered community?
- What if we embraced this as our call for faith-filled living in this new century?