Category Archives: technology

Whatever You Do, Don’t Do This

Whatever You Do, Don’t Do This: A Lesson from GameStop for the Church

Several weeks ago, amateur stock traders rallied together to boost the stock of GameStop, artificially inflating the stock price and disrupting the stock market.  Although Wallstreet investors were betting on GameStop’s inevitable demise (GameStop is like Blockbuster for video games), the amateur traders manipulated the system for their benefit.  They drove the stock price up and, if they bought low and sold high, profited while those on Wall Street lost.

Beyond the sensational headlines of this modern-day participatory culture case study with a David & Goliath edge, is an undeniable reality that, in spite of the temporary surge in stock enthusiasm, GameStop’s out-of-date business model will not be profitable in our increasingly downloadable world.

I believe a similar storyline has started to play itself out with the Church.  As the Church prepares to enter a post-Covid world, there will be many church leaders who will rush back to reopening and abandon their digital expressions, ministries and methodologies as they do.  As we embrace the promise of re-opening in society, we are at risk of “flooding the market” and buying stock in our previous out-of-date and ineffective ministry methodologies.  We will be tempted to trade in false hope!

As a church leader, you are entering a precarious season with a major temptation.  With accelerating vaccine rollouts (yay!) and the promise of things opening up again (yay!), the temptation of the church will be to go back to the way it was rather than the way it needs to be.

The lure will be strong!  We will be tempted to go back to what we knew, even if it stopped working long before Covid struck.  This will be the case for education models, business plans, architectural design, and churches.  In our rush for normalcy, we are at risk of selectively forgetting our previous ineffectiveness.  We’ll forget that overall church attendance, giving and engagement (across all denominations) were all trending downward before the pandemic.  To think the trend will magically reverse as we enter a “new normal” with an altered world is naive foolishness.  Will it feel good again to do things we are highly competent at?  Yes.  Will it be as effective as before?  No.  Although it may feel good to us, it will not, necessarily. mean it will be good for the church.

This is not a new human temptation.  Consider the Israelites in the desert.  It wasn’t long after their exodus from Egypt that they longed to go back.  Even though it was terrible, they longed for the familiar and predictable.  We are the same.  We, too, are tempted to just go back to the old way of doing things, even if it didn’t work, rather than adapt, learn, grow, change and redeploy for a new post-Covid world.  I don’t blame anyone for the temptation.  A year of learning new ways of doing things is exhausting; feeling like a fish out of water is uncomfortable.  However, to abandon all the lessons we have learned, the new methodologies we have discovered, the skills for innovation we have embraced and to revert back to the old way of doing things in a world that has been altered forever (especially when the old way of doing things was universally determined as ineffective) would not be wise.  It will be easy, tempting and comfortable, but it won’t be good leadership.

What wasn’t working before, won’t magically work now.  Society has taken ten years of change and condensed it into one.  If our evangelism and discipleship ministries weren’t effective before, resurrecting them post-pandemic won’t make them work.  Additionally, not everyone will come back in-person.  Some will prefer online engagement.  You may disagree (especially if you, personally, prefer in-person expressions) but there are people in our church communities who will desire to stay connected exclusively online or use online engagement as a way to augment their in-person participation.  We can’t ignore this group in our rush to in-person gatherings.  If we do, we do so at our peril.

We are all tired of change and we will all be tempted to just move back into the well-worn ruts of previous (pre-Covid) ministry methodologies.  I believe we are at a crossroads to either change and adapt to our emerging world or devolve back into a church that was already waning in effectiveness, blissfully adopting out-of-date methodologies for a world that no longer exists.  Nostalgia may feel good, but it is a sterile environment for conceiving vision.

As you look ahead, recognize the long-term impact of your choices and commit to move against your natural impulse and use this time to implement the long-term change needed.  Refuse to go back to the way things were.  Refuse to embrace ineffectiveness because it feels comfortable.  Whatever you do, don’t do this!

Ministry in Digital Culture: This Time It’s Personal

Although Jaws IV is arguably the worst of the Jaws film franchise and worthy of our collective amnesia, its tagline has defied the fate of the film and remained in the cultural ether: “This Time It’s Personal.”  This memorable line has permeated culture more than the scent of chum in water during shark hunting season. 

