Already Not Yet: Hopes and Fears for 2021
I believe that we are in an already not yet space right now with regard to new media and the churches. Right now, in 2011, there are already technologists who are thinking about the ethical and theological questions of technology. There are already church people who are doing the same. Churches are experimenting with new media in practical ways, lay people innovating new theologies through their use of technology. But we are not there yet. I hope that in this liminal space we will co-create the future we want to see. In the next decade, we will surely be grappling with the next evolutionary wave around technology and faith, so the time to start addressing 2021 dilemmas is now.
Forging New Literacies
As a theologian and as a futurist, I spend a lot of time thinking about hopes and fears, and asking other people about theirs. I value pondering the paradoxes of this new media age, its growing pains, and its evolving relationship to churches.
At the Institute for the Future, we are focused on immersing in plausible, provocative futures. Peering into those distant horizons, one can see congregations positioning themselves in the new media world in creative and maladaptive ways. These are uncharted waters each church must navigate. Until recently, churches thought they’ve had plenty of reasons to dismiss new media or postpone entry into it. Because the technology progresses in rapid cycles, well-hyped breakthroughs and devices become passé, so why bother? And engaging with it takes some work. It requires building new literacies and translating your message carefully in order to maintain depth while also following principles of effective broadcasting. It requires undergoing end- less migrations as new platforms emerge and old ones become obsolete. It’s enough to make some give up on keeping up altogether.
But churches, like many businesses today, are still in the old mode of investing in heavy infrastructure rather than lightweight (low-cost, low-time in- vestment) innovation. Those who figure out how to turn the corner and embrace lightweight experimentation benefit from rapid cycles of change rather than fight against them.
Many local churches face what could fairly be called “the website-refresh hurdle” that keeps them from converting their current website (which might be ten years old by now) into something less static and clunky. To most entrepreneurs and business people, this will sound like a trivial challenge: in their world, refreshing the websites happens continuously.
Why should this be so hard for so many congregations? There are various reasons. One, they are volunteer organizations, often with scarce re- sources, and the stakes of the website-refresh don’t seem high when compared with, say, preparing for the funeral of a beloved parishioner.
Also, website-refreshes can be regarded as an opportunity to renew commitments to the congregation’s mission, or even reinvent them, and that can be intimidating: “we need to decide what we really want to say before we broadcast it to the world, don’t we?” This kind of soul-searching, involving communal consensus, understandably isn’t entered into lightly.
All this points to an unnecessarily passive approach to the new media revolution. Today, we in the churches by and large wait until we receive the technology designed for us before grappling with the issues that it raises. By then it is too late – theologies, ethics, and entire worldviews have been embedded by design.
Perhaps this consumeristic stance merely reflects the broader American culture. But just as makers (“lead adopters” such as tinkerers, crafters, and hackers) are asserting their desire to become more involved in the production process of goods and services, churches could make moves that place themselves further and further upstream in crafting the embedded ethics of technology.
In Silicon Valley, the experience of lead adoptors proves that their upstream tinkering can have great impact on how specific technologies “show up” when they reach mainstream adoption.
Pockets of early adopters exist across the churches too. Two groups come to mind that are far ahead of the pack. The first are those who emphasize the potential of new media as a tool for evangelism.1 Broadly speaking, this community of people sees new media as the latest in a new line of communication tools that function as conduits: gifts from God for use in broadcasting and amplifying the Christian message. This approach is consistent with their history. Generations ago, denizens of Christian radio and TV embraced the latest technology breakthroughs with similar gusto.
A second group of early adopters finds its home in the Emerging Church movement, where the internet is central to its work and identity. They seek communal worship experiences and theological discussions that are new-media-rich. They value the ethos of network connectedness that is a fundamental worldview for many digital natives and their immediate predecessors.
Those in mainline churches will one day experience the mainstreaming of new media that has been shaped by these early adopters; they could learn so much more if they got into deeper conversation with them now.
Let’s remember: in the big picture we are still in the early stages of the internet. We are still learning what this greater connectivity is all about, and how we humans will use this new tool we’ve innovated. We feel the growing pains. We have recently begun to acknowledge, for instance, that our interactions with computers shape us, just as we shape and pro- gram our computers – hence the growing field of human-computer interaction.
