Along with speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, if one were to peruse the communication literature of most American, Evangelical churches, it would seem that Paul had somehow left off Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia, and blogs of every sort. The ubiquity of “social media” in all its iterations has found quite the tender audience in Evangelicalism with seemingly no parachurch ministry, church (along with each respective ministry therein), pastor, youth minister, or seminary able forge ahead without intermittingly spreading communicative buckshot across the world wide web at a 140 character pace. The embrace of ‘pre-packaged’ social media tools such as those already mentioned say nothing of churches such as LifeChurch.tv in Oklahoma City that have embraced these technologies to such an extent that they employ on their staff a number of ultra tech-savvy computer science and web development people who author wholly proprietary online tools and social media pieces to deliver portions of their ministry exclusively through the internet. In addition to their various brick and mortar campus locations, they also conduct global church services completely online where members of this electronic community have “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers”
(Acts 2:42) in a virtual environment, even receiving pastoral care and counsel online.
Much more could be said in regard to the manifold ways in which Evangelical ministries and institutions of all stripes have put social media to use, but the idea is clear and requires little convincing – social media is everywhere as much in the Church as without. It is natural then that a great deal of literature is beginning to appear (often quite fittingly in the form of blogs posts or downloadable PDFs), on this nexus of Evangelicalism and social media, so much so that hardly another offering is required here. However, as one peruses this literature several observations can be made, and more poignantly, several glaring omissions identified that when given proper consideration could have profound effects on the way ministry is done in a culture thoroughly saturated with social media. Given the extant literature on social media and the Church, it seems to appear in almost exclusively in two categories, what I would like to term “utilitarian and quasi-theological.” In what is to follow then, I would like to offer some brief observations from each group and then add a dimension to the discussion that I feel is not only overlooked, but also imperative for ministers of the Gospel (read, every Christ follower) to consider as they conceive of their ministry and its engagement with today’s culture.
The Need for the “Why?” as Much as the “How?”
The first observation that can be made in regard to the existing literature on the use of social media within Evangelicalism is that much of it is decidedly utilitarian in nature and this in two varieties – instructional and apologetic. In terms of the former, much discussion is directed toward the advantages with which various aspects of social media can be employed to accomplish a wide array of ministry function. For example, Twitter’s 140 character limit is ideal for the production of short, pithy, instant updates of all sorts, from prayer requests, to updates about requests, to shifts in service times, to cancelations due to inclement weather. Facebook can be used as a self-organizing email group for wide, mass email distribution, or to produce event or ministry specific pages to be used to as a tool for invites and RSVPs or to serve as electronic flyers for church functions. Pastors are fond of blogs for they allow the congregation to be encouraged by daily devotionals, to receive electronic versions of manuscripted sermons, to explore fuller or further treatments of Scriptural passages, and to generally broaden the pastoral reach beyond that which is possible with traditional communication tools or face to face meetings alone. The sundry ways in which various social media pieces can be used for ministry are limited only by one’s imagination, and much of the current literature on the topic is devoted to providing a veritable “how-to” on the conception and implementation of methods for leveraging social media for accomplishing the mechanical/logistical demands of ministry.
Aside from the nuts and bolts of using social media for managing the multifarious moving parts that ministry demands, a second prong of the utilitarian group of literature on social media seeks to provide an apologetic for its use. The truth of the matter is that for some segments of Evangelicalism the adoption of social media for ministry is tantamount to meat offered to idols and represents accommodation to the “world” par excellence. As a result, many authors have found it necessary to provide an apologetic for social media’s use within the ministry, enumerating the various ways it can be employed in an attempt to establish its value vis-à-vis the potential drawbacks. Typically this means an appeal to relevancy and contextualization, a statement along the lines of how an unchanging message can appear in a medium allowed to be in flux, and the obligatory metaphor of using only an organ in the church versus a fully orchestrated worship band. In this way, the apologetic applied to the use of social media within evangelicalism intersects with the second major category that I have termed “quasi-theological.” That these treatments are only quasi-theological stems from the fact that so many deal with only one aspect of theology, viz., missiology. In an attempt to raise the value of social media for ministry and thus provide an apologetic for its use, it is often pointed how much potential it has to spread the Gospel along with other ancillary theological resources far and wide at low cost (mostly free) that is simultaneously able to penetrate the darkest and most closed corners of the world’s cultures.
