Digital culture demands relevance, change

Can The United Methodist Church survive in the digital culture? If so, in what form will it exist? How must it adapt to be relevant to life in this new cultural reality?

We talk about this a lot at United Methodist Communications. We just spent a day discussing the challenges we are presented by the new digital culture in which we work, and how this new environment is shaping the church we serve.

Technology changes how we think, act and perceive the world around us. How we access, store and utilize information influences the culture. Perhaps influence is too mild a descriptor. It shapes culture.

That’s the thesis M. Rex Miller advances in The Millennium Matrix, a new book about faith and communications technologies. It’s a thought-provoking look at how technology affects culture and in turn shapes our perceptions about faith.

As communicators, we exist in an institution shaped by print technology, and cultural change is coming to it as a disruptive challenge that causes some to wonder if it can survive. In our day together, we didn’t pretend we could answer that question, but we did talk about how we can engage some of the specific challenges we face in the digital age.

We know the information we provide must be relevant to the needs and interests of the user – that it must go beyond merely the messages the institution desires to push out.

We understand that we are engaged in an interactive conversation and not in a one-way flow of information.

We believe we must reconsider how to make information more accessible in many different ways, from style of writing to format to placement on the screen to hyperlinked connections to multiple languages.

We know our audiences are global, and we must develop a more robust network of communicators who can tell the stories of the church and support its global conversation more adequately.

And we know that information flows continuously today. It is not limited to our timeline. It moves in real time and often it is unfiltered and unrefined-as when a passenger on a ferry in the Hudson sent cell-phone photos of the US Airways jet floating on the river before the tower knew it was down. In events like this, everyone is potentially a journalist.

We also discussed the intriguing word Jon Pareles cited in a New York Times article about how digital technologies have affected the music industry-“disintermediation.” He points out that no one must rely on an intermediary for approval or distribution of media or content. We can do it ourselves.

Digital technologies have empowered people to become producers, commentators and distributors without the need for gates or gatekeepers. The conversation will happen regardless of institutional controls or desires. The gatekeepers have lost control of the gate through which information flows.

The most critical challenge of the digital culture, I believe, is to engage in the conversation with relevant information, provide the deep support that we all need to live fruitfully in this atomizing and fragmenting reality, and to compete within a marketplace of ideas and messages that come at us as a cascade of appeals for our attention.

Whew! It was a busy, interesting, exciting day. I’ll be writing more about this in the next several posts. And I’m particularly hopeful that you will respond to these reflections with your own insights. I think this is both an exciting opportunity and a critical moment in history, and I invite your conversation.

3 Responses to “Digital culture demands relevance, change”

  1. Mark Welch January 13, 2010 at 9:23 am #

    The comment about the gatekeepers losing control of what content is disseminated is absolutely correct. Our church is looking into ways we can deliver digital media to a world which is hungry for hope.

    We have folks listening to our audio podcast in Europe and Africa and many other places. Folks in Norway saw our need for prayer blankets and sent several our way. These are exciting times to be communicators of the Gospel.

  2. Barbara Figge Fox January 14, 2010 at 7:00 am #

    The field of healthcare was slow to adapt to digital media, and the global church faces some of the same problems. How to “certify” the “real” Gospel?

    Healthcare starts started out by setting up a “seal of approval” system, aka Good Housekeeping seals. They were supposed to be the guideposts for consumers to select the most accurate information.

    As United Methodists, we have the advantage of “first claim” on the eyeballs of our current members, and it’s up to us to take advantage of that and strengthen that digital bond.

    But I worry about the spiritually lost who are turning to Google for solace and comfort. About 10 years ago a “newbie” Christian began spouting some weird ideas. Where did she get these ideas? From a website, from an online course she wanted to take.

    We looked at that site together, and I was appalled. Rank heresy. I was able to steer her to something more mainstream and later she signed up for a Discipleship course and is now on Discipleship IV.

    Would that still happen today? Perhaps the “standard” Christian sites have proliferated so they don’t pop to the top of Google. (Is someone studying this?)

    Further, should we, or a consortium of churches, be paying for Google search words in order to get “first chance” at reaching the spiritually lost?

  3. Larry January 16, 2010 at 11:10 pm #

    Mark,
    Your point about global reach is well-taken. We are global communicators today, thanks to the reach of the Internet. and the world is hungry for hope.

    Barbara,
    You are quite correct that we must use web analytics and analysis to reach people on the web. And we are beginning to do so at UMCom more effectively than in the the past. The presence of the mainline denominations in the public media has been a concern of mine for years and now that they are clearly threatened they are starting to take notice of their need to utilize digital media to invite people and encourage community.

    And yes, we do purchase Google ad words and we do use analytics in an effort to reach those seeking meaning and purpose. See http://www.10thousanddoors.org/site/c.ruI4KbMRIvF/b.4877557/k.BF1F/Home.htm as an example.
    Larry

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