The pandemic hastened online adoption in nearly every area of our lives. However, as with any new technology, people and institutions adopt technology at different rates. While online tech is the answer for many congregations, not every church will be able to do all the things they’d like to do. So, what if you can’t do it all or you just don’t have the people who can do tech?
In conducting research for my new book, Forging a New Path: Moving the Church Forward in a Post-Pandemic World (Market Square, 2022), I came across a thought-provoking concept noted by author Ryan Panzer. In his article, “Digital Ministry: More about Culture than Computers,” he keeps technology in proper perspective by focusing attention on what tech can do for Christianity. “We don’t need to be sophisticated users of technology; sometimes we may not need much technology at all. As church leaders, we simply need to notice these values in action and to determine how they align to God’s work in our Christian community.”
Technology itself is not a utopian solution. It’s more about the culture that digital technology has brought about. Panzer concedes that it’s not so much that churches need to become masters of technology. With technological advancements happening daily, there is much that simply can’t be mastered. Rather than try to stay abreast of every platform, keep up with every breaking trend, and use every app, he suggests that you look instead to the culture that digital technology has created. He calls this “tech-shaped culture.” Its four values include questions, connection, collaboration, and creativity.
Let’s look at them in turn.
Questions: Invitation to New Answers
Long before she had ALS, my mother was the first person I heard say, “Let me Google it,” when looking for an answer to a question. Now “Google” is an accepted verb and a commonplace way of researching information on the internet. Practically everybody uses it.
The ability to ask a question and have Alexa, Siri, or Google answer your question is a turning point in the quest for knowledge. Before these search engines, knowledge was organized by answers, not by questions. If you wanted to know what dinosaurs ate, you had to find a specialized book, or look up the entry “dinosaurs” in an encyclopedia, then browse the entire book or article to pick up the answer to the question. That’s very different from asking, “Siri, what did dinosaurs eat?” Further, encyclopedia entries are contained, assuming this information is all we know, or maybe even this is all there is to know about any particular field of study.
A question-oriented culture is a major shift in context. Asking questions pushes boundaries and opens possibilities. The question-asking culture encourages curiosity, agency, and engagement. It assumes that no question is off-limits, that every question has an answer, that a range of answers is available, and that questions are good and welcome.
In church cultures where every correct answer is “Jesus,” this sort of open-endedness and freedom can be both uncomfortable and exhilarating. It expands the boundaries of what can be created. So how can you encourage the asking of questions? Start by being willing to entertain and engage questions. Ask open-ended questions during worship and Bible study rather than give answers. Allow new points of view to shape new answers—especially points of view that come from a variety of generations and backgrounds. Allow people time to process, ask new questions, and discern the best answers.
Connection: Transcending Boundaries
The second value of the tech-shaped culture is connection. Digital technology connects people in Zoom rooms, on FaceTime, and through Facebook Live. It even connects people across the physical and the virtual, creating hybrid experiences. It transcends boundaries like location and distance in real-time, allowing for connection across many realms.
Collaboration: Participation and Contribution
In addition to online platforms like Zoom that allow people to meet together in real-time, other online tools allow people to collaborate by creating documents. Google Docs is one prime example. The world has come to expect collaboration; Google Docs has made it easier. Working together makes for stronger buy-in. It includes many points of view, and it engenders a sense of community. Leadership in the church is often seen as top-down, or sometimes, bottom-up. But imagine collaborating laterally in the realms of worship, mission, liturgy, and the future of the church. This type of teamwork goes beyond committee planning to a deeper give-and-take between and among people. Collaboration is consistent with our trinitarian theology. Just as the three persons of the trinity flow into one another and become inseparable, so collaboration produces something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Creativity: An Expression of the Divine Within
In the online world, each person is a content creator. From the simplest post to sharing photographs to recording a video, social media platforms have encouraged an explosion of creativity. This profusion of self-expression can easily be encouraged and included in the church as well. Imagine people sharing their prayers, artwork, and unique spiritual experiences with one another. Historically, church has been a venue for creativity from spoken word, to fabric arts, liturgical dance, and music ranging from classical to traditional to innovative. Creativity is the ultimate expression of the divine Creator. As we share our own creativity, we have the opportunity to expand the presence of God in the world.
Changing Your Focus
Making this shift to a tech-shaped culture doesn’t require any special equipment. All it requires is a change in focus. When you think about it, church sanctuaries are arranged like classrooms of old where a teacher stood in front of the class to dispense knowledge. But even classrooms have changed. Instead of a teacher standing in front of rows of desks, children are often gathered in huddles of desks so that students can learn together in groups. Students not only learn from the teacher, but they also learn from each other and from other sources such as books, online resources, and outside experts. One way this recent model of learning can be applied to the church is to envision church in the round.
Open Space is one such example. This format, developed by Rev. Mary Beth Taylor, forms Jesus-based community by fostering open-ended questions and discussion about matters of faith during in-person and online church meetings. Mary Beth has found particular success with bringing young people in by offering permission to ask questions in a safe and welcoming space. When churches discourage questions, they self-sabotage by pushing younger generations away, making them feel as though they should just “be quiet and believe everything they’re told.” Only, that’s not the way it works anymore. Not in a tech-shaped culture. In a tech-shaped culture, questions, connections, creativity, and collaboration mean anyone and everyone can participate.
If you are still struggling to get your people on board with technology, I invite you to join me for my upcoming webinar, How to Do More with Less: Leading the Post-Pandemic Church. We’ll explore not only how to do more with fewer resources, but also with less experience.
Adapted and excerpted from Rebekah’s upcoming book, Forging a New Path: Moving the Church Forward in a Post-Pandemic World, 2022.
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