Something remarkable is happening here. Radio is springing free of the regulated gatekeepers who’ve managed what you could hear since radio was invented. It’s jumping into the hands of anyone at all, with something or nothing to say. — From the Daily Source Code by Adam Curry1
When I was growing up, at the height of the 1960s, I wanted to be a radio star. Coyote McCloud was the hot D.J. on WMAK-AM in Nashville, and I was entranced by the mellifluous tones emerging from my radio each night. Coyote was the keeper of culture, the gatekeeper of what was hot and what was not, and that power was intriguing. No one really knew what he looked like, but the simple knowledge that 50,000 watts of pure AM power were behind him gave him the authority we yearned for. He was cool because the powers that be said he was cool, and we all followed along blindly.
I never became a radio personality (although I did have the chance to do some late-night stints on the local college station in Kentucky). But I became the next best thing—a preacher. After years of study and the examination of my peers, the powers that be in my denomination awarded me the equivalent of 50,000 watts—a license and an appointment—and sent me out as the keeper of the flame, the hot jock with the hot moves spinning the moldy oldies with energy and panache. The goal of ministry, like the mission of any radio station, was to attract more listeners, to build the listening audience, increasing revenue and prestige. Communities were dissected according to demographics, and individuals ceased to be persons and instead became prospects or targets. The preacher’s role was to keep the show moving, to avoid the dreaded “dead air,” and be the “Bible Answer Man,” offering platitudes to comfort and inspire.
Recently, the world has begun to tilt and wobble out of the control of those who would attempt to define orthodoxy among the masses. The rise of Internet blogs, self-produced “podcasts,” and “open source” media are signs that point to a world in transition, a world that can no longer be what it has been in the past. This change is proceeding rapidly, and if the church functions as it has in the past, it may find itself at the margins of relevancy, a crusty old anachronism to be experienced with nostalgia rather than engagement.
Of course, every generation claims that the world is changing—and it is. What has been more unique in the past 50 (and really the past 10) years has been the pace of change. Wired magazine (which has become the Life magazine of our time) recently ran a series on the past 10 years of technological change.2 Ten years ago, Jeff Bezos was still trying to convince people that selling books online was possible, and was delivering Amazon.com orders to the post office in his Chevy Blazer. Nine years ago, Polaroid introduced the first consumer one-megapixel digital camera (which cost over $3,500). Five years ago, a college dropout introduced a service called “Napster,” which led to a revolution in how music is purchased and delivered. Three years ago, Apple Computer released the IPod, hoping they might sell a few hundred thousand (they sold over a million units in less than a year). And consider some of what happened last year:
- 8.6 million Americans downloaded or traded a song online.
- The national phenomenon of blogging took off (as of last month, it is estimated that a new blog is created every second—over 80,000 in a given day).
- Jon Stewart appeared on the CNN show Crossfire, and more people saw the appearance online than on TV.3
And this year the phenomenon is “podcasting,” the distribution of audio programming via the Internet and played back on the user’s computer or MP3 player at his or her whim. While the technology is barely a year old, there are now more than 8,000 podcasts being produced, with (according to the Pew Internet and American Life project) some six million listeners.
Why is this so important? Within the communications industry it’s important because the old rules defining who set the agenda are changing. The media world thought consolidation was the rule of the day, with fewer and fewer companies controlling what was available to the consumer. However, underneath their noses, a new phenomenon emerged: user-created content. Now there are thousands upon thousands of content options available to the media consumer, with a loss of control for the powerful. No longer are consumers content to let the powers that be control what is offered. Suddenly, almost overnight, consumers are taking matters into their own hands to create small but passionate affinity groups that function outside the traditional systems of media distribution and control.
The church must take care to be aware of these changes in the world because so many of our models for evangelism and discipleship are based on the mass media paradigm. Since the time of Gutenberg, our Enlightenment-influenced models of church have focused on ministry to the masses—be it through the field preaching of John Wesley or the current interest in “satellite” congregations in the U.S. The goal has been to reach the largest number of persons with the most basic message of the gospel, which is why propositional formulas became so popular. “The Four Spiritual Laws” of 1960s and ’70s fame were formed out of an attempt to synthesize the gospel into the most basic message for mass consumption. However, when those propositions or “principles” no longer answer the difficult questions of life and faith, faith “consumers” have no choice but to take matters into their own hands.
