Friday, December 30, 2011


If you had told me five years ago that by now I'd be on Facebook, text regularly (if almost exclusively to my wife), and have a blog, I'd have first looked at you with a blank expression because I'm not completely sure I knew what any of those things were five years ago.  Once those things were explained to me I'd most likely have stared at you as if you'd suddenly sprouted alien tentacles from your nose.  Things do change, do they not?

I'm forty-six years old.  Not desperately old by any means (and not even that old to be on the fool's errand I'm on--I'm far from the oldest student here), but there's a good chance my life is more than half over, which is a jarring thought sometimes.  (For the record, I was born in February 1965, which if I have things right technically leaves me two months shy of being a baby boomer.  So there.)

In my teaching career I went from looking at classroom technology as mostly an opportunity for something to malfunction to being a regular user of PowerPoint for lectures (and sometimes I was even able to embed links in it!  Woohoo!) and able to use Blackboard to some degree, though probably not to the fullest extent that academic administrators probably hope.  I couldn't have taught popular music without YouTube, another thing I might not have understood five years ago.  (On the other hand, to the very end I was using long-playing records in class as well.  When you're into American music, not everything has migrated to mp3 yet.)

All of which is to say that while I'm not a complete technology failure, I'm probably a good five to ten years behind the curve most of the time, and that is probably a charitable estimate.  I'm not on Twitter, and a truly cutting-edge reader could probably rattle off maybe as many as a dozen technological innovations I haven't mentioned and conclude that I am hopelessly lame, which is probably true.

This is of course a challenge no matter what vocation one pursues, but it is a challenge of particular angst these days in ministerial circles, as the question of technological competency is inevitably linked to the latest missing generation in the church, the one born with iPhones attached to their index fingers at birth (or is an iPhone too hopelessly out of date?  I'm never sure).  The lamenting and angst and hand-wringing comes in several forms.

My current seminary in fact hosts a conference, every fall I believe, on this subject of technology and the church.  Of course, as any academic (professor or student) can tell you, hosting such a conference during the academic year can actually be the least beneficial thing for students on that campus because, well, they have classes at the time, and professors are loath to give up that precious time slot (a problem with which I have sympathy, as one who always felt I was skipping something essential every semester even without such class losses), so the student either misses class or misses the conference -- and since these conferences typically have registration costs involved you can guess which choice the student will make.

One of the conference speakers, though, did give a presentation to students before the gig began, which touched somewhat on the use of technology in the church and its life, though it often got sidetracked onto unrelated stuff.  This presenter is also involved in an "online worship" experience which I actually watched before the presentation.  Definitions of worship are touchy, difficult, and a good way to start a fight, I know this.  My impression of the program I saw, I have to say, was more of a really good talk show interrupted by music and DIY communion.  I guess some people find it worshipful.

This week I've been unable to go online without getting besieged by more rumination about technology and the church.  It comes in waves, I guess.  Adam Copeland, an inevitable moderator of PC(USA) unless he decides to remain among the Lutherans, offered up this thoughtful blog post on the subject, with particular attention to how a pastor or church might be tuned in to how a different generation's use of technology might influence worship in particular, right down to the tweeting of responses to the sermon in real time.  (An aside: our campus actually saw an experiment in this for one of our chapel services this fall, with tweets from the congregation actually being posted on-screen during the service.  I wish I could offer more comment on this, but the presentation software being used -- Prezi, I think? -- did so much swooping from one screen to another that I ended up with about a two-hour attach of mild vertigo, an issue for me dating back to 1993.  So I try not to think too much about that day; it just makes me dizzy.)  

Adam is quite good at asking questions, which is a good thing.  Certainly some flexibility may be in order, and I do believe that there are or have been traditions which included a time for responses to or questions about the sermon immediately after it was over, even without technology added.  I also have an initial concern about loading too many things into the hour, or forty-five or ninety minutes or whatever that a church devotes to formal (i.e. designated) worship.  Schoolteachers over the past decades might relate to how many functions got assigned to the classroom -- needful things, but not necessarily educationally oriented; even state-mandated standardized tests might fall into this category -- that the time for teaching and learning inevitably was damaged to some degree.  I'd hate to see that become a problem in worship, or to be precise more of a problem.  

Let's face it, there are already enough challenges that get loaded into worship, demands that really have nothing to do with worship per se -- positive reaffirmation, patriotic display, cultural conformity, musical "performance", clucking and oo-ing at how cute the kids are -- that it can be tough enough to get any kind of focus on the word and sacrament as it is.  To the degree that flexing our technology muscles becomes merely another distraction it is something to lament; to the degree that it becomes a source of division, even worse.  But I have no answers here, and I'm still trying to work out the questions I do have.

