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.