March 25, 2020

What Are We Online For?

In a matter of days, faith communities of different sizes and traditions went online to ensure that religious practices were carried out and the spiritual concerns of members were met. Many congregations did so for the first time. They might have never imagined that the methods used would need to be employed week after week as the entire world addresses a pandemic and people are staying home to diminish the spread.

As congregations quickly adjust to conducting weekly rituals and care for their participants it's worth asking ourselves, what are we online for?

It is easy to forget that the Internet and the various mechanisms we use to navigate it are nothing more than tools. Specifically, they are communication tools. Both opportunities and limits come with these tools. They are not themselves the work. They are the devices we use to get the work done. With the invention of Gutenberg's printing press in 1440, European Christians did not establish a Church of Gutenberg or a Church of the Printing Press. Rather, they capitalized on the new technology to do the work they were already committed to doing.

(It's worth noting that the invention of the printing press did have ramifications on what the work of the Church was/is--the Protestant Reformation was massively impacted by this tool. But more on that later, possibly.)

So, recognizing that what faith leaders and communities are increasingly using is a communication tool, how ought it be used? To address this question, it might be helpful to think about two particular platforms that thousands of congregations have begun using in the last few weeks: Zoom and Facebook Live. (Instruction on how to use either of these is easily searchable online, so I will keep my comments brief. Google it if you want to learn more.)

Zoom is a video conferencing platform. I've used it for several years now. Many of you have as well. A video conference platform such as Zoom is not conveniently searchable on the Internet. You need a specific link in order to participate in the conference. But participation is a key quality of video conferencing like Zoom. A host must curate the video conference as participants own audio and video is automatically shared in the group (everyone is heard and seen). Participants can share their screen; showing other participants other programs or windows they have open on their device. Participants can additionally use a chat feature to communicate with each other through typed word.

I used the word curation above on purpose. Zoom can be used for presentation. To do so, a host has to closely curate the engagement of others in order to ensure that the information being presented is communicated clearly to participants. In other words, the platform was built intended to ensure that a community, whether a non-profit board, church small group or classroom can effectively communicate with each other. It is for a community, not a presentation from a sole community member.

Facebook Live functions differently. You knew that. Facebook Live is limited to two presenters to be on video. Participants cannot share their video or audio with the group. Participants are limited to "likes" and typed comments. While there are significant limits to the contribution of participants to what is being presented, their contribution to spreading what is presented is exponential.

The reason why presentation on a platform like Facebook has the potential of exponential spread is that it is built on connections, social networks. Social media platforms make the sharing of information presented easy. Each individual that engages with a piece of content can expose, intentionally or not (sorry, no other way to put it), that content with everyone in their contacts on that platform with ease. With no more than an Internet connection, a smart mobile device and a YouTube or Facebook account a church with an average weekly attendance of 24 last year has the potential of reaching thousands with what they present. It's already happening.

I'm not interested in advocating the use of either of these platforms. I use them here only as examples to make a point: it is important to be clear on what you are using a platform for. Just as Instagram stories tend to feel more personal due to their vertical presentation and YouTube videos tend to feel more formal due to their horizontal presentation, some platforms lend themselves to conversation while others proclamation. It might be helpful to think about whether you are nurturing the spiritual formation of a small group of people already committed to your community (discipleship) or using public worship to announce God's good news to an increasingly frightened and isolated world (evangelism). In most cases, faith communities will need to use both for the foreseeable future. Yet, clarity on what we use these platforms for in each scenario is worthy of your consideration.

And it's worth adding that this will all change. It's safe to assume that someone is already working on new adaptations to these platforms that will change how they are used and new platforms which are intended to meet different needs are already in development. This will all be outdated in short order but that shouldn't stop of us from capitalizing on these tools during the current moment.

By the way, the BBC did a podcast mini-series on faith in a digital age. It's worth checking out.

No comments :

Post a Comment