At a recent event I heard a speaker declare, “The church of the 21st century has more in common with the church of the 1st century than the church of the 20th century.” I tend to agree with this statement’s sentiment – especially when we start thinking, planning and implementing strategy in a local ministry context. Today we speak, act and live as Christians not from the center of our culture, but closer to its edges, and we can no longer afford to simply wait and see who shows up. Our calling from the edges is to be constantly building partnerships with others, making relationships with those outside our church memberships, and keep thinking intentionally together about how we “believe, teach and confess”* our faith in Christ anew.
In the 20th century we “went” to church.
To be effective in the 21st century, I believe we are called to be “sent” as the church.
I’ve been reading a book titled, What Would Google do? by Jeff Jarvis.^ I thought instantly of the popular movement at the end of the 20th century that centered on the question: “What would Jesus do?” – placing yourself in Jesus’s shoes (sandals is probably more appropriate!) when approaching life’s complexities. In many ways the culture has shifted from asking what Jesus might do in the world today – and has instead turned to Google, one of the most successful corporations and symbols of the digital age. If you want to know anything: just Google it. As I read the early chapters of the book, I wondered what insights churches could adapt as we ask: “How might Jesus use us in this Google world?”
LESSON 1: FROM MEMBERSHIP TO USERSHIP
The Google motto is – “Focus on the user and all else will follow” (WWGD?, p. 4). The “user” drives content, connections, and Google learns to operate more effectively in directing users where they need to go. What would it take for the church to stop using the term “member” to describe the people that “go to church” and instead thought of them as “users” those who are out in the world, applying their faith to the rest of their lives? Maybe “user” isn’t a great term either, but the implication is to move from a passive viewing role to an active and participatory one. What could we learn? Change? Focus? Add? Ever notice Google starts filling in words for you when you type? What if we could anticipate people’s needs and valued their contributions? When we focus on “members” we look inward. When we support “users” we keep asking, “where are we going and how do we get there?”
LESSON 2: LEARN FROM YOUR DETRACTORS
Jarvis tells the story of purchasing a laptop from a respectable computer company that did not operate correctly, the horrible customer service he received when trying to get it fixed, and the subsequent scathing post he wrote on his blog about the company. The post went viral and threatened the company’s ability to survive. In response, that computer company changed its course of action. It mended fences with Jarvis, asked for input and followed some of his advice. It started a blog where customers could share feedback and work with the company to fix problems. A second blog was created to give people the opportunity to offer direct input on potential new products. This company gained a new life when it decided to learn from its missteps rather than dictating terms, and made former detractors its valued partners (WWGD?, pp. 8-21).
Many people today see the church as Jarvis saw this computer company – its product wasn’t the problem per se (although it presented itself that way) – the company’s response was the problem. People might have a problem with or an interest in Jesus – but too often the church’s response becomes the problem. The church is seen as judgmental, hypocritical and exclusionary. We know the value of Jesus. It’s the machine that is broken. Our operating system crashes. Our customer service can be terrible. The question is – will we continue to operate as if we are still the ones dictating terms to our culture when the culture is using every available resource to put us out of business, or will we engage those on the outside, acknowledge our failures, and work with others to build a renewed future? It all comes down to listening – are we able to listen and change, or are we too afraid we might lose something if we do?
LESSON 3: GROWING CIRCLES
Too often we think of our churches and other structures within them as independent of one another. To get healthy, we see the need to get our houses in order. This is necessary, but not complete. Often we will look at one aspect of our congregation – like Sunday School as an example – and ask, “How do we get more kids there? Who needs to get involved? What needs fixing?”…and we attack it. Sometimes it works; sometimes we leave even more frustrated.
Jarvis suggests mapping out all the connections within your organization and how it operates through interconnected circles. We have been working on this exercise with our congregation council. The secondary step – is to keep making circles with the connections the organization (and people within the organization) make in the wider community. Then organizations can begin to see themselves in relation to a growing network of connections. “How do we get more kids at Sunday School?” might be the wrong question. Maybe we should determine where those families are connecting elsewhere, and ask how we might support them in faith as they do. Attracting kids to Sunday School is a different mindset than sending them as people of faith in the world. “How might we equip them?” becomes a more fruitful question to ask.
Jarvis describes the marketing perspective used to attract people this way: “We are expected to answer the siren call of advertising and trudge to their store, dealership, newsstand, or now, website. (Most companies – [or churches – emphasis mine]) even think we want to come to them, that we are drawn to them, moths to the brand. Not Google. Google thinks distributed. It comes to us whenever and however it can. Google’s search box can appear on our browser or any page anywhere on the internet” (WWGD?, p. 36).
What if we stopped trying to fill holes in our program at church – and thought of ourselves as distributed disciples that come together for sharing and renewal? With creativity we could provide a platform, a browser, a set of tools to help navigate complicated relationships and not just become one more SPAM in people’s inbox. If we could do this – we would not only be acting like Google, we could be the hands and feet of Jesus at work in a whole new way.
FINAL THOUGHTS: IT’S NOT REALLY ABOUT THE INTERNET
I started by asking how we might do church differently in the 21st century. Jarvis’ book: What Would Google Do? taught me three things:
1. Moving from viewer to user gives us voice. The digital age is shaped by contributing – not just sitting back and watching. It is one thing to hear a sermon, sing a song or read an article on forgiveness. It is another to actively seek reconciliation. This has nothing to do with Google or the internet – but reminds us that faith is about doing as much as it is about believing.
2. We are called to listen – especially to those of other viewpoints, particularly when we are wrong. There is a reason non-church people see the church negatively. For a long time we assumed if we spoke people would listen. No longer. This isn’t such a bad thing – we are supposed to be about self-sacrifice, helping others and using words that heal. What witness could we bring in this divided culture – if we listened to our enemies, changed things in ourselves that needed mending and viewed anyone as a potential partner if they helped us carry our message? Online resources can help – but it takes each of us sent into the world.
3. Rather than seeing our lives, churches, and other organizations as single entities we can start to map how interconnected we are. The concept of a “world wide web” envisions ourselves within relationships. It is hard to know where we are until we are properly orientated. Google has not only done a lot of the mapping, but has also built many of the connections. We can use Google as a tool as we learn to make our own connections.
What if the church was more like Google?
Jarvis states What Would Google Do? is not about motivating us to try to be Google or copying them – “It’s about seeing the world as Google sees it, finding your own worldview, and seeing differently” (WWGD?, p. 6). We have a unique worldview in Jesus. It is a vision of a reconciling restorative movement called “the kingdom of God.” It has nothing to do with the internet, but in God using us, in this world, as his people set free to love and serve in his name.
* The Lutheran Confessions of the 16th century often explain Christian doctrine by starting with the phrase, “we believe, teach, and confess” – I’m using it here to call our theological memory into this current conversation.
^ Jeff Jarvis. What would Google Do? New York: Harper Collins, 2009.