This phrase also encapsulates the reality of digital technology and the times we are in.  We live in the digital age of personalization where everything we do is customized to us.  We have personalized home screens on our devices, personalized movie suggestions on Netflix, personalized stores on Amazon, personalized Apple/Spotify music channels and personalized newsfeeds.  All of which have algorithms that curate the content we consume.  Separate from the dangers of this (we’ll address them later), people increasingly expect a personalized experience in digital space.  Unlike mass media where things were necessarily impersonal and generic, digital culture is incredibly personal and specific.

The personal nature of digital technology is partially why although people want to participate in the content they consume, they also prefer to wait in digital anonymity deciding if/when to step into digital view.  Digital space is intimate space and deeply personal.  Stepping into view means not just stepping out of anonymity but into intimacy.  For example, when one comments on a video or live feed, it means linking their profile to their comment and exiting the comfort of (perceived) digital anonymity for the spotlight of digital intimacy.  This is why digital space also provides the user with the unique ability to decide when and how known they want to be.  This is a new [digital] cultural norm, and we need to recalibrate our means of engagement to adapt.

In digital culture, pastors and church leaders must provide increased space for people to feel comfortable online before an expectation of engagement.  The challenge is, we are accustomed to impersonal communication and engagement with people in public in-person space that operated under a different social contract and norm.  As a result, our in-person and mass media influenced strategies and methodologies were often depersonalized as a result.  However, digital is different.  It is highly personal and, by the very nature of digital, more intimate.

Therefore, as you consider your ministry, how can you make your preaching, communication, online interactions, etc. as personal as possible?  How can you allow a safe initial engagement online to build trust and allow people a safe way to engage?  How can your preaching become even more proprietary (personal) to your people?  In other words, how can you make it more specific to your congregation as opposed to the generic forms of communication of mass media?  How can your online communications and mailing lists be more personalized (MailChimp and others can do this)?  How can your church advertising become more targeted and personal to the people you are trying to reach (all digital advertising, unlike mass media advertising, is personalized and targeted)?  As we move increasingly into digital culture, we will need to make our ministries and communications more personal as we do.

As you explore this in your ministry, a warning.  As Marshall McLuhan argues in his book Four Laws of Media (Technology), all media (technology) when taken to its extreme reverses on itself.  This too is the danger of personalization.  Taken to the extreme, we become addicted to personalization and it can fester into hyper-individualism and selfishness. 

Unlike what online algorithms tell us, everything is not about us.  One of the inherent dangers with the personalization of information, news, movies, music, etc. is that we begin to lose the skill of empathy and listening to others in the process.  As you pursue increasing ways to personalize your ministry, be aware of this potential and protect against it.  Teach about empathy, avoid ministry silos that can be common, intentionally breach the generational divide, etc.

There is another famous line from the original Jaws that is apt in this discussion, “You’re going to need a bigger boat.” 

As we get a bigger boat online, may we be aware of our tendency to fill it with people just like us.  May we be reminded that love suffocates in sameness.  May we, in our desire for personalization, not lose sight of the mission that takes difference to accomplish.

The Digital Mission Course

I am very excited to announce the launch of The Digital Mission Course. It is a condensed and OnDemand version of the material I have taught in my seminars/workshops/classes. I designed it to be used by individuals or teams (ministry, staff, leadership, etc.). It includes four hours of OnDemand teaching, workbooks and resources. My heart is to equip the Church in this season and trust that God will use this material for building His Church in this new digital world.

For more information and to enroll, visit:
www.digitalmissioncourse.com

It is being offered for a limited time at a discounted rate. Don’t miss your opportunity to get the material and use it individually or as a team!

Please share this with your contacts, team or anyone who would find it helpful.

In Search of a Digital Missiology

The digital pivot happened fast!

Although many churches struggled with engaging digitally over the last decade, the circumstances of COVID-19 forced a change.  What church leaders had been apathetic about, opposed to, or fearful of became a necessity.  As a result, the church enthusiastically transitioned to digital.

The church pivoted. Although churches pivoted out of necessity, some did so without critical reflection.  Even though we have become very aware of our missiological failures and the colonialism that dominated previous missionary movements, I fear we are in danger of repeating our past mistakes.

The missionary movements of the past often resulted from technological advancements that opened new mission frontiers.  In the rush and excitement of these new opportunities, the church often neglected the hard work of learning the language, understanding the culture, and contextualizing the gospel. 

We are in danger of making these mistakes with digital ministry!

