Tag Archives: technology

The Digital Plot Thickens

The Digital Plot Thickens: Important lessons COVID-19 is teaching the Church about the use of technology.

The Exposition: Two worlds colliding.

As someone with a keen interest in both media ecology (the study of technology/media and its effects) and ecclesiology (the study of the church), this season in the life of the church fascinates me.  This is a season where these two worlds have collided, creating a storyline few writers could have conceived.  In many ways, it has become a narrative case study for the impact, role and place of technology, especially in our churches.

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The Set Up and Rising Action: A fast pivot online.

Every good story has a narrative arc (see the graphic above) and uses plot devices to create depth, interest and suspense.  The story of the church’s embrace of technology in the COVID-19 crisis is marked by many of these.  Two months ago, when public gatherings were suspended, the church made a fast pivot and moved online.  This pivot had relative success at first but as anyone who has experienced this knows, that initial embrace soon transitioned to “Zoom gloom” and digital skepticism (as people responded to being thrown into the digital deep end and, consequently, wondering if digital ministry is truly effective long-term) with a side of nostalgia (as people began to crave going back to the way things were).

Everyone has experienced this differently, of course, but it is important to note that this experience isn’t unique to the church.  A similar experience is paralleled in education (moving to exclusive online learning) and business (many professions working remotely) with lessons, learnings, successes and failures that will be explored and examined for years.

Plot Twist One: Not only can the church change but the church is quite good at it.

As the fast pivot online occurred, there was a plot twist for churches: the local church discovered it can change when it needs to.  In fact, it turns out that the church is quite good at it.  Nothing creates change like a crisis and this crisis created change in abundance.  Churches re-evaluated priorities, redeployed staff, revised budgets, reworked strategies, etc.  This hidden ability (and even gift) for change tells me that the challenge for the church going forward isn’t its ability to change, but rather the motivation for that change to happen.  Thus, the church’s lack of change in response to decline, lack of disciple-making, ageing leadership, etc. isn’t because the church is incapable of change, it is because it doesn’t see it as a crisis.  Ouch!

Plot Twist Two: Technology will not solve our problems.

Within weeks of making the transition to exclusive online ministry, a second plot twist emerged: the church discovered that the initial promise of online ministry (increased engagement beyond traditional boundaries) was short-lived as online engagement began to drop (personally, I believe there are a number of reasons for this and I don’t believe that it is indicative for the long-term).  Just as the church has discovered in recent years that its discipleship crisis wasn’t a content one (we have more content than ever before and yet the disciple-making needle hasn’t budged), it has now discovered it also isn’t a delivery one (moving online wasn’t the magic solution that some had argued).

Don’t get me wrong, your church needs an online ministry!  If your church doesn’t have a digital dimension to its ministry, this pandemic has exposed that desperate need.  With the mobility of people, the ease of online access, the increasing embrace of digital learning, community and work, the church faces the unprecedented opportunity to missionally enter the arena people are increasingly living in.

That being said, before the pandemic I was in many meetings where people were pitching how the church’s disciple-making problem was its lack of technology.  In other words, if the church had better social media, an app or livestream options, its ministry would explode with effectiveness and expanded reach.  In many ways, this pandemic has exposed and laid bare the depth of our discipleship and spiritual formation problem, and it is much deeper than we thought.  Technology has its place (one we need to expand) but it will not solve our disciple-making problem – that problem is much deeper than a digital content delivery platform can solve.

Climax: Things can’t stay the same.

All of these factors have led the church to a crisis/climax.  What is the place of technology in the life of the church and how will we reach more people and disciple them as followers of Jesus in our new post-COVID-19 world?  The church needs a plan to build disciples (this isn’t the place for this, but my hypothesis is that it involves/includes a re-embrace of spiritual disciplines within Christian community) and an integrated and fully realized digital plan and strategy to support that plan.

In many ways, this season of life has exposed the depth of our disciple-making deficiency and, sadly, our complacency in it.  If we end this season in the same place we entered, still believing the same misdiagnosed realities we once embraced, we will have missed a great opportunity for change.  We must re-ignite our passion for disciple-making and see it as the crisis that it is.  As a result, we must make the pivots needed to address it (pivots we discovered we are quite good at) and creating the digital infrastructure to support it (seeing digital platforms as a means to support disciple-making rather than save it).


Falling Action and Resolution: A new digital normal emerging.