The missiological implications of social media should not for a moment be minimized, nor should one think that the relatively small circle of foci of the literature related to social media and Evangelicalism at all lessen its great usefulness. In fact, the time has come to realize that Evangelical conversations related to the relative worth of social media should have been concluded.The questions to be asked in regard to social media and the Church should no longer be of the binary ‘is it good or is it bad’ sort, but rather we must realize that social media simply ‘IS,’ and what’s more, IS NOT going away. The implications of this fact are real and unavoidable. Major corporations, CEOs, entertainment and sports icons, news outlets, presidential candidates, governments, and political revolutions have all now woven social media into the very warp and woof of what it is to communicate. Recently Facebook, a flagship and keystone of the social media mosaic was valued at $50 billion, yes, with a ‘b.’ Along with the stylus, phonetic alphabet, papyrus, Guttenberg’s press, television, and the internet, social media has earned itself a plot on the graph of major revolutions in communication.
The question then becomes, how should Evangelicalism react? This is a question that I am quite worried becomes an exercise in missing the forest for the trees. In attempting to adopt social media for the exigencies of ministry my fear is that one of the most important harbingers of the social media revolution goes unnoticed by those who stand on the leading edge of Evangelicalism – THE CHANGE IN HOW PEOPLE THINK. Thus what I would like to explore in the space that remains are the fascinating and profound implications of social media and their intersection with anthropology, ecclesiology, missiology, pastoral ministry, and homiletics. Haddon Robinson once said, “The novice preacher asks first the question ‘What should I preach?’ while the master preacher asks first, ‘to whom am I preaching?’” How can we be both salt and light to a generation and culture that operates under the assumptions and philosophical impetuses that also drive the success of social media? Many have sounded the alarm of the mass exodus of the younger generation from the Church. But how can this tide be stemmed? It is my conviction that part of the answer lies in coming to terms with how this social media saturated generation thinks: what are its assumptions, values, and motivations? To understand the esprit de corps of the social media revolution is to understand these very things.
“Web 2.0” and the Way People Think
To answer the questions I posed above seems at first look to be a daunting task indeed, and I confess that I do not possess any magic panacea. However, I do believe that a few initial steps can be taken that stand to throw some light on the issues at hand that once illuminated, those more clever, able, and creative than me can then run with. As a first step, to comprehend the greatest implications of the widespread acceptance of social media and its stakes for Evangelicalism it is necessary to step back momentarily and rehearse a brief history of the internet since the mid-nineties, especially the evolution from the so-called era of the Web 1.0 technology to that of Web 2.0 technology in order to understand what drove that progression. Once this is in place, we will then find ourselves in a better position to say something about how the Church should react in light of the theological implications attendant with the truly iconoclastic times that we now find ourselves in.
What in the World Wide Web Is “Web 2.0?”
Social media, that is, Facebook, Twitter, Wikipeida, blogs, and many others, are a result of the success of the Web 2.0 phenomenon. So, if we are going to get to the heart of the most important implications of social media for theology, we need to understand a little of what is meant by “Web 2.0.” ‘Web 2.0’ is a buzz phrase many have no doubt heard but nevertheless find difficult to pin down (see also Web Squared). In order to begin to understand the Web 2.0 phenomenon and more importantly the Gestalt that drives it, one needs to refer back to the dot-com bubble (or market correction) that burst in the late nineties. Those companies that survived that correction and indeed continued to thrive thereafter create what may properly be considered the core of the Web 2.0 technologies. One of the principal reasons why just about everyone has heard the phrase Web 2.0 but when pressed have little idea how to define it is also the very reason why we as Evangelicals should find it of such intense interest. Web 2.0 refers not to a “thing,” or a set of products one can purchase, but rather a way of thinking, an esprit de corps, the winds of which wholly propel the social media revolution. To gain at least a preliminary understanding of the conditions that birthed the social media phenomenon is to peer behind the success of the likes of Twitter, Facebook, and Wikipedia to find something in our culture, indeed, in us, that has allowed social media to achieve such a firm foothold in today’s culture. If this can be achieved, there follow some profound theological implications for our contemporary conceptions of anthropology, ecclesiology, homiletics, and missiology just to name a few.
