Some Reflections on Technology and Church Communications

by Tim Gossett, Director of Discipleship

Twenty-three  years ago this June, I moved to Dayton, Ohio to start classes at United Theological Seminary, where I ultimately did two degrees. At the time, the MARC (Master of Arts in Religious Communications) program was fairly new and was the only program of its kind at a United Methodist Seminary. Churches across the country were just beginning to experiment with using screens in worship, and we spent a great deal of time considering the challenges of digital technologies, the skills needed to communicate electronically, the theological questions all technologies present, and the ways pastors and others can most effectively communicate our faith. (And by the way, not all of the program was focused on technology. My primary professor was the world’s expert in oral biblical storytelling.)

I tell you all of this as a way of introducing this reality, one I want to explore with you a bit in the next few Communicators: churches have wrestled for a long time (far longer than 23 years!) with effective communication, and digital forms of communication have added to the opportunities and challenges we face as a congregation. Pastors, Christian Educators, volunteer Sunday School teachers, parents who hope to pass on their faith to their children, and others are essentially biblical storytellers. That is, we seek to bring the stories of the Bible to life in a manner that is indigenous to our culture.

By indigenous, I mean that we try to use the communications systems of our time and place in order to communicate a message effectively. Here’s the briefest of overviews of the ways church communications have changed over two millennia.

students12Jesus’ Time (and earlier): Oral Culture

Most people could not read in Jesus’ time. Indigenous meant telling stories to one another, frequently around the evening’s campfire or a shared meal.

manuscript iconEarly Church thru late 1800s: Manuscript Culture

Indigenous meant reading stories, letters, books, and other printed materials. For example, the letters of Paul circulated and were widely read; parents read Bible story books to their children. (Anyone still have some of those Little Golden books which related biblical tales?)

opened30Late 1800s to 1950s: Document Culture

Indigenous meant making sense of the biblical documents as history and theology. This is the time when there was an explosion of interest in, for example, research into biblical archaeology and ancient cultures and of serious biblical scholarship.

responsive171950s to Present: Digital Culture

Indigenous means making stories come alive both orally and visually. The many “Bible movies” of the past 70 years are but one example of this. Increasingly, our digital culture is putting the emphasis on visual communication (think infographics, memes, and Facebook algorithms that give a higher priority to posts with images.)

It’s important to understand that each new communication system “re-synthesizes” those that have come before it. Digital culture, for example, does not eliminate document culture. Those who tell the biblical story in any time and age must discover the indigenous ways of biblical storytelling that connect with the culture.

Shortly before I wrote this article, I ended a Skype session (or video web chat) with Katherine Parker, the United Methodist missionary we support in Nepal. Her ministry was the focus of our mission offering on Sunday, May 17, and I wanted to record a video of her telling us about her life and ministry to show in worship. There were other options…

  • We could have waited until the spring of 2016 when she could have been with us in person (oral culture).
  • I could have read to you from an encyclopedia entry about the history of Christianity in Nepal (manuscript culture).
  • We could have shared with those in worship arguments for and against United Methodist missions in countries like Nepal and let you determine if supporting her is a worthy endeavor (document culture).

However, the video I recorded gave worshippers a chance to briefly connect with her, to know her as a person, and to hear from Katherine in her own words. This indigenous form of communications is entirely appropriate for worship, the place where we come together to hear afresh God’s call upon our own lives to go into the world as witnesses, to take bold risks for our faith, and to live as a transformed community. It’s one of many reasons I am excited about the opportunities we’ll have as biblical storytellers to tell stories in fresh ways using the screens that are coming to the Sanctuary.

Click to read part 2 and part 3.

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