Dion's random ramblings

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Viral Culture & New Media - is there any value for the Church?

As the man said!

This is a video interview / discussion with Bill Wasik on Viral Culture & New Media @NextSpace Santa Cruz

Before you jump to the video (and you'd best have some bandwidth to spare - but it is well worth watching), I have been reading Malcolm Gladwell's book 'The outliers'. It presents some fascinating research to challenge our views of success! For example, did you know that the overwhelming number of professional hockey players were born in January (in fact most of them in the first three weeks of January!) Did you know that most of the Tycoons of Industry were born in the 1830's, and that the tycoons of the internet (Gates, Joy, Jobs etc.) were all born within a few months of each other in the 1980's?

The point that Gladwell makes from his research is that 'talent' is only a small part of success. What made all of these aforementioned people a success in their fields was that they were ahead of the curve. Think about this for example, if Gates and Jobs had been just a little bit too young they would never have got ahead of the computer revolution and lead their way into the industry. If they were a little older they would perhaps have been married with kids and so not been willing to take the risks of starting up a new enterprise, and so some other younger, hungrier, more daring persons would have done it instead... Do you see the point? Being aware of where you are in history is an important thing!

There is little doubt that communication technology is absolutely revolutionising the world! The world is not the same as it was even 10 years ago. We can connect at no cost, and in an instant, with hundreds of thousands of people all over the world using a computing device that we can put in our pocket! Text messaging, facebook and twitter are changing the ways in which conversations are structured and engaged...

What is the Church doing about it? We still employ a 20-30 minute sermon as our primary means of communicating the unchanging Gospel to an ever changing world! My goodness that is unwise!

Bill Wasik on Viral Culture & New Media @NextSpace Santa Cruz from Allan Lundell on Vimeo.

Here are some other posts (videos and lecture notes) that I prepared on New Media and Ministry... And here is an exceptional reflection and critique by Steve Hayes that consciders a different aspect of technology and its use in ministry.

I would love to hear your feedback, thoughts and insights! How can we use these tools in our ministry? Do you know of anyone who is doing it well? Do you agree with me that our generation must get 'ahead' of this curve or we may just miss the boat?


  • Hi Dion,

    Thanks for the mention and the link. I disagree with one point, though -- it isn't free. Twitter, and Facebook and blogging and all the rest of it costs me R800.00 a month minimum, about a quarter of my monthly pension. And very often it costs more, if I run out of bandwidth, which is why I use Noscript to block videos and podcasts and the like - my computer doesn't even have speakers, so without something to block it, I could have wasted a lot of costly bandwidth on some sounds that people insist on sending automatically without even being aware of it.

    And the very fact that you are blogging and I am blogging and Bishop Alan is blogging shows that the church IS using these means of communication.

    Yet most of the people in one of the congregations I have anything to do with don't have, and can't afford a computer, or internet access. They do have cell phones so we use SMS quite a bit, but one priest I communicate quite a lot with doesn't have electricity to charge his cell phone, and so sometimes messages are delayed until he can visit someone who has mains electricity. And another deacon I know only gets his messages when he climbs a hill to get a signal on his cell phone.

    The internet is very useful, but it remains primarily a means of communication for the rich.

    By Blogger Steve Hayes, at 5:32 AM  

  • Hi Steve,

    Thanks for the thought provoking comments! I appreciate your response and I agree!

    Of course it is not free. However, for many of us we would have access to the internet (certainly for many ministers and priests in urban areas) anyway. I am simply trying to encourage our sisters and brothers to use something they may already have more effectively and with the intention of ministry in varied forms (not just for responsive communication).

    The point you raise about the prevalance of computers and internet access in Southern Africa (and Africa in general) is also valid. But, it is only valid for now! I am certain that it will not be long before widespread internet access spreads like prepaid cellphones have spread in recent years. I have just watched the number of my past students who have sought me out on facebook rise exponentially! Many of them only access the internet via their cellphone handset. As data costs fall and internet capable handsets become more commonplace it would be great to have some African pioneers who are proficient in doing mission in this space. Finally, I have also been a longtime believer in the fact that the African Christian perspective has a lot to offer the rest of the world (where computer and internet access is much more widely spread). How many of your regular viewers and commenters are from Europe and the US? I would consider what you're doing to be a significant ministry to the universal Church!

