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Electronic Culture and a Theology of Community

March 9, 2009

In The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, the Gospel, and Church, Shane Hipps provides prophetic wisdom for how we interact with forms of media in the electronic age. Hipps’ message is particularly timely for those of us participating in suburban congregations where there is a tendency for pastors and church members to feel that we must use these tools to be “relevant”. So we try to find funds for digital projectors/better audio-visual gear/larger screens, and the additional elements that go with using these tools (computers, staff, etc). Or maybe we want to compete with the local megachurch that employs a vast array of electronic gadgetry as part of their worship experience and ministry programming (and maybe has pulled a member or three from our church). This remark is not to slam my megachurch brothers and sisters. Rather it’s an observation that reminds me of how consumer-minded our culture is, and how that fact impacts our decisions in suburban congregations. Since we live and breathe in this type of culture, we run the risk of being formed by the same seductive consumer impulse.

That being said, I must use this space partially as a confession, because recently I have struggled mightily over how to appropriately use electronic media in ministry. For years I was definitely in the “got to be relevant” crowd. I am also somewhat of a techno-geek and love new gadgets and electronic gear (and make use of many). I believe the above thoughts about the danger of submitting to the impulses of our consumer culture. Yet I have been the one who has introduced a digital projector in two congregations I have served, as well as other forms of media. I am now convicted to think more deeply on the appropriate use of technology and media. Hipps’ thoughts on the power of the “medium” are forcing me to think in new ways about how and why we use these tools in our congregation. What are the subtle influences of electronic media that can form us, perhaps without us being aware of their power?

In the book I was also pleasantly surprised to find a well thought out discussion concerning the need to develop a “theology of community” within the church. Hipps points out that the medium of the printed word thoroughly shaped our culture in deeper ways than we may have thought.

These messages of printing caused a cultural shift and an emphasis on the individual, on objectivity, on abstract thinking, on rationality…that came to dominate nearly every aspect of social, political, and religious life during the modern era (53).

As a result, we are deeply centered in and committed to the idea of individualism in many parts of American culture. But its reach has extended into the church as well. The power of individualism…

  • influences our engagment of scripture: we have a tendency to read and interpret scripture from the perspective that it was written to and for individuals, rather than a community (the “you’s” are often plural, y’all)
  • influences our engagement of the gospel: we have a tendency to share a gospel of personal salvation instead of one that works in multiple directions as “the work of God to restore humans to union with God and communion with others, in the context of a community, for the good of others and the world (Scot McKnight, Embracing Grace: A Gospel for All of Us, xiii)
  • influences our rites and practices of the faith: think about the lyrics of our worship songs (How many of them use personal pronouns only? How does that form us?) and rites like baptism (I’ve noticed an increase over the past few years of persons desiring baptism without the connection to church membership. What does our response to this reality say about our theology of community?)

In response, Hipps understands that the church as the body of Christ is the mysterious medium that God chooses to embody the message of the good news:

If God’s chosen medium was Christ, and the church is the body of Christ, then the church is God’s chosen medium for God’s ongoing revelation to the world…If the medium is the message, the message of the gospel is profoundly shaped by the way the church lives in the world (92).

This fact doesn’t dismiss the value of the individual, but rather gives us a sense of perspective and provides a corrective movement emphasizing the importance of community.

I approached this book with the thought that I would get practical advice on using media in ministry (which I did). But in addition I was moved to contemplate the deeper meaning and purpose of community. I want to think more critically about our use of media in my congregation, specifically what effect it has on us as a community, on our Christian formation, and on the message we share. But I also want to consider how we might develop a theology of community that more closely resembles the fact that the body of Christ is God’s preferred medium, which is a completely humbling and amazing reality.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 30, 2009 2:47 pm

    Chris–

    A good conversation on technology and theology always leads to conversation about community. Glad that Hipps moved you to that as well. How does this suggest a move toward technology implementation or avoidance as you lead and incarnate the Jesus way in the Perkiomen Valley?

    Steve

  2. April 2, 2009 1:29 am

    In our church we are working at implementing various technological elements (new website, call/message service, digital projection in worship). But we want to be very careful and intentional in how we do this and work toward interactivity. In worship, for example, digital projection can be a great tool to connect with visual learners; but it can also make us passive bystanders rather than engaged participants. It’s going to take finding a balance and looking for creative ways to use technology to enhance the message and help us connect to the mission.

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