A few years ago, one of my seminary interns suggested I join something called “Facebook.” I had no idea why. After the explanation it seemed like an interesting novelty. It would be fun to find old school friends I supposed, so I joined.
It is hard to imagine life without Facebook today. The organizational prowess of those using it helped start revolutions – not just of culture but with real political force in Egypt and beyond.
I used to have a cell phone, but we lived in an area with bad service. So I always had a low-end one. When we moved to New Canaan, I got an iPhone. It is not that novel a device for many – the Blackberry crowd has been emailing and web browsing for years. But it was new for me.
It is hard to imagine life without that little gizmo today either. The ability to check email, Facebook, messages, web browse, text and even compose documents (albeit in a still relatively clunky way), puts a mobile office in my pocket anywhere. I thought about this composition while on the train.
Staying connected anywhere gives us the ability for stronger relationships, and can strengthen the church. My friends serving in ministries all across the country (from here in Connecticut to Wisconsin, Minnesota and as far away as Shishmaref, Alaska – look it up on a map!) are able to conduct a weekly forum on the Sunday’s Bible readings as if we are sitting in the same room having a conversation. Businesses have been doing this for years, but it seems like an innovation in the church that is sometimes slow to adapt and take on new ways.
It may sound silly, but my New Year’s resolution this year was to take on Twitter (I actually signed up Nov. 24). Twitter has been around awhile, and many of you are probably more in tune with it than I am. First it did seem to me like “one more thing to keep track of” and I didn’t really see the draw besides one more place to post – or even post through (I have it set so if I update my Twitter status it does it automatically on Facebook). Twitter is set up in the opposite way that Facebook is. On Facebook, you find your friends, and you reconnect with them in that forum as you post status updates, comment, and/or send messages. On Twitter, you follow people, people follow you, and then your receive their updates. This may not be that profound a discovery but something changed for me. The thing I didn’t count on was making friends with some of the people I followed and who followed me. We’ve sent messages to one another, made comments on each other’s work, and encouraged one another’s ministries. Based on the people that I’m following (and are now following me) Twitter has become like having a seminary faculty, ministerium, and ear on the ground taking a pulse on the culture all at once. It is fun checking in with these folks, many of whom I have never met in person. Since I have “an app for that” it can travel with me in my pocket.
The business world discovered this long ago – being able to meet with people internationally, generate ideas, network, and find new productivity, mobility, and friendships engages the world in a whole new way. The twentieth century made improvements to our lived through the advent of new technology. In the twenty-first century technology is changing the way we live, interact, think, work, play and plan.
A book that really challenged and reshaped my thinking a few years ago was Thomas L. Friedman’s The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. In this book he argues that the world has changed (and continues to change) outside the traditional top-down power structures of organization that allowed, managed, controlled, and implemented so many of the innovations and improvements to our lives throughout human history. Now, he argues, people have (and will increasingly have) more access and equality in contributing, shaping, and creating goods, services, ideas, and culture, in a flattened world where anyone, anywhere can participate.
Since I read this book, and have increasingly engaged in these new technologies and the communities they help support, I’ve been curious as to what this means in the church. We need organization and yet there is always a human tension between leadership that empowers and leadership that controls. Most of the time I am hopeful – that people will cross traditional boundaries in which we minister and operate, where people will see not only the church building and institutions as the place where ministry happens but where the people of God in any and every venue are ministers and are ministering to those around them, supported by their local congregation and the institutions that stand behind them. Change is slow, and of course there are frustrations and those who see it as their role if not calling to preserve, protect and promote institutional influence. In an increasingly “flat” world however, those roles will need to change.
I’ve heard it suggested that the Reformation of the 16th century had as much to do with technological innovation (the printing press) as it did ideas. Those who took advantage of such innovation – Luther in particular, helped shape a whole new world. One reason I started this column was to catch up with the innovators I knew who were using this medium to reach out to their people and saw a great benefit in doing so. As I started writing each week an unforeseen outcome has been the many responses I get in return. Communication doesn’t just work one way in a flat world. Many of you have commented that you share these articles with neighbors and coworkers locally, and friends and family scattered around the country. The most telling comment was that someone uses this posting with a small group at work on Wednesdays (which by the way helps me stay on deadline!). Together, in God’s Spirit, we are shaping a new community.
Technology is not just progress. With as many opportunities technology creates, there are just as many challenges. A friend of mine near Boston and I were joking that on some weeks we look forward to writing these articles more than our Sunday sermons. Tammie and I are guilty of sitting on the same couch on two separate laptops while catching up on email and even Facebooking each other while we are sitting there (even as we joke about it out loud). As helpful as the virtual world is in connecting us, there really is nothing that can substitute for face to face interaction. While I’d rather have people connected to the church virtually than not all, I cannot think of a tangible way to receive the body of Christ without the body of Christ (the people) in the room. We cannot pour the water of baptism through a screen or get the sense of the “spirit in the room” that way either. We need each other. In an ever flattening world we need form as well as substance to truly connect our message with the medium.
At home we’ve implemented technology free time. Not a time that we are free to use whatever technology we choose, but freedom from the technology that continues to demand our attention. I’m sure we’ll falter along the way, but to truly try to be a family together we are going to put those little hand held devices and laptops away from dinner and focus our attention on each other until the kids go to bed. If we can pull it off it might be the greatest innovation of them all. I invite you to think about how you might do the same. Staying connected requires some intentionality whether online or in the same room. These technologies help serve us and not the other way around. Remember where you are rooted – in the True Vine who gives us life, and calls us to stay connected and bear fruit. I hope you “friend” that second grade classmate who used to sit next you with his finger up his nose – he’s a computer programmer now in Texas and could use a wall post. But don’t forget the people God has entrusted you with here and now in a fast paced world that continues to ask so much of us. I’ll try to remember too.
P.S. If you are on Twitter, I’m
Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)