Some of what is happening within the church known as the “emerging church” represents that movement from the priesthood of the few to the priesthood of the believers, and not just the believers but anyone who is seeking after a sense of the holy in their lives. Through blogs, podcasts, e-mails, and small gatherings at pubs and coffeehouses around the world, men and women are gathering to think about faith in a serious way. As a whole, these people are not afraid to ask hard questions about biblical texts, church traditions, or religious practices. The question of what to believe is no longer relevant. The conversation has moved to questions of why.
Back in an earlier life, I did a study of electronics at a local technical college. One of the most basic teachings in regard to electricity is Ohm’s Law, the relationship between voltage, amperage, and resistance. The professor, steeped in the propositions of the scientific method, presented the material as fact, and then attempted to move on. However, Bob, a fellow student, wouldn’t let him.
“Why is that true?” Bob asked. “What’s the reason behind it?”
Bob recognized that the worlds of fact and fiction, right and wrong, the categories that had been given to us by the Enlightenment, didn’t fully explain the wonder of it all. While they described a particular natural phenomenon, they missed out on the wonder behind it.
To be “emerging” or “postmodern”—or whatever descriptor you might come up with—is to recognize that the world is not a lowest-common-denominator kind of place. Life is complicated. We live in a continuum from beauty to tragedy, and God is a part of it all. The questions that people like Brian McLaren or Doug Pagitt are asking are questions that reflect the complexity of life, with the recognition that simple platitudes aren’t enough in wrestling with those questions. Postmodern people want and need expressions of faith that are authentic to the world they live in, with all the inherent messiness that is a part of that world.
As significant as the content of the conversation is the increasing under
standing that faith cannot be understood outside of a cultural context. This is basic to any student of missions (and the great missiologist Lesslie Newbigin is one of the heroes of this new movement), but for far too long American expressions of church have viewed American Christianity as normative and universal. With new paradigms of looking at the world, people seeking faith are recognizing their unique contexts and looking for practices and beliefs that speak to (and in) those contexts. Thus there is a movement away from the one-size-fits-all notion of what churches should look like and a willingness to create as many new venues as needed by the diverse contexts of our world. This is demonstrated by a desire by some communities to move away from the CCLI Top 100 (if you have a contemporary service, you know what I mean) and to create new worship music that is authentic to their specific communal experience. There isn’t a problem with tradition (in fact, ancient faith practices are regaining a new place among those who rebel against megachurch sprawl), but those traditions that are practiced have to speak to the deep longings found in that specific cultural context. Which brings us back to blogs and podcasts. In a church that is so dependent on commodifying the gospel, reducing it to its core so that it can be palatable for mass consumption, what do we do when the paradigm shifts and suddenly major networks are out and blogs and podcasts are in? Put another way, how do we move from promoting Wal-Mart expressions of church and move toward the boutique model, with many, many small affinity groups who are passionate about their brand of faith? Can our institutional structures make the change to understand that small is the new big thing?
We are facing what George Barna in his newest book, Revolutions (Tyndale House Publishers), is calling a revolution. If Barna’s statistics are correct, almost a third of American Christians will be attending some form of alternative space for expressing faith by the year 2025.4 These spaces will be house churches, online communities, or discussion groups that eschew the title “church” even though they engender faith development. Just as is happening in self-publishing or self-broadcasting, good, faithful people will be developing their own systems for fulfilling the role of Christian community, no longer needing the denominational structures or even superstar preachers to guide their practices of faith.
Or consider the responses to recent natural disasters. Whereas people of faith were once dependent on denominational structures to organize and supervise response efforts, these days anyone with an Internet connection and basic Web development skills (which pretty much includes anyone under the age of 30) can create his or her own response ministry. This was demonstrated by a number of responses to the need for housing assistance after Hurricane Katrina, responses that were created by church members who weren’t content to wait on denominational experts.5
What, then, is an institution to do when its audience refuses to be institutionalized? There are any number of responses, but two come to mind.
