Taking the Church into the Digital Age

by | Jul 31, 2005 | Charisma Archive

The church must move forward with culture if we want to stay relevant. Here are some ways we can reclaim our voice in this crucial hour.
The Rolling Stones announced another North American tour in May. They are back-and doing rock ‘n’ roll the same way they did in the 1970s. You can be sure that Mick Jagger and his band of old guys will look silly to most people when they take the stage.

Yet I fear that in many ways the American church has become like the Stones. The same old guys are singing the same old songs and preaching the same old messages we preached in 1975, the year Charisma was born.

Meanwhile the winds of change are blowing all around us-and I believe those winds are a sign from the Holy Spirit that we must change. We must become the church now.

But how do we make the transition from formula to relevance? We cannot, unless we understand digital communication, which is quickly giving rise to the predominant digital culture. To start, we need to understand some things about technology and how God has used it in the past.

At the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, the institutional church was inflexible, corrupt and irrelevant.
God prepared a man, Martin Luther, to articulate to the masses a revolutionary vision of a liberated church, but He also used technology as the catalyst for spiritual change. The Gutenberg printing press, invented in the mid-1400s, led to literacy, affordable Bibles and a sweeping reformation that changed Western civilization.

Similarly, broadcast technology centuries later enabled the personal dynamic of the gospel to reach millions of people just when the church was becoming hidden behind seminary walls and fancy cathedral doors. The broadcast media created the “celebration church”-which was focused on a Sunday morning event. The church service became the “main event” to be celebrated on TV and radio.

However, now that everyone is into this broadcast-and-celebration structure, the church is just another part of an over-hyped, self-absorbed and consumer-driven society. Will the generation of the Jesus movement hear this challenge to make a change, or will they become trapped in their broadcast studios and main-event worship centers the same way previous generations revived by God were trapped in seminaries and cathedrals?

During both the Protestant Reformation and the broadcast reformation, technology provided the catalyst that shaped the new culture and its expressions of faith. Communication is the medium for relationship, community and culture, so a more
efficient or powerful tool of communication results in their restructuring.

Before the Protestant Reformation, people lived in an oral culture. The church’s focus was the community of Christ and the mystical union of believers in a village, town or region.

After the printing press was invented, a print culture emerged, and the church began shifting toward the individual believer and the written Word of God. In recent years, through our broadcast culture, the church tapped into the power of collective praise and worship and a demonstrative presence of God.

Now technology is shifting again because of the digital age. Computer technology and the Internet are changing our world more than most of us realize. They are certainly shifting things in the church whether we acknowledge their influence or not.

The digital culture has the power to extend the mystical union of believers globally. It will provide opportunity for theological training for all believers, whether they are in the urban centers of North America or the deserts of Central Asia.

It will provide access to alternate modes of worship for anyone, anywhere, at any time. Most important, it will give Christians the opportunity to again connect as a vital community to express Christ through ministry to one another and to our neighbors.

Currently in the United States, we have for the first time in history three generations raised under the influence of three different communication tools. I see this clearly in my own home, and I suspect you see it in yours, too.

My parents, who were born and raised closer to the beginning of the 20th century, see the world through print. As a baby boomer, my first “language” was broadcast (TV and radio). My children, born on the cusp of a new millennium, are completely at home with digital communication. Each of us sees the world and experiences it in such different ways that it’s a miracle we can communicate at all!

Digital interactive technology has distinctly new capabilities that individuals and organizations increasingly are taking advantage of and adapting to their use. Those who persist in following the protocols of print or broadcast will be left behind. Those
who understand not only the protocols but also the mind-sets and metaphors of digital technology will emerge as the leaders and premier organizations.

Prepare for a Shift

The church of 2005 had better prepare for big changes. We will not be able to do church the way we did it in 1985, or even 1995. I see three major changes on the horizon.

The “main event” mentality we have embraced is reflected in the concert format used by the entertainment industry. In giant arenas or enormous megachurches you can’t really see the performers or pastors unless you’re sitting on a front
row. They’re too far away.

Enormous screens and great acoustics make us think we’re sharing in the real thing. Yet we aren’t the concert format provides a mirage of connection when no connection is happening at all.

Concerts have created a powerful collective experience. Crowd dynamics allow people to lower their inhibitions and experience the exhilaration of releasing
otherwise restrained emotions. The celebration church has understood this attraction and power. It’s leaders spend a lot of money buying the equipment
and assembling the talent to satisfy this itch.

However, a steady diet of this broadcast medium quickly becomes boring. The ongoing experience must be pushed a little further each time or stimulated by a new novelty in order for people to feel something close to the original experience. (That is one reason why most concerts move from town to town and why a dynamic speaker travels from church to church.)

The digital revolution seeks collective rituals, too, but it wants smaller venues that are more interactive, intense and tailored. Children of the digital culture want to be able to see, touch and dialogue with one another, as well as explore new avenues for body ministry.

What does this shift mean for the future of large celebration churches that have attracted broadcast audiences who were raised on a vicarious buzz of the main event? Those audiences are aging. Some of the churches will remain, some will grow as a result of consolidation, but most will either reinvent themselves
or suff er a painful decline.

The ubiquitous brands-Gap, Nike and the rest-each project their own version of hipness or coolness and symbolize our quest to be part of something significant. Broadcast culture has sent us on a journey to build a vicarious world that compensates for our lack of original encounters. It’s a world where we can imagine what the real thing might have been like or-even better-where we are offered the romance of the real thing without any of the drawbacks, such as the scripted and televised world of The Truman Show.

Church branding is drawn from the same well as commercial branding. We drink the same water and exhibit all the same behaviors. We too have our brands: seeker, charismatic, Messianic, Baptist, Pentecostal and on and on.

