Thursday 3 December 2009

Church new media futures....

But what kind of future? And how do we access the goodies, whilst dodging those lightning bolts? New communications media are available, with implications as radical as the invention of the printing press.
This is not primarily about technology or hobbyism. It’s about people communicating It’s big, and it affects everyone
. Even the Church?

Back in the 1950’s we would have set up a “C of E Social Media Council” so that a party selection of senior bishops, retired colonels and ladies in funny hats could mull over the creative possibilities and then tell everyone else what to do.
These days we have to be a bit more experimental and post-modern. We have to work out for ourselves what to do. I’ve been trying to brainstorm some needs and possibilities, including, as an hoary old adult educator, learning requirements.

So here goes: five possible areas of work for the Church arising from the New Media revolution:
  1. Basic Training.
    Best learnt for self rather than trained in, but there are skills and dimensions to be acquired. For some this will involve gaining the confidence in empathetic surroundings, to have a go for themselves.
    But, of course, there’s far more to it than that. My Lord Bishop of Barchester may, indeed, abominate the Internet and all its works and stick to the Olympian heights, but when he pops down to Barchester Cathedral to sock it to them like Cosmo Gordon Lang on heat, there’s a danger that at least half the people in the congregation, their culture formed in the new media space, will think the poor old goat is mad... So even if he’s not interested in any of this stuff for himself, the Bishop of Barchester needs to acquire some working concept, at the very least, about how the majority of his fellow human beings receive and give information. You’d think.

  2. Masterclasses for practitioners of the Dark Arts.
    There is what some would find a surprising number of great communicators in Church, but not all of them know it yet, and all of them could reflect and improve. Skills can be acquired and honed, among other things, by sharing experience and learning with other practitioners of the Dark Arts. Why not facilitate (residential?) masterclasses, to help us raise our games, of the people, by the people, and for the people?

  3. Flying Circus
    There’s an amazing amount of expertise and breadth and thought in Church. Some remember fondly the General Synod Nuclear debate for the unusual experience it offered of well informed people actually listening to each other in the round, and so contributing to public debate. As the conventional newsprint media are going down the tubes, public debate is disintermediating. Some will think this terrible, and some a great liberation. But could a network of people at the sharp end of various issues and interfaces be persuaded to blog together on an occasional basis to bring their disintermediated perceptions and experiences into the new public square?

  4. Strategic Mapping
    New media are emerging all the time. For example, Facebook became massive in about two years. Just on the back of an envelope, I can think of about 15 different types of new and social media, each with their own challenges and possibilities. New communications space needs to be mapped in terms we can all understand, sufficiently well for people to decide whether to have a go and share the experience. On a similar theme, media change is inducing a whole raft of changes in the ways everybody understands themselves. Without some kind of map of what’s going on, we’re all morons.

  5. Theology
    The fact is every media innovation, like the advent of printed books or cheap newprint, has fundamentally affected theology — both the content and the way it’s done. Some people may find the whole notion pretentious (“pretentious? Moi?”) but whoever’s mapping this stuff, however, surely the Church has to be among them...
One thing’s for sure. This isn’t just going to go away. I’m not laying down company policy, just sketching on the back of an envelope. Please react.
What/ Who have I missed? How badly have I misunderstood the situation? What else could and should we be doing?
Reblog this post [with Zemanta]


Andrew Brown said...

Alan, you're number one on my list of People Who Want My Children to Starve: every day I have to ask myself what I do that you don't do better. But I think you're a little unfair to the colonels and bishops and women in silly hats: by the end of a war these positions are all occupied by smart flexible (and lucky) people. that they are now comic figures is a consequence of huge social change. Not their fault. But the change happened, you're right. Residential course excellent ideas.

The idea that I really like here is the flying circus. I would happily offer my site as an airstrip from which the stars can take off. I know this would involve flak suppression but that would be a pleasure.

Barney said...

Excellent post, Alan. You've hit all sorts of nails on their heads - and not just for the Church but for faith communities in general. We all have to grapple with the rapid development of new media in the way that we communicate our messages to ourselves and to society in general.

This is all going to shape the way we identify ourselves as individuals and as social groupings.

Thank you for setting out the issues so clearly.

anchorhold said...