Simply put, Web 2.0 refers to a disposition toward the Internet that sees the web as a platform rather than a portal. For the initial phase of Internet technology speculation, the so-called Web 1.0 era, focus rested squarely upon products that offered access to the web (a concept I like to refer to as a portal), whether it be in the form of desktop application web browsers or hardware such as servers, modems, or routers. In essence Web 1.0 thinking was driven by a variety of tangible products the purchase of which would be necessary if one were to have access to this relatively new and staggering stream of information called the Internet. Much like how Microsoft cornered the PC market by establishing through its Windows and Office products a set of standards without which one was left impotent to navigate the emerging electronic landscape (ever remember trying to do something on WordPerfect when everyone else was composing in MS Word?), various Web 1.0 companies hoped do the same with the web. However, as the Internet grew, evolved, and the market became flooded with cheap ‘portal products,’ this business model became obsolete and value increasingly became located elsewhere. This essentially is the tale of the dot-com bubble of the late nineties – those who focused their business on the internet as a commodity are no longer around, while those that viewed the internet as a platform on which to perform a wide variety of functions, survived and indeed continue to thrive. To illustrate how companies successfully weathered the dot-com bubble burst, let us consider for a moment the rise to ascendancy of the undisputed heavyweight champion of the Web 2.0 revolution, Google, and how it effectively capitalized on this shift of value.
Google, Amazon, and the Power of Collective Intelligence
Google approached the Internet in a way markedly different than anything that had come before it. As a search engine, Google was never a boxed-up, tangible product for purchase, but began as a free, native web application. Outside of the Internet, Google did not exist¾no security updates, no physical media, no installations¾Google was not concerned with access to the Internet, but rather access to the information to be found on the Internet. This alone is remarkable, but not enough to explain the meteoric success of this Web 2.0 juggernaut nor the place Google has in the discussion at hand. What is truly noteworthy about Google for those of us concerned with the theological implications of social media is the way in which it executed its searches. Prior to Google, Internet queries were conducted by engines that executed searches based upon what I like to call semantics. That is to say, they would comb the web and more specifically page content searching for ‘semantic matches.’ In this way, if I were to conduct a search on my favorite sport, cycling, and the latest results of a certain stage of the Tour de France, I might type in the phrase ‘Tour de France stage winner’ into my search engine. A Web 1.0 search engine would then begin trolling individual web pages searching for sites that fit my desired search parameters, in this case the character string, ‘Tour de France stage winner.’ As a result, those pages that would yield the greatest number of hits of that particular search string would appear at the top of my results. This method would often produce a page with my desired information, but certainly not always. For example, I may get a web page containing a history of every Tour de France stage winner or an article on Eddy Merckx, the Tour de France rider with the greatest number of stage wins. The response to the varied quality of results produced by previous generation search engines was Google’s PageRank system, an approach for aggregating results based upon, not only the actual content of the sites out on the web, but also the relative importance of a given page determined by the number of links directing others to that page from higher ranking pages. So when you ‘Google’ something, you are not only returning results containing the matching semantic data you have entered, but also a ranking of those results based upon the collective intelligence of the link structure of the Internet. In this way, Google can ‘predict’ what I’m looking for when I search for ‘Tour de France stage winner’ based upon the number of other links and searches for such a similar item, and given the timing and frequency, can produce a list of search results that almost certainly contains the information I’m looking for in one of the top two returns.