One of our lessons is that technology is not the solution to our greatest problems, but it can help build our capacity to discover it.  Our world is increasingly digital, and people will become acclimatized to a digital environment.  Working from home, learning from home and worshipping from home will not fully replace personal physical interaction (this season has proven that), but it has its place and will be key to helping the church connect and fulfil its mission in our emerging world.  Thus, your church needs to utilize technology in greater ways for the right reason.  Technology won’t make disciples, that is our job (empowered by the Holy Spirit), but it can, like our physical buildings, create the environments for this to happen.

Cliff-hanger: What will we do as a result?

All good serial television shows end its episodes with a narrative cliff-hanger.  This is no different.  The cliff-hanger for the church is, what will we do now?

We can’t go back!  We need to embrace our digital world for the environment it is while embracing our difficult calling to “go make disciples” (not conflating these in an ecclesiastical misdiagnosis).

As we move into the coming days, it is time to create an online strategy for your church or ministry.  As we continue in the “COVID-19 Dance,” this may be needed as we move in and out of physical gathering restrictions, but it is also needed for the future, as we enter the digital landscape in the ever-expanding mission of God.

If you are not sure what this can look like or how to do this, I want to invite you to some workshops I am teaching for Ambrose University and Seminary in August.  Join me for one, two or all three days as we do this together (it is also available for university or seminary credit).  Learn about how technology affects us, how to leverage different digital technologies for your church or ministry and design a fully implementable digital strategy.  It will be informative, practical and interactive.  Come alone or bring your team.


Effective Online Ministry: Understanding, Creating and Launching Ministry Online (Presented by Ambrose University)

Instructor: Rev. Bryce Ashlin-Mayo, DMin

Description: A theological and methodological exploration of online ministry with particular attention to creating an online ministry strategy. It will examine how the internet and social media is profoundly changing culture and explore how the Church can effectively engage this new medium for the advancement of God’s kingdom and mission.

Details: Join us online for these three exciting professional development opportunities. Classes will run 9am-3pm with a break from 12-1pm each day.

August 12, 2020 – Understanding the Digital World: Bringing Theology and Media Ecology Together

August 19, 2020 – Understanding the Nuts and Bolts (Bits and Bytes) of Online Ministry

August 26, 2020 – Designing an Online Ministry Strategy

Cost: For all 3 workshops is $150. Single registration is available if you only wish to participate in one or two workshops at a cost of $59/workshop.

Register: https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/effective-online-ministry-understanding-creating-and-launching-tickets-106429136412?aff=ebdssbonlinesearch

Note: These workshops may also be taken for undergraduate (PST 399) or seminary credit (LE 545). To register for academic credit contact registrar@ambrose.edu

Join us and write the next chapter in your church or ministry’s story!

The Nemesis of a Distorted Reflection

The Greek myth of Narcissus is an interesting and poignant tale for our times. The simplified version of the myth finds Narcissus abruptly leaving the infatuated Echo with a broken heart in the forest. Upon hearing this, Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, decides to punish Narcissus for his treatment of Echo. Luring him to a brook, Nemesis shows Narcissus his image and he falls in love with his reflection, eventually drowning to death in his self-obsession.  This simplified mythical story gives us several of the words commonly used in our vocabulary: nemesis as our archenemy and narcissism as the obsession of self. These two words, stemming from this story, pair well in the appetite of our culture.

In our social media world, we have increasingly become susceptible to the temptation of our cultural nemesis – narcissism. Much like Narcissus in the story, we have been lured to the water’s edge and have been transfixed by our reflection. Inspired by the work of Marshall McLuhan, the late Canadian media theorist, I would like to suggest that Narcissist didn’t fall in love with himself, but with a distorted reflection of himself. As with all reflections on water’s surface, water reflects an image slightly distorted from the original.

In our social media world, we have fallen in love with ourselves; but not just any version of ourselves – a distorted version. Love is blind and our love has made us blind to who we truly are, drowning in a pool of our collected distorted reflections, unable to recognize ourselves and blind to those, in ignorant solidarity, drowning around us.

In our social media world, our nemesis has tempted us to the waters edge with fame and self-promotion. Social media has provided equal opportunity to climb the platform of popularity. This is so much the case that it has consumed us and we have lost ourselves in our own distorted reflections, drowning as a result.