I've been thinking a lot about this recently, particularly the role of theological musings on blogs that aren't specifically dedicated to theology/ spirituality. I think this is a much more interesting and - whatever that means - way of having conversations with people who don't already think of themselves as religious. But it's a difficult phenomenon to get a grasp on: I've observed it most often on livejournal and dreamwidth, and often under friends' lock. That's partly because lj is a fannish space and a lot of the users are probably a bit concerned about the possibility of this being linked with their real name (hence I don't think many people will want to talk about it at synod). But there's a further issue in that the flock allows people to have confidential discussions - and therefore talking too much about how such communities work in any other than a very non-specific way becomes a breach of confidentiality.

Philip Ritchie said...

Thanks +Alan, some challenging issues raised and as someone training people for ministry I'd be interested in exploring further. A couple of recent examples chime with your blog.

We recently had a student on our EfD course create a facebook page as a place for students to share resources, discuss course material, plan presentations etc. only letting us know once he'd done it. He used a lot of stuff straight off our website (text and logos)and it looked like it was official so I had to ask him to take it down. However, it has raised questions for me about how we use new media to facilitate discussion, feedback and collaborative study. I also wonder whether part of my unease may have been the issue of who controls and therefore has power over the site. In the end there is nothing I can actually do to stop someone setting up a facebook page etc. unless there are blatant copyright issues. All part of the joyful anarchy of the new media.

On a slightly different tack, someone on Twitter suggested trying a twitter feedback stream while preaching a sermon! I think this is really interesting and I'd like to give it a go and see how easy it would be to grasp how people are engaging with the sermon and how one could respond to questions and comments as part of the sermon.

A few weeks ago on a Sat evening several of us clergy twitterers bounced aome ideas off each other re Jesus and the Canaanite woman as part of sermon prep. Even though we were limited to 140 character comments an interesting dialogue developed and one lay person commented on how fascinating they had found the unfolding exploration.

It seems to me that +Nick Baines experience over his new Christmas book is an interesting mix of old and new media. The older media seems to have been much more prone to misrepresentation while new forms enabled quick response and debate regarding the inaccuracies and what the book was actually about via Twitter and blogs, including Nick's.

To be fair Nick did get lots of opportunities to speak about the book and respond to his critics but it was amazing how many people had formed opinions based on old media reports (radio, TV and newspaper in print and online) without looking at what he had actually written. Does this suggest people still invest a great deal of authority in the high priests of the old media? Ironic as it's usually the new media that gets slated for this sort of behaviour.

I've already raised some of this with our Director of Communications (what does that title suggest?) and think we will need to do a lot more in the future both in training and ministry and mission.

Bob MacDonald said...

I know you didn't say this but my first reaction reminded me of the projection of the service order on a screen! Church and technology must eliminate Powerpoint - yes even in the Anglican Churches I have seen the service projected overhead. This of course is not communication - of anything. Certainly not the beauty of holiness. (I worship at a high Anglican bells and spells place and I have a long history as musician and have stimulated and supported such beauty of holiness in spite of many blows).

But Church could embrace the learning in the online world and learn also to judge what she reads and writes. It has not been necessary for 15 years to confine learning to the schools. More and more good stimulus to learning is available - but who will stimulate the reluctant aging 'public'. Church will take risks doing this - but they are there in any case because worshippers are online and will learn whatever is being offered in their random walks.

still listening over here in far west Canada

Alan Crawley said...

The new media is different from the old in that there are not yet any rules. The most obvious sign of this to me is the different models that people have of email. ?I first used email 25 years ago in a business context - and so to me an email is a memo - and by default I write emails as memos - and yet it is obvious to me that a number of emails that I receive have been written in the style of letters, with people using that as the model.
In my previous job we would take people with the right aptitudes and teach them the skills. I wonder whether with the new media we would be better to find people comfortable with it and enthuse them about whatever it is that we want in that space.

Andrew Brown said...

I think that the reason Nick Baines got misunderstood is that the old media still have a reach far wider than the new. There's no pure internet site in the UK with anything like the readership of the newspapers or the BBC.

The question to ask whether the people who go to old media outlets are using the new media as well as they might.

JohnG said...