And we note the paradoxes in our relationship with new media. Take the realm of physical well-be- ing. We now have computational devices that wirelessly connect to the internet in order to track our biometrics and nudge us toward healthier behaviors. At the same time, we are finding ourselves in more sedentary routines marked by sitting in front of a computer and engaging in repetitive movements.
Paradoxically, too, in the realm of spiritual well- being, we are now able to learn online from spiritual traditions the world over in ways that deepen our own practices and enhance our sense of community and communion. Yet we also find ourselves with restless, flickering minds,2 even mental anguish, all stemming from our own habitual and communal expectations that disallow “turning off,” with little time to return to one’s spiritual center. We need greater wisdom if we are to experience deeper spiritual well- being as we grapple with new media.
Part of my work as a futurist is a commitment to think alongside the churches in hopes of helping to shape our new media approaches as we lean into the coming years. I am invested in seeing churches nurture resilient theological and ethical responses in the face of tremendous, rapid change.
Let’s take the next ten years: a pivotal period of adjusting to new technologies but also an opportunity to have our say about how that technology should serve us. What follows is a slate of hopes and fears to contend with as we approach the year 2021.
• Hope for 2021: That churches learn to see the people behind the technologies.
If you asked me what’s changed my perceptions about new media since I went to divinity school, I would say it’s that I can see the people behind the technology now. You can’t work in Silicon Valley and not feel the pulse of tech innovation among the people you see on the commuter train and in the debates you overhear around tech design. They are crafted by actual people who come from distinct points of view about the quandaries of technology. But until I moved there, I’d never knowingly met someone who designed technology. I suspect the same is true for many “church people.”
This lack of exposure and familiarity reminds me of how I felt when I studied church history and first got to know the personalities behind the great debates of theology, with all the human particularities that shaped their decisions. The Nicene Creed was shaped by the specific individuals who were invited to take part in decisions (and by the absence of those who weren’t!). It was determined and received by people who were influenced by specific political, cultural, and philosophical contexts. In a similar way, the worldviews reflected in our technology come from real people, who embed these world- views in technologies that then shape our world.
In the next decade, it is my hope that the churches will grasp this embodiment more deeply and be- gin to see the human face behind the technology – not just for its own sake, but because such an approach makes it harder to draw stark polarities and distort the debate when you can see the people engaged in the work.
It is my hope that churches in the next decade will more robustly engage with people who design technology. Though there are many deeply spiritual technologists, as well as tech-savvy church people, our groups customarily segregate still today. Many of us are intimidated by the very different languages that the other side speaks in its own subculture. Packet switching? Patristics? Hacking? Hermeneu- tics? Cloud computing? Communion? We ought to
take the risk of moving out of our element, learning how to translate our thoughts into a different language, and asking stupid questions. Venues for these encounters are rare; they need to be thought- fully constructed to avoid the risk of talking past each other.
• Hope for 2021: That churches will adopt more nuanced views of the internet.
Today, some within the church overstate the inter- net’s potential as a “great equalizing force”3 that is free from gender, class, geography, and other factors. This view, held by many technological optimists, ignores the obvious “digital divide” access issue to the internet in the first place and also seems somewhat naïve about the way the global internet functions politically and economically. It is my hope that people within the churches will nuance their views in the next decade.
The internet didn’t just fall from the sky. Pivotal early decisions shaped its values and its functions, and will continue to do so. Consider the case of a core enabling technology of the internet, packet switching, which emerged as an innovation after telephone technology had relied on circuit switching. As a technological design made by real people, packet switching created a network that had no center by design, couldn’t be controlled, and it had multiple paths between any two points in order to ensure the most resilient communication. This ethos of design – a dynamic, center-less network that grows from the edges – still shapes understandings of the internet today.
As this core technology first came to life, the earliest experiments formed the internet precursor, ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) and were funded by the U.S. Department of Defense for use on special projects by the U.S. Eventually regular people came to have access to the internet as we know it today.