“For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.” (James 3:16, NIV)

As we strive to faithfully walk the path along the coast of our social media world, the goal for us is to do so in a way that seeks to fulfill the Great Commandment:

“’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.’ And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:27-29, NIV)

As we seek to faithfully follow Jesus in our social media world, I want to suggest three practices to avoid the temptation of our nemesis – our distorted reflection:

  1. Look up, love others and pray for them. Use social media as a window rather than just a megaphone. As much has it allows us to project our voice, it also amplifies the voice of others. Use it love, pray and care for others in need.
  2. Be thankful. Regularly thank God for all you have and who God has uniquely created you to be. This will help you follow the teaching of Jesus and rejoice with others as they celebrate and mourn with others as they grieve. In addition, being thankful will help you to stay free of the snares of worry and envy in your life.
  3. Be humble, truthful and authentic with yourself and others. Try your best to present a true version of yourself and celebrate that version. Do not be tempted by the image of your distorted reflection.

In our social media world, let’s learn to live in it faithfully and embrace the Great Commandment together – loving God and loving others. As we do, we can rescue ourselves, others and society from drowning at the water’s edge, transfixed by our distorted reflections and, instead, faithfully walk in the way of Jesus with authenticity and humility.

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:3-4, NIV)

Using Social Media As More Than A Window

Social media has impacted our world and our individual lives with wide sweeping effects. For the most part, we have enthusiastically and blindly entered this new reality, embracing the new abilities it offers. For the first time in history, social media has allowed us to see what is happening with our friends, family and acquaintances as well as to gather their thoughts and opinions in real-time. In addition, we can share our photos, ideas, thoughts and opinions with the world in real-time. Social media has provided equal access to a public platform that would have been, previously, only available to a privileged few.

This has led to a cultural critique of social media that people spend way too much time keeping up on what is going on with others through the large window that social media gives access to. Social media now allows everyone to be a celebrity in some sense, with our phones as paparazzi and us as the magazine editor taking clips from our lives and sharing them for the world to see. This reality also reverses itself and allows us to constantly look into other people’s lives with what seems to be an unquenchable appetite.

Personally, as an avid user of social media, I enjoy that I can see what is happening with my friends, family, and acquaintances, knowing about important life events (birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, deaths, etc.) but also discovering how people are doing, feeling, and what is happening in their lives. Social media has provided a large window into my relational world, allowing me access into the lives of my friends, family, and acquaintances that would never have been possible before.

This phenomenon has created large metaphorical windows into our relational lives. We can gaze through them and observe what is happening with others as well as, through a self-edited lens, allow people to selectively peer into ours. This relational window has also caused a temptation to voyeuristically view the lives of others as passive consumers of relationship rather than as active participants.

In our stubborn stare into the lives of others, we are often oblivious to the fact that the large window of social media also has hinges – that the window we are gazing through is actually a door. The hinge of social media makes the window a door, opening up the possibility to actively love others. The invitation for us is to walk through the threshold of relational possibility with a cadence of love. Social media, like all technology, extends our reach. It can extend our reach to peer with interest and it can extend our reach to walk with purpose.

Hatred stirs up conflict, but love covers over all wrongs.” Proverbs 10:12, NIV

What if social media extended your reach not just to know things about others but extended your reach to actively love others by genuinely being happy for them, mourning with them, encouraging them, sharing hope with them and building them up. Let’s use social media more as a door than just a window and extend love beyond us. Our world needs more love, hope, and faith (the things the Bible says will remain – 1 Corinthians 13:13); therefore, use social media to walk through the threshold of relational possibility with a cadence of love and change our world.

A Church Technology Prediction: Screen Reversal

Step into almost all evangelical churches and a growing percentage of mainline and Catholic churches and you will see the use of the big screen(s). Video projection has become increasingly ubiquitous in worship services in ever expanding ways: utilized for words in worship songs, responsive readings, sermon graphics, multimedia clips, etc. Consider that in a few decades the church has moved from hymns to overhead projector to video projection.

The Church has embraced the First Screen (main video screen) as a key content delivery device and atmosphere creation tool. Since then, and over about the last five years, the second screen has emerged in society and the church has begun to take notice and adapt to it in worship. Through live tweeting, YouVersion and other tools, the second screen experience is growing and will continue to grow. As it does, new tools and apps will emerge to integrate this into the worship service.

In a conversation with friends, we stumbled upon what I think will be an inevitable shift in technology usage in church over the next several years. This shift is a screen reversal. Although I think that we will still have both first and second screens, the priority of these will reverse. The handheld screens (mobile devices) that are increasingly ubiquitous will become the primary screen in the worship service, holding the place Scripture is read, responsive readings are read, participation is engaged through social network features, and words for worship are projected. The new second screen will be the large projection screen(s) that will, where needed, show the video feed, video clip, and/or create atmosphere for the room.

