Tuesday, April 22, 2008

2008 Evangelical Outpost/Wheatstone Academy Symposium

This year, the evangelical outpost/Wheatstone Academy Symposium question is:

"If the medium affects the message, how will the Christian message be affected by the new media?"

I have decided to throw my hat into the ring.

“bro RU SAvd?” and Other Unhelpful Ways to Evangelize

A stereotypical television commercial features a young bikini-clad woman showing off a fantastic vehicle for a fantastic price. Beyond selling cars, what does this commercial really do to the viewing public? Most people would easily recognize that the actual message is not how impressive the car is but how one could buy an image and a possible expectation to accompany the car. The woman is the medium just as much as the entire commercial itself, a subtle communication inserted into the content through the medium of TV. According to Marshall McLuhan, the methods of spreading a message affect the actual message received by an audience apart from the content of the message itself. Tangential ramifications such as this are of paramount importance and the inspiration for this essay question, much like if an investor could predict long-term stock market moves, what benefits he could reap as a stock trader!

As with all enterprises in prediction, such activity is at best educated speculation. Can we apply such educated speculation to communication involving the Christian message? Should we? If we follow McLuhan’s lead to find the ‘McLuhan message’, perhaps we should rephrase the question, “if the medium affects the message, how will the audience be affected by the Christian message as presented through the new media?” Answering this question would indeed involve a great measure of educated speculation.

That is, of course, if one grants that the “new media” are qualitatively much different than any technological advance preceding them. By “new media,” I can only assume reference to text messaging, website content, e-mail, blogs, videos, and electronic forums among other contemporary forms of communication. With the exception of text messaging, we can probably treat most forms of “new media” similarly to that of “old media” with a few interesting twists.

What is unique about text messaging or “texting”? Texting is one medium that might affect people and the Christian message significantly and maybe not for the better. Consider,

If U dyd 2day wood U GT heven? Xianitys not a relijun, itza rel8shunshp. pls BlEv in JC cuz he luvs U n dyd on d cross 4 Ur sins. haleluya! prayz d LRd! JC is #1!

Even if the English-speaking public could tolerate such an assault on its cell phones for any length of time, what improvement on a deplorable form of Christian so-called evangelism could anyone make on an equally deplorable form of communication in the first place?

That being said, what about the “new media?” To put things in perspective, imagine if one could be a fly on the wall as the Apostle Paul wrote his letters to the churches in Corinth, Galatia, and Ephesus, the scripture of the Christian faith. Would he have lamented that because he lacked a device that would allow an actual recording of his voice and/or image, the inferior written word would have compromised his message to the churches? Or, would he have felt grateful for the invention of papyrus, a technological advance that allowed him to communicate over long distances with people he could not be with? In all reality, the written Word as hammered out on computer keyboards is the same as one stamped out on the Gutenberg press is the same as one written by hand using quill and ink. Our technological advances have done little more than to give us new ways to do the same thing.

So how might using the latest media affect the audience, as our rephrased question asks? That really depends on the type of audience. Certainly, some in the Christian audience have argued that technology is a product of a morally degenerating society and therefore its use by God-fearing believers constitutes complicity in the immorality of the world. Other Christians embrace the latest tech as one more tool in the toolbox Christians employ to spread the Gospel message, from the printing press through radio, television, and even to pop music. A third group, the non-Christian audience, broadly speaking, will then likely encounter the product of this second group of Christians (although not excluding the possibility of encountering the first group in more traditional ways). Ultimately, the effect on the non-Christian audience is the one of greatest interest.

We can already witness the net effect on the Christian audience of the first group. The McLuhan message for them is distrust and withdrawal from society at large. I have seen something as simple as using a projection screen in church services receive negative attention for the perception that such technology diminishes the use of individual Bibles and the breaking of sacred traditions in liturgy (as a step in complicity with their perceived moral decadence in contemporary society). The cultural isolation is apparent in many churches throughout the United States for this line of thinking. For the non-Christian audience, they may perceive this lack of technological engagement as a sign of the faith itself. For them, the McLuhan message is that Christianity fosters sectarianism and irrelevance.