Google represents perhaps the most important hallmark of the Web 2.0 phenomenon, viz., the conviction that the so-called ‘collective intelligence’ of the web, which grows exponentially with each new piece of data that is added to it, along with the end users responsible for driving it, can be trusted to deliver accuracy and relevancy in a way that simple semantic information cannot. Google’s PageRank leverages others’ assessments of various web pages in the form of their relative popularity based upon the number of links to that page. Thus, Google decides what you are looking for based in part upon what everyone else is looking for, and therefore the metric for the ‘importance’ or ‘value’ of the information searched for is semi-divorced from the actual content of the webpage – and this proved to be revolutionary. This approach has profound implications and in order to truly understand them an oft-repeated example in addition to that of Google may help.
Barnes & Noble, through their webpage, barnesandnoble.com, and Amazon.com, are two companies that, at least at their inception, shared the same business of selling books (for the genesis of this discussion on Amazon vs. Barnes & Noble see Tim O'Reilly's "What Is Web 2"). They both receive exactly the same information and products from publishers with which to market their wares, yet Amazon’s sales in books exponentially surpasses the online arm of its competitor Barnes & Noble. If both sell the same products with the same point of sale information, what can account for the dramatic difference in revenue? The fact is that Amazon has realized and masterfully executed the same philosophy leveraged by Google to become a world dominating company. Barnes & Noble’s webpage is largely static, giving information to consumers in a clear and user-friendly way, all the very things one looks for in a quality commercial webpage. However, Amazon goes far beyond simply putting up an electronic billboard on your computer screen, it has also created a community where the end user is able to see and interact with all types of information, primarily from other users, that help hone the search experience and draw shoppers to this or that product. Amazon has shone us on a micro scale what has been happening to all conventional media. In the world of Amazon.com, no longer do the literary critics and those resident in the ivory towers decide what is good literature, but rather the locus of qualitative information on which book to buy is provided by the masses of Amazon customers.
Opening the Information Gates
In essence, companies like Google and Amazon have effectively capitalized on a fundamental change regarding the relative importance placed upon information. It was not long ago that decisions on what was to be considered news-worthy came by means of a very small core of filters: 1) the three major network newsdesks (ABC, NBC, and CBS); 2) a handful of large market newspapers (New York Times, LA Times, Wall Street Journal, andthe Boston Herald/Globe); and 3) various periodicals (Time, Life, andNewsweek). However, the last decade and a half has seen the largest and speediest decline in each one of these sectors of American media, so much so that many of the standard bearers mentioned above have more than once been forced to the brink of extinction and currently find themselves in financial turmoil. But the impact to the bottom line of traditional media outlets is only one of the effects that this collective intelligence of the web so deftly put to good use by the likes of Google and Amazon has wrought. One could argue that even more importantly is that a cataclysmic shift in the gatekeepers of information and its qualitative assessment has taken place. One watershed moment I like to reference is when Matt Drudge, owner and operator of the famous Drudge Report, basically an online compendium of noteworthy links to web pages across Internet, broke the Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton scandal well ahead of any traditional media outlet, the flood gates were thrown open. The collective intelligence of the web could be counted on to out pace, out publish, out scoop, and beat to the bunch any manifestation of traditional media. No longer could the familiar faces and smooth voices belonging to those behind the desks of the evening news be relied upon to give the most relevant, important, and newsworthy information. If one is interested in the most cutting edge, up to date, breaking news, it soon became obvious that one needed to go elsewhere, and this elsewhere was the Internet. It was once remarked that those responsible for managing the voice of our two major political parties begin each day and set their agendas with the aforementioned Drudge Report.