The initial reaction to my hypothesis will probably be disbelief and/or a fear of increased individualism as people use their individual devices. However, consider how this is less like moving forward and more like moving backwards. Just as people would use paper notebooks to take notes, printed Bibles to read, and printed hymn books to sing, the individual devices will have similar functions but would also allow for social interaction and discussion through advanced social network platforms.

In the coming years, new apps (if I could design one I would because I can see huge future potential for it) will emerge that allows for LBMDs (Locally Broadcasted Mobile Displays – A phrase I just invented) to show song lyrics, images, Bible passages, take notes, and facilitate live interaction for those in attendance physically, and in some situations, virtually online.

There are always pros and cons to every technological change. The medium is the message and all media works us over completely (combining two quotes from Marshall McLuhan ~the great Canadian media theorist). I am not arguing for or against this screen reversal or, even, discussing the impact on the worship experience (positive or negative); I am simply highlighting the shift that is on the horizon as the first and second screen switch prevalence.

Monetizing Authenticity & Relational Connections

As part of my doctoral program at George Fox Seminary and my dissertation topic studying the effects of social media on preaching, I had the great opportunity to attend the largest industry blogging and social media conference in North America.

One of the many things I gleaned from the conference was the economic potential that exists in the area of blogging and social media.  This economic potential is being rapidly and increasingly democratized and monetized.  It is democratized in that anyone can jump into the blogging and social media world and, with enough social networking, media creation and media curation, you can create “clout” (interestingly: the company klout.com scores clout).  This clout can then be monetized.  The increasingly inherent challenge is that the monetization of clout carries with it a major temptation – the temptation to sacrifice authenticity on the altar of economic opportunity.

Let me explain:
First, clout (or influencer) is an industry word that simply refers to the influence you have online.  Basically, the more hits you receive on your blog and the more social connections you have with social media (FaceBook friends, Twitter fans, etc.), the greater your “influence.”
Second, as your clout and influence grows, so does your potential environment for advertising and product endorsement.  These fertile environments are bursting with ecological potential for financial benefit.  Allow me to explain through a hypothetical example: Jim Bob is marketing his new Whatyamacallits and he knows that he can use traditional advertising to reach a large group of people but by doing this he also knows that the audience will interpret the advertisement message as the Whatyamacallit Company talking about Whatyamacallits.  Thus, people will be, inevitably, skeptical of the claims the manufacturer is making about the product they manufacture.  The audience knows that the manufacturer is not neutral.  However, if the Whatyamacallit Company can get seemingly neutral Jane Doe to blog and/or Tweet about their product to her large social following for either a sample of Whatyamacallits and/or other financial or promotional incentives, people will pay attention because they will assume that this third person is an impartial product reviewer.  This neutrality becomes assumed and perceived authenticity.
Third, the other revenue stream exists through advertising. This revenue stream can produce substantial income to the blogger.  Custom advertising by an ad service can provide significant income, but it also comes at a relational price.  Ad services work by using information provided by the content of the blog and any information it can glean from the blog visitor, customizing the ads for greatest impact.  In essence, the person blogging submits part of their online presence and the information of their visitors for financial gain.
I have no problem with any of this IF it is clearly understood and disclosed upfront by the blogger/social media user.  The problem is that this level of authenticity rarely happens and if it does, is often hidden or subtlety communicated.
As we look ahead to the future of social media and blogging, this practice will only increase (industry experts and their budget allocations affirm that this will only intensify in usage).  The challenge is that our culture highly values authenticity and relationships (part of why using it for marketing is brilliant and effective).  This is the very reason that blogging and social media have economic value.   In addition, people are also increasingly skeptical and as people become more aware of what is happening (recognizing that people are monetizing their authenticity and relationships), skepticism will only increase, inevitably decreasing the economic value of influencer clout and destroying the presumed relationships that once existed.
Once again, I have no issue with people who use their clout/influencer ability to promote products, services or earn money through advertising, as long as they are honest and upfront about this.  If they are not, they are, to use a shockingly pejorative term, prostituting their authenticity and relationship connections for financial gain.  This, of course, will eventually hurt one’s credibility and in a culture that highly values authenticity and relationship will not have sustainability.
The future of social media and blogging is exponentially growing and as it does, we need to increasingly be aware of the effects it is having on us and how it is being used and abused and/or using and abusing us.  As Marshall McLuhen brilliantly said: “All media works us over completely.”