Redeeming New Media, Reforming Christian Community

J. Martin Bailey

I’ve thought a lot about my friends’ experience, wondering whether the vast emerging world of new media could be lifted above the impersonality and isolation of a computer screen and keyboard. Can we somehow overcome the temptations and threats inherent in such media? Can digital networks be shaped to offer a virtual community that is genuine and humane?

I am convinced that the Christian community has a unique role to play as we engage the revolutionary changes in how we communicate. The church needs to be engaged, because I believe we are on the cusp of a sweeping new reformation in the life of the church, brought about in part by new media.

Down through history, Christians have been champions and critics of nearly all forms of communication. Jesus, of course, spoke persuasively to large crowds. Paul mastered the art of letter-writing; all around the Mediterranean his epistles were copied, circulated, and copied again.

Sensing the power of the printing press, Johannes Gutenberg used his movable type to “publish” the Bible, eventually taking it off the lectern and out of the library and placing it into people’s hands. The Protestant Reformation spread across Europe because Martin Luther and other reformers used tracts and broadsides to share their convictions. In the New World, John Eliot developed a “grammar of the Indian language” so the native peoples of Massachusetts might learn to read the Christian Scriptures. Courageous abolitionists used their printing presses to help break the bonds of slavery.

With the rise of radio and television in the twentieth century, Christians were never shy to adopt them. In recent decades, pioneering communications specialists such as Everett C. Parker of the United Church of Christ and William Fore of the National Council of Churches have sought to hold the electronic media accountable to the human needs of citizens.

Something New Under the Sun

Today a reference to Facebook is only the most visible part of an enormous movement that is sweeping the planet. Prompted by our faith, we must join the conversation about making constructive use of the new forms of digital media. We need to find new ways to utilize, guide, critique, and in a sense redeem these media.

The scope and pace of change in the media world – historic new levels of connectivity made possible by technology and globalization – are triggering vast political and social consequences, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman describes. Mindful of the ways social media were used by pro- testers in the Arab Spring, Friedman cites Skype, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, and Twitter for moving the world “from connected to hyper-connected.” This revolution, he says, “is ‘super-empowering’ individuals, enabling them to challenge hierarchies and traditional authority figures – from business to science to government.”

These convulsions are touching the religious world, its denominational officials and structures. The turbulence marking American Christian denominationalism and worship habits for the last fifty years – erosions of authority, tradition, member- ship, and loyalties – is being accelerated now by the media revolution.

The New Informality

A new form of “connectionalism” is emerging, spawned by the digital networking habits of millions of believers, which threatens old-form hierarchies and church identities. Within denominational milieus, individuals and groups share ideas and information through these media, a challenge to traditional gatekeepers and loyalties. Lay-driven activities and programs are being developed and promoted informally. One result is that most Western religious bodies are becoming more congregational (or local) in style and attitude, if not in polity. Another effect: formerly isolated or independent congregations are increasingly ecumenical and global in their outlook as the internet brings the larger world closer.

One telling, unstoppable trend of this democratization: the great leveling spirit of electronic media encourages (even imposes) a communication style of informality and egalitarianism, which is influencing social norms and congregational life. The new etiquette promotes the use of first names – gone are the days of the formal “salutation” in business correspondence “Dear Sir or Madam,” and the “complimentary close” assuring the recipient that the writer is “sincerely, or cordially yours.” The negligible cost of emails and the possibility of near-instant exchanges lead to brief, sometimes curt or even tart responses.

In church life, these trends bear the marks of a new reformation, which is poised to redefine religious identity and connections, leaving behind many of the bureaucratic and theological patterns of the last half century. Few theological voices have yet emerged to define and shape these changes in religious attitudes and structures.

More than a decade ago, when this reformation was in its infancy, I tried an experiment. I invited lay leaders, youth, and clergy from various denominations to grapple online with the issues presented at the New York-based National Council of Churches’ general board. I made position papers available on- line and summarized the debates during one board meeting. I encouraged individuals to email their comments to members of their church’s delegation as the meeting progressed. That jarring arrangement – the prospect of instantaneous real-time reactions from anonymous rank-and-file members – inevitably alarmed some church leaders. It seemed to change the rules of the game, even the traditional nature of news and information. Today we call it transparency.