Though its reach is global and it remains a center-less network by technological design, in practice the internet does have a quasi-governing body that functions to help it retain interoperability, called ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). Last year, for the first time, ICANN issued top-level domain names in non-Latin characters, which means that whole new linguistic populations who had never been able to access the internet in their native language will now be able to do so.4 This holds tremendous potential for learning from the wisdom traditions of many in the world who had not previously been able to penetrate the internet. The internet won’t function as “the great equalizing force” unless we stay alert to make sure it does.
Why this detour into the history and spread of the internet? Because paying attention to the politics of the internet should matter to the churches. It should be a priority to any congregation committed to social justice – to “the least of these.” Developing disciplines around nuanced understandings of the internet will, I hope, provide us with a stronger framework for asking questions about the internet and new media moving forward, beyond the dichotomies of technological optimists and pessimists.
• Hope for 2021: That the churches will engage gamers,5 technologists, and digital natives as conversation partners.
In the next decade, I hope the churches will con- nect with broader conversation partners and reflect together. If churches are to claim a new-media role in the public sphere, then we need to engage a new demographic that includes game designers, technologists, journalists, and digital natives.
This will likely require what my IFTF colleague Bob Johnansen refers to as “failing gracefully at the edges of your competency.” But as the theological questions raised by new media gain clarity and intensity, I hope we take our participation in the conversation further upstream rather than delay our involvement in the “culturing” of technology until it is too late. This will require trusted translators within the church who are willing to stretch outside their discipline and learn the lexicon and worldview of people who shape these technologies. There are already gamers who are thinking systematically about religion; what can churches learn from them? It could be illuminating to converse with game practitioners who can think from the outside about the nuts and bolts of religions as systems and imagine new ways to piece them together.6
We might also be surprised that Wired magazine, whose readership is especially concerned with how technology interacts with business, culture, innovation, and science, just hosted a contest asking people to share their visions for the future of churches.
Learning from these and other conversation partners – even the so-called digital natives who may be our own children – will be crucial for navigating our way through the already not yet moments of the next decade.
• Fear for 2021: That seminaries, under desperate pressures, will neglect teaching new media. By 2021, I am afraid too many seminaries will neglect to offer education in practical and theological dimensions of new media for future congregational leaders. The dilemma of narrowing down what to teach future church leaders in order to equip them for a 24/7 boundary-crossing role is not new. Cur-
riculum decision-makers have a tough and unenviable job of discerning trade-offs.
Yet mainline churches are already out of sync with today’s digital natives, and risk looking irrelevant to many in the next generations. By 2021, these digital natives will be in their mid-twenties and entering seminary themselves. They will have grown up in an education system increasingly shaped by new media and will expect the same of their divinity school education.7 If seminaries exclude approaches to new media, they will leave future church leaders ill-equipped for debates about theology, church governance, the meaning of authority, sacrament, personhood, and community, all of which could be altered by media habits and expectations. They will not capitalize on innovations in new media as a tool for ministry or “techno-spiritual practices”8 – for instance, the use of media to spread information quickly in times of crisis, or provide pastoral care and community involvement remotely to elderly or isolated parishioners. Future ministers need to be equipped to advise congregants about how to develop positive habits of “unplugging” for the sake of their well-being.
• Fear for 2021: That churches will be damaged by the downside of trusted filters and fail to capitalize on their upside.
By 2021, the experience of information overload that many of us find overwhelming today will seem like the good old days. Navigating signal-noise ratios will become more difficult, and in response people will utilize filters – in a sense, curating their lives to carve out a path using the information that is meaningful to them.
We already rely on filters today. Think of the news network you use to filter your horizon of information in ways that coincide with your worldview. Some- times we are acutely aware of the biases of these filters, but we find ourselves blindly choosing them simply because they make things easier than doing the filtering ourselves through the vast galaxy of online information.
Such trusted filters will become even more important in the next decade, helping us manage a subset of information and personal connections in a personalized fashion. Increasing numbers of individuals will become media-makers, brand-builders, and reputation managers of their own personas. As a result, people will look at messaging from all quarters with a more critical eye, including mes- sages from the churches.
