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Open-Sourced, Linked-In, Facebooked, Tweeted, Googled and the Like

16December2011

“A time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together” (Ecclesiastes 3:5).

There was a time when I was frustrated by our institutional inability to keep pace with the shift I was feeling. The congregation I was serving at the time was vibrant but technologically resistant, still doing most of its work in meetings and communicating by phone (landline) and regular mail. I began to see a shift in our youth group, then in young adults, then older adults, and finally by my own change in routine, behavior and outlook.

I went back to school in 2008 to get a handle on things. I started asking questions, “What is this shift that I’m feeling?” and, “What can the church do about it?” (I asked these questions not so much to change or buck these trends, but to change the way we operated in the church that by all numerical ways of keeping score felt like we were losing.) In the meantime we had institutional business as usual – appeals for congregations to stop being so isolated and pay for global, national and regional sponsored programs run by the institution, we took on various social issues as we always have, but besides some internal strife hardly anyone in the outside world seemed to notice. People on the inside started to lose interest, myself included. The church thought we were doing solid ministry. Yet as the institutional church we continued to atrophy.

I read Thomas Friedman’s book – The World is Flat, (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2005) and it impressed me. People in the business, political and economic world were on the cusp of a different way of operating, behaving, and interacting than was ever possible before, where multiple voices had equal value, and anyone from anywhere could contribute. The open-sourced world had begun. Couple this with the postmodern approach that by and large mistrusts institutions, seeks to tear down structures of power and deconstructs what is known (or has been told to us) to determine our own version of perceived truth. Yet, in this technological frontier new ways of connecting, interacting, and living were not just to use Ecclesiastes’ words, “throwing away stones,” but also “gathering stones together.” Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In, Blogs like this one, and other platforms allow that gathering to take place in the digital world as much as they do in the physical one. I wanted to be part of that. I still do. I hope you do too.

I remember suggesting only a few years ago starting a blog to connect with people in my own church. I remember being (politely of course) laughed out of the room. “Sure, do that on your own time. I don’t know who would read that.” I took a new call (unrelated to that conversation!) a couple years later. Now I write for two blogs, one of which I send as a weekly mid-week message along with timely announcements to every inbox in my congregation, my family, my friends, and other interested parties through Constant Contact. I also write for a website and participate with colleagues in online forums. I’m on Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In, and a couple of other platforms that help share ideas, lend support, and shape the way we communicate and interact with one another. I would not say I’m “cutting-edge” by any means. What I am doing is trying to keep pace with the massive shift all of us continue to feel and the pressures of what it means to stay in the public square as the voice of the church (through it seems to me that the only remaining public square is now a digital one.)

Philip Clayton (Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Claremont University) outlines the changes I have just mentioned in greater depth and the resistance most church institutions have used to insulate themselves from the culture. Yet he has hopeful conclusions, and names the task set before us:

“In each of these regards, and in many more, the inhabitants of the Google age may be more attuned to Jesus’ message, way of thinking, and way of living, than were many previous ages. In a world increasingly dominated by scientism, capitalism, religious intolerance, and a sense of meaninglessness, this profound message of the kingdom of God is more powerful than ever before. Theology after Google is far more than merely a new church-growth movement, a new way to package and disseminate the old-style theology. It is instead a radically new way of doing theology, one which (we believe) opens up the power of Jesus’ message to today’s world in new and exciting ways.”  (Philip Clayton, “Theology and the Church after Google,” The Progressive Christian. February 1, 2011. Online Available:
http://www.tpcmagazine.org/article/theology-and-church-after-google.)

We live in an age where church structures are crumbling after long outliving their effectiveness. Old fights seem distant and/or irrelevant, yet even among Lutherans the chasms between us feel almost impossible to cross. New schisms take the lifeblood away from our common mission and purpose, as much as internal fracturing and power-mongering leaves even those who remain shaking their heads. I don’t mean to minimize the pain or heartache of any who have left one denomination for another or those who continue to seek a place to land, but in my mind what is needed for our age is to stop trying to solve postmodern challenges with modern solutions. New social statements, decrees, church bodies with reasserted authority structures, power brokering, and other such strategies no longer bear the weight they once did. In an open-source world all one has to do is opt-out. Other strategies such as networking, gathering input, empowering others, contextualizing, and working across denominational lines that at one time seemed an anathema are the very life blood of this digital age. Our greatest strength as the church rests in the proclamation of justification by faith in Christ alone and interpreting the world in which we live (and how we organize ourselves) around that chief article. When we in the church realize that, we’ll stop wondering why the sky is falling and our numbers are shrinking as we join a whole new world of possibility.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is True (big T) and is always relevant; of this I am sure. What I am not sure about is how we go about our proclamation of this Truth, what structures we need to ensure its preaching and administering of the sacraments with clarity, what leadership is necessary or unnecessary now that Google, Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In and other digital forums define the very way we relate to one another. What stones must we tear down, and what must we build up again? (Ecclesiastes 3:3). The church needs a new ecclesiology; one that operates horizontally more than it does vertically. It is essential for us to open opportunities for people to participate in both sharing and reflecting upon the message of Christ crucified in this digital age. I invite you to join the conversation of what that might mean in this flattened world. There is a pile of stones that could use some stacking. No one can gather them alone. But as we explore such a field of scattered stones look closer: a big one has already rolled away from an open tomb, inviting us inside.

GTS@CCD

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. 16December2011 19:51

    Insightful! It makes me question the direction of my present ministry within my local congregation, that often exists in paradox with my outreach efforts on the web. Food for much thought and prayer. Thank you.

  2. 16December2011 21:44

    I reasonate with what you share, and have wondered if we need to think of ministry and witness in a whole new way. The quote in the ariticle says, ” Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In, Blogs like this one, and other platforms allow that gathering to take place in the digital world as much as they do in the physical one.” BUT…. What is missing in the digital world is a face to face personal relationship with each other. Sharing becomes totally cerebral and written words lack the nuances of the spoken word. 55% of our communication comes from watching the non-verbals in a conversation, only 7% from the words spoken (or read). The other 38% of communication is garnered from inflection, tone of voice etc.

    Jesus was counter-cultural in his time on earth. So I wonder if the wave of the future is more in face-to-face personal relationships, than relationships in the cyberworld. I want to use the gifts of technology, audio and visual, power-point et.al., to communicate the Gospel better, but I think it must be done communally in person rather than in cyberspace.

  3. 19December2011 10:47

    Good Stuff, Geoff. I’m working on a doctorate right now that seeks to wrestle with the very points you are making, as well as the points that Ronald makes in the comment above. How do we embrace the post Gutenberg world and still cling to the relational nature of how we are knit together. There are fascinating possibilities! Thanks for your thoughts!
    SMN

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