By now, in the internet age, denominations seek to make their websites more interactive so viewers contribute their own ideas, blogs, or comments. Some parish ministers now report that their preferred means of communication during the week is the congregation’s Facebook page. We’re in the midst of a rampaging torrent of change.

Body of Christ Reimagined

Thoughtful Christians try to make sense of these media transformations by being mindful of their theological vantage point, experience, and ethical expectations. I personally begin with the assumption that the Pauline image of the body of Christ is an apt metaphor for our cyber-friendships and associations. As “one body with many members,” social networks can help us “rejoice and suffer with each other” across vast distances quickly and often.

In my own experience, the etymology that links the words communion, communication, and community takes on many dramatic and poignant illustrations because of the internet. My wife and I lived in the Middle East for nearly four years after we retired; now, more than a decade later, we nurture our contacts and ecumenical ties online, with friends and leaders of a wide variety of Christian communities across that volatile region. We do that, and keep informed about the dramatic changes in the Middle East, with relative ease and at virtually no expense.

Here are some other theological convictions that help me frame and grasp the new media landscape:

• contemporary communication technologies are a gift of God for the people of God. I accept that the origins of these powerful media spring from the creative energy of an omnipotent and communicating God. I recall the history of faith as a history of communication. Beginning with the oral tradition, including the teaching ministry of Jesus, and continuing through the formation of the Biblical canon to modern telecommunications, human beings have recorded and shared their faith. We can be grateful for the creativity and opportunities that the media present.

• contemporary media are not inherently evil or sinful. As the media dramatically reshape society, Christians need to be cautious and wary of the negative side. Putting energy and creativity into positive expressions will help build a more humane media environment. We can join with other Christians in evaluating our media experiences. We can identify our expectations and anxieties about media, based on our commitments to human rights, justice (including the availability of media to all parts of our society), and the protection of vulnerable persons from exploitation (children, youth, women, persons with special needs, minority groups). We can express our concerns and objections to media providers and responsible public officials, advocating for media improvements and greater accessibility.

• For christians, Jesus is both the model of commu- nication and the subject of communication. I believe persons are most authentic in all their social interac- tions when they are honest about themselves. We should reflect the spirit of our faith in our internet postings, including a commitment to justice, peace, honesty, and transparency, and with a gracious style. As disciples, we need to be ourselves – our whole selves – when we write or talk about our interests.

• the Holy spirit works among us, constantly communicating God’s love and often surprising us as all things are made new, including the church, the community, the media. As the World Association of Christian Communication once pointed out, “it is the Spirit that can change the Babel of confusion into the Pentecost of genuine understanding.” Constant development in technologies is now the air we breathe. It’s also the environment in which the church is called to communicate the gospel. We must work hard to discern the signs of the times – keeping a certain wariness but also welcoming and allowing room for the Holy Spirit to do its work. I believe “God works in all things for good.” To me this means living as modern men and women, witnessing to our faith in the midst of a world where revelation continues to take place through science, invention, social experimentation, moral argument – all in constant conversation with our commitment to gospel values.

It can be easy to regard new media with bewilderment, even dread. They offer so many possibilities – and also present invasive challenges to our present religious lifestyle, threatening, for example, the existence of uninterrupted time for thought and meditation.

But the new media will not disappear; they are omnipresent. We must regard them as potentially helpful. Rather than reject or ignore them, we should focus on the ways we can use them to reflect and express our values and help us provide models of grace, empathy, and patient caring. As we bring purpose to these interesting times, may we participate in the redemption of new media and the reformation of the Christian community. 

The Rev. J. Martin Bailey, a retired UCC minister, served as editor of UCC and Presbyterian magazines and was commu- nication director for the National Council of Churches. For several years after their retirements, he and his wife, Betty Jane, worked with the Middle East Council of Churches, based in Jerusalem.