A primary result of this filtering practice could be that people will filter in order to listen only very narrowly (termed “narrowcasting”); they will fine-tune a tendency to see only what they want to see in the world. I anticipate three church-related dangers to these so-called filter bubbles.9
First, I am afraid that filtering will present tremendous challenges to the ecumenical movement. As filter bubbles become more pervasive, there is the danger that people will curate so extensively that they end up in the proverbial echo chamber, only listening to people with whom they agree. Second, I worry that churches’ own messages will fail to make it through the filters people use. Third, I fear that churches will opt out of the complexity of this world of filters, and miss an opportunity – the chance for churches themselves to provide trusted filters for people who seek curators to help with sense-making. The most relevant churches in 2021 will help people to avoid “the shallows” (Nicho- las Carr’s term) and instead encourage “cathedral thinking” (as suggested by Kwok Pui Lan and oth- ers). These conversations are already going on in spheres like the Wisdom 2.0 conference, but I worry that churches will feel overwhelmed and abdicate their place in such conversations.
• Fear for 2021: That churches won’t be ready for expectations around transparency.
I worry that we will reach a tumultuous crossroads around questions of transparency in church decision-making. In the next decade, we will move from a world of transparency as a nice-to-have option, toward transparency as an across-the-board expectation – part of the price of entry for any institution in the public eye. Today, churches think they are better at transparency than they actually are.
The turmoil we’ve already witnessed around crises such as recent church sex abuse scandals and financial disrepute will rise to truly critical levels as the world becomes increasingly transparent to us. By 2021, people will be able to trace the footprint of a piece of fruit; they will have visibility into the fruit’s country of origin, the carbon and water resources used in its production and distribution, and perhaps even the story of the orchard on which it grew. If we experience this kind of transparency in the food we buy, why wouldn’t we expect it of our churches?
No organization is perfect – whether a large corporation, a local grocery store, or a congregation. No one expects that. But they will expect transparency, and if church leaders are not ready to give it, they can expect to be regarded with ever-increasing distrust and suspicion.
Living in the Already Not Yet
Thinking about the future is no luxury. It’s a way to strategically and systematically confront longer-term changes so we can make better decisions today. Only then will we shape the future of new media and faith that we want to co-create, instead of letting it happen to us. Waves of change are coming – some of which the churches will want to ride and others we’ll want to avoid, or get hit! But only by embracing the already not yet dialogue will we figure out which is which.
achel Hatch ‘08 M.Div. is Research Manager at Institute for the Future, an independent nonprofit research group based in Palo Alto, CA. She holds an M.Phil. in Ecumenical Studies from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Her current research focuses on new media and religion, the future of connecting, and emotional and spiritual well-being. To connect on Twitter, follow @Rachelkeas.
1 This is the so-called “media as conduit” approach, and is one of many ways to engage with new media. For a full typology of these approaches, see Heidi Campbell’s When Religion Meets New Media (Routledge, 2010).
2 For an inspiring meditation on the “flickering mind” in the spiritual journey, see Denise Levertov’s poem by that title in The Stream and the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes (New Directions), published in 1997, years before many of us had our first email addresses.
3 Walter Wilson, The Internet Church: The Local Church Can’t Be Just Local Anymore (Nelson, 2004), p. 25: “The internet displays no culture, no race, no gender, and no age. It provides the seeker with the ability to navigate his or her way to the foot of Calvary’s cross.”
4 This story is well told by Lyn Jeffery in her 2011 Ten-
Year Forecast perspective for Institute for the Future (www.iftf.org).
5 Though many games on the market are overly violent and sexual by nature, there is a whole world of gaming beyond that that can make significant social contributions. See Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (Penguin, 2011).
6 For example, consider the Game Developers Conference annual game design challenge, which in 2011 focused on games and religion.
7 The Association of Theological Schools has a Technology in Theological Education group that appears to be doing great work (its website lists
a 2009 conference on “Ministerial and Spiritual Formation in Cyberspace,” but it’s not clear whether these efforts have been meaningfully embraced yet by school currIcula).
8 This term was coined by Intel researcher and cultural anthropologist Genevieve Bell.
9 See Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You (Penguin, 2011).