In the rush to digital engagement, we didn’t consider the fact that digital culture is different from in-person ministry steeped in print culture.  Online ministry is cross-cultural.  With the same pragmatic excitement that sparked the missionary movements of old, we entered digital culture with an in-person ministry methodology.  We moved Bible studies to ZOOM and we live-streamed worship gatherings.  As we did, we soon discovered that the transition wasn’t as effective as we expected.  We discovered that in-person is different than digital. Instead of seeking to understand and translate ministry to digital culture, adapting our methodologies accordingly, we forced them onto a digital culture.  Consequently, they were ineffective and demoralizing.  They demonstrated our propensity to repeat our colonial past.

In the transition to digital, some of our churches had to lay off staff.  In a sad parallel to the colonial missionary movements of the past that ignored local expertise, most churches laid off their digital locals (younger staff fluent in digital culture) and kept the digital tourists (older staff unaware of digital culture).  Consequently, I implore all the senior leaders who will rebuild their staff and leadership teams after the pandemic to rebuild them with digital locals and not just with digital tourists.  Do not repeat our colonial past.

As the church digitally went beyond traditional borders (geographic and linguistic), it was blind to context and culture. In the same ethnocentric enthusiasm of our ancestors, many ignored the hard and difficult work of contextualization. The following are two of many examples. First, digital ministry’s strength and potential lie not only in its ability to spread wide but in its ability to go deep. Community is built and experienced differently online. Second, in digital culture, people want to be part of the content they consume. Ignoring this cultural distinctive will lead to poor engagement and a lack of effectiveness.

We need a better digital missiology!

The digital shift is not going away.  People will not work, learn, shop, play and worship in the same ways again.  Digital has shown its limitations, but it has also shown its capabilities.  The digital mission field has opened, and it is ripe for harvest. 

We are in danger of repeating our past mistakes.  I want to call us, in humility, to slow down and discover a better missiology.  I want to call us to learn about digital culture as we enter it on mission.  To do otherwise is not simply ineffective, it is counterproductive.  Digital is different and your digital ministry must be shaped accordingly.

To learn more about digital culture, Effective Online Ministry and Digital Mission:

Check out my upcoming online workshops with Ambrose University (back by popular demand) – Effective Online Ministry (October 21, November 4, November 18).  Register here.

Read my recent book: Digital Mission: A Practical Guide for Ministry OnlineAvailable now in eBook format at Amazon, Kobo, Google Play, and the Canadian Bible Society (print book available soon).

Crossing the Social Media Bridge

The following is also published in The Vermilion Standard

I have never personally seen Confederation Bridge but I hear it is something to behold. Spanning thirteen-kilometers, the bridge drapes the Abegweit Passage of the Northumberland Strait, connecting Prince Edward Island with the mainland (New Brunswick). It is an amazing feat of engineering and currently holds the Guinness World Record for the longest bridge over ice (winter).

In many ways, it is a perfect metaphor for social media and its ability to connect people like never before. For the first time in history, people have the ability to connect instantly with multiple people, in multiple places, across multiple devices and in multiple languages (using translation technology). In this way, social media is a gift to humanity and a bridge that has the potential to bring people together in unprecedented ways.

Although our hyper-connected world has given us the ability to connect with more people faster and further than ever before, paradoxically, people have never felt more alone. It is a phenomenon Sherry Turkle terms as, “Alone Together.”

In the midst of this unprecedented hyper-connected world, people are increasingly feeling isolated and alone. In many ways, social media has given us the gift of a bridge but we haven’t learned to cross it into the deep and meaningful relationships it has the potential to help facilitate. Just as a bridge is not the end but the means to the end, social media is a means to relationship rather than the relationship you need to have.

To put it another way, too many people have a relationship with social media rather than utilizing social media as a means to have increasingly meaningful relationships with others. Building on the bridge metaphor, we have gotten on the bridge and enjoyed the view but few of us have learned to cross it and experience the wonders on the other side.

We are challenged to then use social media as a bridge to friendship not the destination.

Consider this wisdom given in the Bible about friendship: “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” Proverbs 18:24, ESV

So many of us are “friends” with more people than we were before social media but we are still very alone. We have not experienced the gift of true friendship with others that social media has promised to provide. Therefore, my challenge for us is to use social media as the bridge it is destined to be rather than a destination of desertion. Let us use it to cross barriers and experience the deep community and friendships we were created for.

We were created to live on the other side of the bridge – in rich community – but too many of us are lost on it, unaware of what is available on the other side.