One response is to follow the advice of many church consultants: diversify and innovate. This is the option of the large membership church, which may have the resources to create many different affinity groups and offer several different worship options. The challenge here is to welcome the diversity and avoid trying to stuff individuals into universal definitions of what it means to be a practicing Christian. This isn’t to say that there are no absolutes in the larger church, no universals about Christian belief. But the unifying link may be more like the Apostle’s Creed—basic affirmations about God and the work and person of Jesus Christ—than systems of dogma and doctrine, or a highly developed mission statement.
Another response may be to more clearly define the theological identity of the congregation. This approach may best fit small membership congregations who, through study and practices, become, in essence, their own unique affinity group. This approach involves a congregation’s recognition of their unique cultural context as well as a deep understanding of their identity and heritage. These congregations won’t try to be all things for all people—and they shouldn’t. They are the ecclesial form of the podcast, narrowcasting to a unique people for the good of the Kingdom.
The congregations that will struggle, and frankly may not survive in their current form, are those that hold the middle place between the two extremes, congregations like the one I serve now, with 300 members and 180 attending on Sunday mornings. These congregations are too large to become a single affinity group and too small to offer the myriad resources available in a megachurch. The future and growth of these congregations may depend on contraction—getting smaller to reclaim a specific identity. Unfortunately, the pressures to grow larger are entrenched in our definitions of church success, and the congregations themselves may be unable to believe that smaller is better.
This leads to a third response that has been embraced by many of the leaders in the emerging church movement: church planting. Denominations (if they are to survive) may need to focus less on supporting existing congregational structures that are out of step with the current reality of the world and devote their energies and resources into creating a wide variety of congregational offerings. Ecclesial identity will focus less on considerations of function (programs, buildings, etc.) and much more on theological identity, with each group claiming their unique, God-given identity as a part of the universal Body of Christ.
This all leads to an expansive image of God, a God who is big enough to embrace all expressions of faith that seek to carry out Christ’s call to love God and love our neighbors. This image of God understands the beauty in the diversity of creation rather than attempting to limit God’s revelation only to those who believe or practice as we do. Some among us will resist, holding on for dear life to old notions of church, and maybe even playing an important role in society, just as the Amish play for us today in their countercultural stance. However, like the media companies running scared today, they may find themselves overtaken by these new practices of faith, and pushed to the margins by those who would not be controlled. Our role is to mediate between the old and the new, neither jumping on the cultural carousel nor sticking our heads in the sand regarding the new realities of life in this new world.
What the world of today offers is life abundantly, for (to slightly adapt the biblical text) “…where there is no passion, the people perish.” This new world is filled with people who are passionate about their experience of God. Our job is to harness that passion rather than extinguishing it.
Howard A. Snyder recognized these dynamics way back in 1970 in his book The Problem of Wineskins: Church Structure in a Technological Age (Intervarsity Press). He wrote:
The church must provide structures which are sufficiently informal and intimate to permit the freedom of the Spirit. There must be a sense of the unexpected and the unprogrammed when believers come together, the excitement of the unpredictable, a freedom from set patterns and forms. Frequently in an informal and rather loosely structured gathering of believers one finds a greater openness to God’s moving and that a greater likelihood that the fellowship of the Holy Spirit will be experienced.6
The Spirit that Snyder predicted is coming to fruition today, on its own, through God’s grace and the will of those who try new ways of connecting to God. After all, 50,000 watts may seem powerful, but God’s Spirit at work in God’s peo
ple trumps it every time.
Questions for Reflection
2. www.wired.com/wired archive/13.08/2004.html.
3. Source: www.technorati.com/weblog/2005/08/34.html, “The State of the Blogosphere.”
4. From Andrew Jones’ review of George Barna’s Revolutions, tallskinnykiwi.typepad.com/tallskinnykiwi/2005/08/george_barnas_r.html.
5. The clearest example of this was a Web site called www.openchurches.com, which attempted to network housing with evacuees. Started by two laypersons outside of any denominational response, the Red Cross provided official sanction within days of its creation.
6. The Problem of Wineskins—Church Structure in a Technological Age by Howard Snyder, p. 97.