The extent of the power of information requires no justification and examples that display its muscle throughout history are seemingly endless. Those who control information control everything. Oppressive regimes and dictators do not get very far without learning this essential lesson (see the current conditions in Egypt for an example of this in motion). We find ourselves standing at a unique time in history where we are witnessing an epochal shift in the control of information and moreover, the relative worth placed upon that information. The erudite, the cognoscenti, the literati along with the rich, the powerful, and the bourgeois must now share a voice with anyone capable of a free blogger account or amassing a following on Twitter. No longer is there a tightly wound funnel of information filters anointed to decide for the world what is worthy of reading, listening to, or watching. It is my contention that social media’s biggest impact is that it has wrested the task of determining the value of information from the grip of a select few and placed it squarely within the collective intelligence of the web. Wikipedia has put this trust in the collective intelligence of the web to the test and has been deemed a radical success. In Wikipedia one finds a breadth and quality of information that can far outpace any traditional encyclopedic venture. The sheer number of watchful users and composers of content ensure a level of relevancy and content policing that is simply unmatched. One need only compare the traffic and quality of information on EncyclopediaBrittanica.com versus Wikipedia. The agility and superiority of the latter is staggering.
Tangibly, this means that those whose operating principles are analogous with a Web 2.0 perspective and the social media that has grown out of it assess the value of information differently than the modes of assessment just a decade earlier.
Some Unavoidable Questions for Those Who Believe
In light of all that has been discussed what I would like to do now is simply ask a number of questions that arise as a result of the success of social media and Web 2.0 technologies. My hope is that church staffs and elder boards everywhere would consider these questions in light of their ministry in order to think long and hard about how this world can be reached and changed for Christ.
Anthropologically, just because you are a well-educated, gifted, communicator of God’s Word that has amassed years worth of life experiences and its attendant wisdom, it does not at all mean you are guaranteed a captive audience. The way our population experiences and interacts with the world has fundamentally changed. Those who are now listened to are those whom the masses find interesting, engaging, and compelling. How will this fact change the way in which theological content and the Gospel is delivered? How will you share the Gospel will an audience with this new mode of thinking?
Ecclesiologically, is the traditional format of Sunday corporate gatherings with 20 minutes of music followed by a clever speech opened by a witty introductory story able to communicate and grab the attention of an audience with a Web 2.0 appetite? Is your local church going to continue to be defined by those who meet within the four walls of your building on Sunday mornings or in a midweek study? There are some pastors who feel that for there to be a legitimate “local church” they ought not even meet at different times. How will you conduct church in a local context with those who believe their Facebook friends to be an authentic community?
Pastorally, is the flock within your pastoral reach only those whom you can meet over lunch? Are you willing to adjust your church budget and staff to better reach a world conditioned by the esprit de corps of the Web 2.0? How are you going to go about hiring your next staff member, or conduct a pastoral search, when the expectations of your flock are conditioned by a myriad of incredible and moving sermons that are one click away, at any time or at any place?
Homiletically, how are you going to go about your sermon preparation knowing that the pulpit no longer provides the de facto authority and trustworthiness for the dispensing of God’s wisdom for a large contingent of your audience? How are you going to adjust to a world that receives its information through pulling out what it desires rather than receiving what it has pushed at it from a so-called trustworthy source? Your Sunday sermons are now being compared with a 16GB iPod filled to the brim with sermons from some of the best and most talented preachers in the world? How will you react when you are compared in this way or are criticized for sub-par preaching?
Missiologically, how are you going to incarnate the Gospel for the masses who march to the beat of an online drummer? Can we be as creative and passionate about incarnating Christ within an online context as we are in distant and exotic locales? Can we contextualize the Gospel in a way that would appeal to the collective intelligence of the web and “go viral?”
I do not for a moment pretend to have the answers to these questions. What I do hope is that we who have dedicated our lives to making Christ known and His name great would take seriously the fact that these questions need an answer from us. It is simply not good enough to throw up our hands and be content to allow social media, blogs, and the like to remain the sole territory of those with white-corded earphones sticking from their ears and say simply “I don’t get into all that nonsense.” That nonsense makes a lot of sense for a greater and greater majority of those whom we are trying to reach. How will we respond?
Catalogue of Relevant Links