For the second group of Christians, far beyond the spread of spiritual content to believers, the use of websites, blogs, and podcasts has allowed unprecedented access to matters historically reserved for ecclesiastical authorities. Thanks to the invention of personal blogs and the comment box, debates over theology, the Regulative Principle, and denominational politics that were once confined to seminary classrooms and church business meetings now find a venue online with significant public interest and participation. The consequences are just beginning to show, as Wade Burleson could probably testify. Wade Burleson is the pastor who blogged frequently his frustrations with the board of trustees of the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, provoking the board to pass a blogging gag rule among attenders and had Burleson censured from further meetings. Due to the new media, very little in church life can be kept from the public anymore. Everyone has a voice, and apparently, everyone is using it, for better or worse. The McLuhan message for this group is that church authorities can expect increasing public pressure, volatility, and potential loss of authoritative control over sensitive issues within their spheres of influence.

Of course, public access means that the non-Christian public as well as the invested Christian public can observe and make judgments on what they undoubtedly perceive as the airing of dirty laundry in Christendom. The nonbelieving audience may not fully understand the scope of Christian debate, but they will recognize poor conflict resolution among Christians. The McLuhan message: this will impact evangelism strategy heavily both online and in the real world. As Christian ministries use the new media in an effort to spread the Gospel message, they must realize there is a chance that the average non-Christian has exposure to popular and sophisticated criticism against the faith, news of internal Christian strife, and a plethora of mixed messages on what constitutes Christian belief throughout the new media. The Gospel has competition from both inside and outside the faith.

What can we do after letting the cat out of the bag, so to speak? Other than imposing some sort of conformity on Christian contributors, which would effectively hog-tie those Christians making true progress in this arena (and is a veritable sign of cult mentality), the audience at large must navigate the cacophony of voices using the new media guided by nothing but…God? Even for Christians who hold high the sovereignty of the Almighty, this is a difficult reality to accept. However, we can meet the obvious challenge to improve communication using the new media.

First, Christians should develop the heart and mind needed for delivering the Gospel effectively in the new media. Such an enterprise demands apologetics savvy, a secure personal integrity and avoidance of ignorance. As potential leaders in spreading the Gospel, no shame is greater than if one disqualifies himself in a breakdown of integrity or allows ignorance to undermine the credibility of the message. Like any form of communication, the bulk of any change in the way an audience perceives a message arises primarily from the communicator, not the medium.

Second, creed-confessing Christians must cooperate in order to stay informed and “think Christianly” together. Aside from personal edification, cooperation balances out that certain ‘image problem’ that accompanies Christian conflict, infuses a level of community among believers, and helps Christians respond to relevant news or criticism more effectively.

Finally, believers should remember that Christianity always spreads relationally, not through an e-presentation devoid of human community no matter how elaborate. To do so would relegate media usage to the level of advertising for Jesus, like selling a car using a bikini. The entire concept of church is a community of Christians that lives out the Gospel message and embodies Christ face-to-face as well as person-to-person.

While Christians can control certain aspects of how the new media affect the audience with regard to the Christian message, such as taking responsibility for presenting thoughtful content and trying to abate conflict, the final results on an audience has a measure of unpredictability (and thus giving Marshall McLuhan his job). We certainly should take great care in our methods in communicating the Gospel, but we should also keep in mind that, at some point, “let go and let God” might just apply.


Jeff said...


Excellent essay, I enjoyed it. I appreciated particularly the obsevrations you make about the two primary responses of Christians to new media, and the reaction of the unchurched to both responses.

I see the effects first hand of what you describe. Good job, and thanks for submitting for the Symposium!

Letitia (The Damsel) said...

WOO-HOO THANK YOU, JEFF! I am excited and extremely honored by my fifth place win. Way cool and way beyond my expectations.

Thanks for reading!