Theology After Google
In short: the majority of our resources continue to be flung at traditional church structures. Those doing the real revolutionary work, those trying to envision -- and incarnate -- the church of the future struggle on with the barest of resources.
This is not smart. Let's do something different. Let's do it now.
Theology after Google
I used to think of theology as an academic discipline. Although about Christian beliefs, its primary goal was to meet the standards of the Academy. When I finally got the stars out of my eyes and began to look around more closely, I realized that the "trickle-down effect" -- the idea that the brainy books in academic theology flow through pastors to help congregations and ordinary Christians -- is no longer happening. If it ever did. By and large academic theologians are not addressing the questions that lay Christians are asking; or they're answering them so incomprehensibly that only other academic theologians understand them.
Now when I use the term "theology" I mean the questions that all Christians ask and the kinds of answers that ordinary people give, no matter how hesitating and uncertain. This new definition has a wonderful implication: theology is tightly bound to whatever church is at a given time. Theology is about what the church is now and what it's becoming. So "theology after Google" means: What must the church become in a Google-shaped world?
Here's my answer in five theses. Whether you love them or hate them, I hope you'll interact with them:
- Theology is not something you consume, but something you produce. In the Age of Gutenberg, you read theology in a book; you heard it preached in sermons; and you were taught it by Bible teachers. In the Age of Google, theology is what you do when you're responding to blogs, contributing to a wiki doc or Google doc, marking up a Word doc on your computer, participating in worship, inventing new forms of "ministry," or talking about God with your friends in a pub.
I remember participating in 1991 in the birth of what would eventually become the worldwide web. (People now call it Web 1.0.) One used a protocol called "ftp" to access documents on someone else's computer. No mouse and no pictures, but still amazing -- you could read someone else's stuff without needing a floppy disk! What most of us now do is Web 2.0. We contribute to, mold, and play at the places we visit; we go there to do things. (If you're unsure about this, watch a kid playing on the web. My seven-year-old twins will click on anything anywhere on any webpage to see what'll happen and what it will do. The idea that the Internet is about passive reading of content never occurred to them.)
- No institutions, and very few persons, function as authorities for theology after Google. Ever since Jesus' (often misunderstood) statement about Peter, that "on this rock I will build my church" (Mt. 16), the church has had issues with authority. The point is too obvious to need examples. The pastor standing up in the pulpit in the early 1960s was still a major authority. Of course, pastors still stand up in pulpits today, and some still view themselves as indispensable purveyors of truth.
But the world is changing around us. Those of us who speak in pulpits are having to rethink our relationship with the audiences we address. Most people today shrug their shoulders at those who claim to be authorities in religious matters. (For many of us, scripture continues to be an authority, but the way in which it's an authority has changed massively over the last 30 years. More on that topic the next time I write.) Theology today means what some number of us find plausible about our faith or are convinced of. Our leaders are people like Brian McLaren or Tony Jones or Spencer Burke -- people who say things that ring true to us, so that we say, "Yeah, I think that guy's got some important insights. I'm going to read his blog or find a way to talk with him, and I'm going to recommend to my friends that they do the same."
- Theology after Google is not centralized and localized. Likewise, the church cannot be localized in a single building. We find church wherever we find Jesus-followers that we link up with who are doing cool things. This point is huge. Denominational officials and many pastors have not even begun to conceive and wrestle with what it means to work for a church without a clear geographical location.
- The new Christian leader is a host, not an authority who dispenses true teaching, wise words, and the sole path to salvation. I first really got the host idea in a conversation with Spencer, and it has turned my understanding of Christian leadership upside down. Today, the leaders who influence our faith and action are those who convene (or moderate or enable) the conversations that change our life -- or the activities that transform our understanding of ourselves, our world, and our God. It could be an older Christian who convenes discussions at a church, a house, or a pub. It could be Shane Claiborne leading an activity at The Simple Way on Potter Street in Philadelphia, say a time of gardening in the communal garden that gives you a sense of community that you've rarely had but always longed for. It could be a website or a blogger that you frequently go to, where you read others' responses and add your own thoughts. Christian leadership is about enabling significant community around the name of Jesus, wherever two or more are gathered in His name.
- Theology after Google does not divide up the world between the "sacred" and the "secular," as past theologies so often did. All thought and experience bears on it, and all of one's life manifests it. Thus the distinction between one's "ministry" and one's "ordinary life" is bogus. All of one's life as a Christian is missional. The great 15th-century theologian and mystic Nicholas of Cusa imagined God as a circle whose radius is infinite and whose center is everywhere. It only takes a second to realize that Cusa's picture wreaks havoc on all geometries of "inside" and "outside."