Why the church is failing at new media

Why the church is failing at new media April 17, 2019

Is that what they teach you in seminary?

Definitely a frequent question asked of pastors, typically when people are genuinely flummoxed by the content of a sermon, or doubt the efficacy of a new church program or theme.

So you might ask, what are they teaching these days on new media?

Apparently, the answer is mostly: Boundaries!


Thesis: The denomination asks seminaries to teach students about boundaries in social media because a) synod offices are inundated with work addressing the poor boundaries of older pastors, and b) rather than blame devices like telephones, cars, and hotels, it is easier to blame new things like Facebook and e-mail.

This embarrassing hyper-focus on boundaries is problematic for any number of reasons, but chief among them: it distracts from the greater reality that boundaries are an issue in all media and contexts, not just new media; it keeps the church from offering actual theological and justice critiques of new media inasmuch as it is distracted by behavior; it’s an easy out for educators, because instead of learning how to speak the language of new media, they simply warn against its dangers.

A couple of years ago, I published Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era. Since writing it, I’ve devoted at least a few weeks per year to time at synod events, candidacy retreats for seminarians, and most recently, a class focused on new media and preaching at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.

The biggest challenge at all these events is convincing the assembly as a whole to consider new media as ministry rather than as a instrument or tool that conveys ministry.

That sounds too philosophical, so let me offer an example: New media that conveys ministry simply uses a Facebook post as an advertisement to come to the real event (for more on the distinction between virtual and real, see this), like a worship service or class. New media as ministry hosts a conversation on faith, understands the use of new media as itself faith formative, and practices faith precisely in the new media context. This looks like the conversation that takes place in a thread on Facebook, or the back and forth of conversation on Twitter.

If I could convince the entire church, especially those in leadership that social media is ministry, and treat it as such, I’d consider my work complete.

But there are other issues to consider, also of great importance. The ineptitude with which the church has treated new media has contributed in large part to our culture’s capitulation to nationalism and proto-fascism. Few if any theologians and church ethicists are familiar, for example, with the early considerations of new media in the social critique of Walter Benjamin. In his seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility,” he writes,

In what follows, the concepts which are introduced into the theory of art differ from those now current in that they are completely useless for the purposes of fascism. On the other hand, they are useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art (Kunstpolitik). 

Inasmuch as the church hyper-focuses on petit bourgeoise concerns about boundaries (not to mention pietistic moralism that smacks of previous era’s concerns about card-playing and dancing in the church), it fails to participate in the formulation of revolutionary demands. If you doubt this is true, ask yourself: When was the last time you read a thorough-goingly theological analysis of new media, or a social justice critique of new media based out of Christian thought.

Many philosophers and media ecologists are doing this work. But apart from a few theologians like Brian Brock (Christian Ethics in a Technological Age) and Deana Thompson (The Virtual Body of Church in a Suffering World), the field of direct theological reflection on new media is rather sparse. I’d venture to guess more books are written about the New Testament daily than are published on a theology of new media annually.

So after convincing the church that new media is ministry, my second goal would be to increase the tribe of those who intentionally study and engage new media as a space for theological inquiry. The patron saint of this impulse would be the faithful Roman Catholic, Marshall McLuhan.

I would think, if seminaries in particular wanted to teach pastors anything about social media, they’d want to warn them against the easy co-optation of their faith practices by neoliberalism that can happen via new media spaces. The danger of Facebook isn’t really boundaries… Facebook itself helps you set good boundaries.

The real danger of Facebook is that Facebook has monetized your ministry.

It’s using you and your church members and your posts as its own means of production, and there’s no clear way for the church to take back its own means of production without vacating the very spaces in which we need to be for mission.

Some of the warnings about new media are real, and need to be heeded. New media may have populated our “politics of theology,” to riff on Benjamin’s phrase. It’s co-opted or at least “owned” our community organizing. It’s given us a simulacrum of church that really is church itself. There’s no going back. In other words, as Wendy Hui Kyong Chun says, new media are wonderfully creepy.

Doesn’t that sound a lot like the church, actually?

Perhaps the church resistance to experimentation in new media is representative of a larger problem, a resistance to experimentation in any context, including what we might call traditional church.

Since we keep trying to do the same things over and over hoping for different results, while the world itself changes dramatically around us, it’s no wonder that the church’s impulse has been, largely, to put up a warning sign at the entrance to the thing they call “social media” and it reads “here be dragons.”

In which case, a lot is riding on our sensibilities about dragons. Do we approach them like Newt Scamander, with curiosity, careful inquiry, experimentation, and even love? Or do we approach them like Graves (Grindelwald) as tools to be appropriated and used?
Do we approach them with fear? Are they dragons at all, or simply the things we fill the unknown with out of our concerned imagination.
So much of the current church approach to new media is projection. Authentically joining the mission of God, which lives out of trust and hope, will offer a reformed sense of new media, so that when asked, What are they teaching in seminary these days?
The answer can be: Here, look at my phone. Everything we’re learning is right here, and I’d like you to join us. But look out, Facebook knows everything about you, and you know almost nothing about them… and Apple’s a little better on this point than Facebook, but they’re still using you for their profits…
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