I would plead for a cartographic project to make an atlas of the many many voices which the internet has released (and I don't just mean Christian ones). I still think that much of the social media activity of the church is a redistribution of the same voices who seeing the erosion of traditional channels have colonised the new channels and expect the power lines to continue to flow in the same channels. With the assumption that if we all scramble fast enough the ideas will trickledown the culture in the same way.

When I started working in advertising we use to groan having to use the ABC1C2DE classification because it was obsolete then. But even today with the ability to cluster groups of buyers into literally hundreds of thousands of segments marketers still target in very simplistic ways. But the number of voices emerging is legion - and there is really no need to group them using the cod labels of tabloid journalists.

I think of China as the nation on earth with the greatest number and highest penetration of bloggers on earth. And soon to be the most populous Christian community. Can we expect faith sharing where people share faith from their own experience and in their own words? Or will we still productise the gospel and ask people to forward it in a bastardisation of the broadcast model? Do you remember the satire the Gospel Blimp about the church which buys a zeppelin to engage in evangelism. I hope we have moved on from regarding the internet as the latest blimp.

I don't know if you are aware of the Faithjourneys project which is a very young research community which is designed for people in the UK to answer a (very long) questionnaire about their journey to faith. But then to have the chance to express it in their own words using blogs, webcams or audio. And to be able to search and compare with others using tag clouds and keywords. Here's the web reference -
I have to declare an interest since it is run by Christian Research for whom I'm a trustee but I commend it to you nonetheless! Faith Journeys isn't the answer but it could be part of it.

Its the bottom up nature of this which is interests me so much. We've never had a better opportunity for people to share their lives with one another. We can be voyeurs or we can be genuine listeners. But I think it would help us a lot if we were to attempt to build a map to start to make sense of it all.

Andrew (different one) said...


Twitter "back channel" discussions are happening at conferences and university lectures. The delegates are talking to each other even if the speaker is unaware.

Have a look at this...

I bet it's happening in some churches - I've tweeted from the pew.

Eddie Izzard is projecting his Twitter stream while he's on stage.

Would we dare to do that in church?

David said...

The medium or the message? My first reaction on reading this was that the Church should concentrate on the message but although this is important, these new media give opportunities to communicate that were unthinkable a few years – or even weeks ago and some understanding of the media is vital to be able to use them to advantage. One of the problems now is the rate of change of things. I was reminded of Alvin Toffler’s ‘Future Shock’ which he wrote in 1970. He argued that as society develops to a super-industrial or informational society, the rate of change will continue to increase and will overwhelm people. We’ve certainly seen this.

The Church was a leader in exploiting early technologies probably because it could afford it. Early paintings on Church walls were the only visual way of communicating the Gospel: we’re so surrounded by images these days we forget how rare illustration was in those days. And who sponsored the first printed Bible – the Church or the printers?

I believe we need to keep up-to-date with these new technologies but only in order to spot opportunities for using them. The youngsters are very comfortable with all these media but in my experience, they are not using them in anything but a very simplistic way. But they use them integrated into their lifestyle, not added on. So I think that powerpoint orders of service, twittering in sermons and facebook intercessions are probably not the way to go. But I’m not sure what is.

Revsimmy said...

Good blog. The church DEFINITELY needs to think about how it should new media, but also to be aware that (as Marshall Mcluhan pointed out 50 years ago) new media will change the message. Using the media in an old way won't work.

The Evangelical Alliance held a seminar on Tuesday (digimission) that opened up some of these issues.

Ann Memmott said...

Do we as the Established Church sometimes fear the future, though? Fear difference, fear change? New media can alter a whole way of communicating and interacting in moments, convey key info (or wrong info) across the world in seconds. That's a heck of a pace...

In a structure so often designed to take perhaps five to ten years to reach a consensus - do we risk becoming further and further behind the rest of society if we don't engage with it?

So much of 'church' happens online now - not through formalised church set-ups, but through everyday online meeting points. Places the vulnerable and the questioning and the exhausted are often able to reach and access when the challenge of a 10am service is too much or not seen as relevant to their lives.

Are we there amongst the people, or do we still hope that they will come to us, and then pick out only the ones we want to keep and leave the rest to wilt away?