    You are of course one of those folks who has always been ahead of this curve (I remember from way back when in the early 1990's when we used to connect via BBS!)

    Rich blessing,


    By Blogger digitaldion (Dion Forster), at 7:04 AM  

  • Hi Dion,

    Interesting post. I haven't watched the video (yet), but I have done a lot of reading and thinking around these issues (and have read all of Gladwell's books) so I hope I'm not speaking out of turn here.

    You said: "We still employ a 20-30 minute sermon as our primary means of communicating the unchanging Gospel to an ever changing world! My goodness that is unwise!"

    This is a common view expressed in the church today (not unlike the one about singing coming to an end), and while it sounds good at first pass, I think it misses a whole lot of other evidence that needs to be taken into account.

    1. The "motivational speaker" industry still brings in huge crowds and generates massive profits for those who do it well. This would indicate to me that people are still willing to listen to someone speak if they are entertaining and have something of value to say.

    2. A huge amount of the impact of Barack Obama's presidential campaign lay in his ability to speak well. And, again, thousands of people (including young people) came to hear him, or tune in to the broadasts of him speaking) all over the world. Again, people don't resist speakers - they just want value and not to be bored.

    3. Even in the church, the people who are making some of the greatest impact are doing so because of their speaking ability - Rob Bell's Nooma videos are a case in point - essentialy they are videos of someone speaking to the screen (often with only a small amount of additional visual stimulus added). Brian McLaren and Len Sweet also draw crowds and have an impact because they speak well - to mention just a few.

    I hope I've made my point. I believe we need to be careful about "throwing the baby out with the bath water" and drawing conclusions from new media that are not implied by the evidence. Yes, the new media changes how we communicate, but I believe it's about adding a new tool to our communicative resources, rather than replacing an old one (i.e. preaching).

    The issue for me is not that preaching is outdated, but rather that it's mostly so badly done. People don't want to be bored by poor presentations and rehashed cliches and platitudes. But give them thought-provoking, challenging, meaty and entertaining messages, and they'll come back for more. You see it happening all over the word. So, let's not throw preaching out. Let's learn to do it phenomenally well - taking lessons from the Barack Obamas and others.

    For what it's worth.

    PS. I hope you don't mind, but I'm going to post my comment and a link to your post on my blog as well. I think this is an important conversation, and I'd like to spread it wider.

    By Blogger John van de Laar, at 9:50 AM  

  • Here's my 2c worth.

    I am not educated like Dion and the other respondants but this is what I am picking up...

    Firstly, I was very surprised that Gates, Jobs and Co. were born in the 1980's!

    Secondly, in my humble opinion,I think what Dion was trying to say is... certain people have achieved significantly in specific ways at specific times due to where they find themselves "in time". They were effectively, in the right place at the right time to exploit a trend. A person with the right kind of traits, would most likely adapt to where they were "in time" and get ahead of "that curve" at "that time" and succeed. Therefore, had Henry Ford been around in the 1980s or 1990s, he might well have been a technology mogul of some sort.

    Thirdly, it seems to me that the point Dion is making, as I, a layman understand is as follows: If "Christianity" or "Christians" want to be effective in bringing the Gospel to a changing world,we need to change the way we are doing it!

    Sure the internet is not free and freely accessible to all but it can be used to get the changes made to make it free or accessible to those who do not have it by creating awareness or finding funding in more developed countries.

    As far as defending preaching and singing as our primary means is concerned, John Van de Laar makes some good points. We must not throw preaching out and quality of presentation is important (I have heard John and he is brilliant). However, with all due respect, that is not the point either. If I may be so bold as to say, I think the point is that if 20-30 minute sermons are our Primary means of communicating the Gospel, we are going backwards. If we employ the sermon methodology, we are setting up shop, handing out membership to those who fit the demographics and telling them when to come and to listen up!

    To pick up on some other points, motivational speakers are still popular and make large profits. Are they as popular and profitable as google, facebook, twitter? How many people from a congregation go to motivational speakers and how many facebook?

    As far as I understand the "Obama Campaign", it was his use of technology like the internet,that really got him the popularity that ultimately won him the election.