Each began as an original inspiration and grew. All then became wildly popular. Why? Because the broadcast culture almost automatically turns a popular
concept into a brand and then begins to package, promote and franchise the living daylights out of it.

This type of branding and marketing cannot exist in a digital culture that is a medium of tailored personal experiences, where promotion is viewed as unwanted
spam and brand franchising is synonymous with “artificially produced.” The digital medium is a seek-and find environment. It does not require packaging and slick promotion. In fact, they get in the way.

No matter where you go, the church is absorbed with programs and with questions about growth and expansion. Any church that seriously wants to grow need follow only one of at least a dozen success models: cell-based, youth-oriented, purpose driven and others. Some books on the market list the seven, eight or however many essential elements for growing a healthy, “organic” church. They all work.

In nature, this premeditated formula is what environmentalists call“ unsustainable growth.”This means everything is free to grow and expand but nothing integrates with anything else. Thus there is little or no natural infrastructure to nurture and sustain new growth. In order to continue, growth of this kind requires the continuous contribution of outside resources because it consumes more than it produces. It is not healthy!

Growth-focused churches tend to exhibit the following characteristics: (1) It is almost impossible to get any one-on-one time with the pastoral staff , who are overworked; (2) The crowds grow along with the programs, and buildings continue to expand or are added; (3) Membership turnover is high; (4) When the main church event is over, pockets of believers are left with no overall sense of community.

Because of the digital revolution we can expect other trends to surface that will influence the church at large. These will include:

A more personal ministry approach. The new generation is cynical toward celebrity and hyped events. It wants to interact and influence through group encounters. Today’s music, for example, is extremely personal, graphic and pointed. Young people are looking for a personal connection.

An increasing hunger for reality. People are starved for real-life stories rather than manufactured ones. The rise in popularity of documentaries, docudramas and reality TV over the last several years attests to this. Television’s ethos has taken over, and the boundaries between real and contrived have blurred-even in the church! The emerging digital culture is increasing our awareness of this vapid pursuit, while creating a new sense of authentic connection and expression through interaction.

The waning of megacorporations and churches. Large and rigid organizations, like denominations and overgrown congregations, break down in an environment of speed and complexity. The new generation relies on relationships for information, not on institutions or authority.

A focus on community development. Many churches will refocus previous eff orts to inhabit their neighborhoods. Numbers of them will turn to grassroots
strategies marked by connectedness to reach a growing population that believes small gatherings are more authentic.

A healthy environment for discipling. The emerging leaders will be comfortable integrating with their congregations and will not require that
everything revolve around them or their agendas. Meanwhile, the more that digital media permeates our culture, the more it will expose the shortcomings of the print mind-set of control and the broadcast paradigm of celebrity-based leadership.

Charisma readers have had a front-row seat for the transforming of church and society over the last 30 years. Consider the recent past as a brief introduction
to what lies ahead. It promises to be an epic tale of adventure and conflict fueled by a passionate quest to take God’s kingdom to a new global era.


Charisma has covered the charismatic movement since 1975.
Test your knowledge of the past with this trivia quiz.

Since August 1975, Charisma has published 341 separate issues and an estimated 6 million total copies. That’s approximately 14,000 articles, printed on at least 11,000 tons of paper. And that’s not counting a Russian edition produced in the early 1990s or our Spanish-language magazine, Vida Cristiana, which began in 1993 and now reaches 30,000 readers bimonthly. Want more trivia? Try this simple quiz.

1. A Hollywood actor and a jailed politician appeared on Charisma’s cover in 1978. Who were they, and what movie were they promoting?
2. Which of the following U.S. presidents never appeared on Charisma’s cover?
A. Jimmy Carter; B. George H.W. Bush; C. Bill Clinton; D. George W. Bush
3. Child actress Lauren Chapin was featured on Charisma’s cover in 1991. In what classic television series did she appear?
4. What famous musical couple was featured in a 1988 cover story called “Harmony at Home” -and then later divorced?
5. In a 1983 Charisma interview, this famous televangelist was asked about the 24-karat gold fi xtures in his bathroom. He responded: “The difference in cost between the gold-colored
fixtures in my sink and chromecolored fi xtures is $53.75. A whole lot has been made out of a little.” Who said that?
6. This country music star wrote an article about her divorce and remarriage in Charisma in 1980. Who was she and what was her most famous song?
7. Charisma trailed former President Jimmy Carter and his wife for a full day in 1989. What were the Carters doing?
8. This outspoken Pentecostal served in Ronald Reagan’s cabinet and was often vilified in the media for his faith. He appeared on Charisma’s cover in 1983. Who was he and what was his position?
9. She was one of the world’s most famous Christians, and her death was reported in Charisma in 1991. Yet she never appeared on Charisma’s cover. Who was she?
10. This Colorado pastor was on Charisma’s cover in 1993 when his church had 4,500 members. Today the church has more than 10,000 members and the pastor is president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Who is he?

ANSWERS: 1. Actor Dean Jones and convicted Watergate figure Charles Colson. They were promoting the movie Born Again, in which Jones portrayed Colson. 2. Trick question. They all did, but Clinton was a cartoon. 3. Father Knows Best. 4. Amy Grant and Gary Chapman .5. PTL founder Jim Bakker. 6. Jeannie C. Riley, “Harper Valley P.T.A.” 7. Building a house in Atlanta for Habitat for Humanity. 8. James Watt, Secretary of the Interior. 9. Corrie ten Boom. 10. Ted Haggard, pastor of New Life Church, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

M. REX MILLER is a successful businessman with degrees in communications theory and theology. He is the author of The Millennium Matrix (Jossey-Bass). For more information about Leadership Network, log on at www.leadnet.org


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