Which people do we want to reach out to? Dare we accept that not all can communicate or understand our faith as others do? Dare we value different social communication styles and media rather than reject it as 'not our calling/not what the Holy Spirit asked of us?'

Do we at some level only want to speak in Biblical and Church language and on our own terms?

What do we do with someone who communicates differently to that expectation - speed, style, content, media? Do we choose to learn and engage and think "what is of value here? What do others see in this?", or to see it as a threat? Each person of course will have their own responses to each of these questions.

New, fast social technology is both blessing and curse, but it's there - and I think that we have to encounter it and use it alongside our other offerings, as you do so skilfully with these blogs.

John said...

The Vatican is pushing forward with the new media but using it in a one-way old media way. Meanwhile +Nick was criticised by the old media, though he himself had chosen to write about Christmas carols using an even older medium - a BOOK would you believe! And one that's probably only available from Church House or Wesley Owen. Clearly the mixed economy approach to communication will go on for a long time yet even for those at the cutting edge.

Anonymous said...

A quote from the introduction from "Yes to Life". David Clark (National Association of Christian Communities and Networks), in 1986, which is excellent:

"This is not a book with all the ends tied up. I wrote it while still uncertain about some of the judgements I was making and at times confused about the shape of things to come. I dip into my own past to illustrate the origins of my convictions, but, as with any human being, my vision is limited by my own history. There is a great deal of what matters to me in life not mentioned in what follows. None the less, I am convinced that without our renewed search for the kingdom community which I examine here, and the discoveries promised to those who seek, abundant life for ourselves and our planet will be denies."

I like it, apart form the last sentence.

Pam Smith said...

I find it fascinating that we're talking about 'the Church' as a body of people who are somehow completely cut off from technological developments that everyone else is taking for granted! Surely a lot of people in the Church - yourself included - are already up to speed with technology because they enjoy the possibilities it presents?

There really is no substitute for hands on learning, I can see some value in specialised training but far more of a danger that we create a huge mystique around something that in essence is no more complicated at a conceptual level than making a phone call or sending a telegram.

Sam Cavender said...

I see New Media as just another tool to aid the development of culture (whether globally or in a single organisation). It's not about gadgets, it's about people working together in different ways.

The Church has been doing this for millenia; the gadgets change but as long as we keep an eye on the Message, we're laughing.

Jocelyn E. Chappell said...

Thank you for this blog entry +Alan. I dare say the computing view from the pews can sometimes seem a little dated and/or reserved. However your writing is refreshing.

I would like to suggest some reading for those who are interested in these matters. But first of all I would also like to suggest rather than the five point plan you suggest, to focus on just the one thing: to use the internet as it is for the purpose of promoting professional development of church leaders. When church leaders can see the point then I dare say it is possible the rest will begin to get the message.

So, without more ado and with first things first so to speak here is my reading list.

The first item (read this if nothing else): "Educational Networking: the important role Web 2.0 will play in Education" ( -- Steve Haragadon has been around for a while in US education and clearly highlights professional benefits for web 2.0 educators who move out of their comfort zones. If the reader is really stuck for inspiration I suggest they just do a search for 'educator' and replace with 'pastor' or 'church leader' -- the benefits of web 2.0 should soon become apparent.

Internet Evangelism Day ( )-- these WEC people do real good and have understood multiple cultures / multiple communications pretty much since the internet begun.

Social by Social ( is a practical guide to using new technologies to deliver social impact. Yes it may help with the mapping exercise you mention, yes there are some really helpful explanations of key issues for non profits. But you know I really think the key thing is to get the leaders on board with the benefits for the daytime job, then all the rest of this stuff would happen anyway.

"website owner's manual: the secret to a successful website" ( website owner's manual) has distilled an awful lot of common sense and deep thinking into relatively few pages. But if anyone thinks that web 2.0 success is the next church website they have another think coming. I suggest item 1 above for them.

"ICT for the UK's Future: the implications of the changing nature of Information and Communication Technology" ( -- just in case anyone is thinking the internet will disappear any time soon, hey.

I hope that is helpful.


Jocelyn Chappell

PS great to see you at Holy Trinity Aylesbury the other week.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...