    Rob Bell's nooma is another example, I would not have heard of Rob Bell if it wasn't for Dion and Angus' blogs. Then when I got to see the noomas, it was as an alternative to a 20 to 30 min sermon in our evening service! The noomas also take the "sermon" away from the pulpit and into a coffee shop or onto the beach as a casual convesation. Guys like Rob Bell do speak well but it is the technology that brings them to us, otherwise we would have to be a member of his church to get the 20 to 30 minute sermon every week.

    Therefore it seems to me it is all about the media you use to communicate that is the point, not if you still communicate primarly by speaking.

    Finally, the analogy of "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" comes from the time where people would only get to bath once a week or so. The bath would get filled with warm clean water and the man of the house (father) would get to bath first followed by the eldest son, 2nd eldest son, Mother, any daughters in order of age, all in the same water and finally the baby would get to bath in the dirty water after all the others. Sometimes the water would be so dirty when the baby got to bath that nobody would even see the baby in the water. So when it came to emptying out the bath, they would "throw out the baby with the bathwater" !

    So if we use that analogy for "getting rid" of preaching, we are actually saying "preaching" is the "least important" member of the "church communication family" !!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:41 AM  

  • Ah anonymous! I think I know who you are - indeed you are well educated (if it is who I think it is! At least one graduate qualification, and a very astute businessman and entrepreneur).!?!

    Now, onto your points - thanks for bringing an entirely fresh perspective! I think that sometimes our conversations do tend to be so 'clergy' centric (Steve, John and I). You bring a great perspective from the lay ministry side.

    I was also surprised to discover that Jobs and Gates were born (together with Steve Balmer, believe it or not) in 1980... But them's the facts! Ha ha, just kidding! It should actually read late 1950's (if I am not mistaken - no wikipedia at the moment - Jobs and Gates were both born in 1958! I believe that Bill Joy was also born in 1958, or thereabouts. Bill Joy is the original coder for UNIX and the founder of Sun Microsystems) Please do check it if I am wrong - but the point that Gladwell makes in his book 'Outliers' is that people who do well at things (like you at business) have two things in common:

    1. They were of the right age to get ahead of a particular curve.
    2. They spent more than 10 000 hours honing their craft (once they spotted the gap and started getting into it, they got better at it than ANYONE else!)

    So, the combination seems to be:

    1. Study your 'time' and 'context' and see what curve you can realistically get ahead of. I happen to believe that for people like John and I it is new media (John is already an exceptional preacher and worship leader - but to get his message out to as wide a group of people as possible he will have to find some means of leveraging his penchant for technology and new media to spread it, and have it spread by others). In my case I have spent thousands of hours teaching and preaching - I need to find very creative and effective ways to share my message with as many people as possible, and have them share it for me.

    2. So, that's the second point - when you understand what you're good at ask yourself the question 'What's the point of it?' or perhaps something like 'How can what God has given me the ability to do be used for His Kingdom and Glory to bring transformation and renewal to the face of the earth?' Then, once you know what the point is of leading worship, or preaching, or doing business, or whatever it is that you're good at, find a way to get it as widely spread, and effectively accepted as possible.

    This, of course, is one of the reasons why I give my books away (and believe me, I wish I could give all 6 books away! I think that 'Methodism in Southern Africa' and 'What are we thinking' are the best of the books - I would LOVE to give those two away, but I don't own the rights. However, hopefully the next book I write will also be free to share...

    Thanks for stimulating a great discussion (Norm!? ;-)



    By Blogger digitaldion (Dion Forster), at 3:30 PM  

  • Finally managed to get back here - good to see how the conversation has progressed.

    Just to clarify - I think we're on the same page here, Anonymous and Dion. Note, I specifically didn't say we must avoid new media - I said we need to add it to the old. My concern is that we tend to think the sermon has no place in today's media-driven world, and that is what I disagree with.

    As you both indicated, the media spreads the message - I totally agree. I am not against new media - heck my ministry depends on it! - I just don't think it's a replacement for preaching.

    I guess the best example I can think of is Randy Puasch's "Last Lecture". It was simply an hour long talk (preach), but once placed on YouTube, it impacted the world. So, neither "old media" (preaching) nor "new media" (technology) could have been thrown out in this case. The two needed to work together.

    That's what I'm praying for us to do more of in the Church. And I think that's what you guys are praying for too...

    By Blogger John van de Laar, at 4:38 PM  

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