Another FB friend linked to this article from The Christian Century's "Tribal Church" blog section.  This post by Carol Howard Merritt is not strictly about technology itself, but in addressing the "generational roadblocks" of its title speaks to or alludes to technological issues that may -- quite unintentionally -- be hindrances to the more technologically savvy (I'd simply argue that this doesn't strictly have to be a "generational" roadblock; anyone of any age who knows their technology can be put off by how primitive some churches are about it).  

Some of these problems are really so trivial that we should be ashamed of letting them be roadblocks.  To cite only one example: why in the world, indeed, should it be a problem for someone to be in on a committee meeting via Skype?  Heck, I've had master's students who did their oral exams by Skype.  And again this might not be merely a generation issue; imagine the parent with kids who can't find a babysitter for Tuesday nights, otherwise they'd love to be on the (insert name here) committee.  If they have to get up and chase down their toddler before the cat gets flushed down the toilet, no harm done (except possibly to cat and toddler).  Heck, is there a good reason the whole committee can't meet by Skype sometimes?

From another corner came this "Tech Lament" on the "Daily Episcopalian" site, by a vicar named Ann Fontaine.  Fontaine finds herself despairing at an article (linked in her blog entry) observing that a major company has announced plans to go "zero email" within three years, shifting its working collaboration and communication focus to messaging and social network platforms.  I had to agree; thinking of email as outmoded and potentially obsolete was a bit of a jolt, and made me feel older than I usually feel.  But then, as I thought more about it, I had to admit that I really don't use email nearly as much as I used to.  I still get information from the seminary and from some professors that way (though some use Blackboard for information, assignments sometimes get returned by email), and I get plenty of more commercial email (from outright advertisements to newspaper headline emails and such), I don't really send a lot of emails.  

Herein lies a caution, methinks: the technology we so avidly embrace now becomes obsolete sooner than we think.  Not unlike a "contemporary" worship service that suddenly finds itself thirty years out of date, the church Facebook page or blog we prize now may become a white elephant before we know it.  It isn't merely a matter of catching up, but keeping up that becomes the tremendous hurdle -- or series of hurdles -- faced by the church that would be techno-savvy.  

Whatever all of these may portend, I (as usual) find myself thinking in another direction.  Strange as it seem, I'd be the last person to deny the usefulness of these social technologies for more than just funny cat pictures.  The genesis of this whole fool's errand owes much to being able to talk not only to real live people in the flesh, but also real live people whom I could only contact on Facebook, to ask questions ranging from the utter foolishness of walking away from a perfectly good life to do this, to specifics about the seminaries they attended and their virtues.  These are resources I wouldn't have had or known about five years ago, if this vocational nudge had happened then.  So far be it from me to dismiss social technology's potential altogether.

I would like to do one reversal of direction, though, if I may.  Where Adam Copeland's blog above wondered about what technology may bring into worship, I wonder if these social technologies may help us take more out of worship than we've done before.

For example: most churches nowadays have some means of posting each week's sermons online, whether by streaming media of some ilk or simple posting of the text.  How many of these might be enhanced with something as simple as a "comments" function as a means of continuing the discussion beyond the bounds of Sunday morning?  Many pastors I know do post their sermons to their own individual blogs, and I'm sure there must be some churches where sermons are posted with some sort of response capacity, though I'm less aware of these.

And by no means does this need to be limited to the sermon; what about a comment on why a particular hymn was chosen, or what the week's anthem adds to the service?  Or about the missional doings of the church and their relationship to worship?  Or the educational ministries?  If these social technologies offer the opportunity to tie the whole of worship together, to knit it more thoroughly into the life of the community of faith and beyond, and perhaps even to get people who may not ordinarily show for worship curious enough to want to come and see what all the fuss is about... well, this is something I can thoroughly get behind.

Unless I'm misreading things, one thing that the tech-savvy seeker is looking for is transparency -- to be able to question without fear, to know why things are instead of merely knowing that they are, not to be cudgeled by authority for not being certain or for (horrors!) disagreeing.  This is in fact a good thing, as long as the transparency goes both ways, and some genuine hard soul-searching will not be blown off as mere authoritarian posturing.  I don't think the minister needs to be the Wizard of Oz busily pulling levers and pushing buttons while hidden behind the great curtain; sometimes the best thing to do is open up the process and be able to show and say why we do what we do; why we believe what we believe, why we actually insist on something so off-putting as confessing our sins, why the Eucharist is too important to be restricted to a monthly observance, maybe even why an organ is a good thing for a church to have.  But again, this has to go both ways; if questions are going to be asked, answers have to be heard and listened to with the same seriousness and openness.

This is hard, time-consuming work to be sure.  I've consumed a rather large chunk of morning and early afternoon just writing this blog post, and this after several days of thought on it.  But if this kind of opening and connecting can be part of what social technologies can be in the life of the church, then by all means let's get on it.

I'd even be willing to learn how to do Twitter.  If it doesn't become obsolete first.

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