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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Cable Television, MOOCs, Social Media and the Future of the Church

When we lived in Kansas I was part of an investment club. Each of us in the club was assigned at least one stock to monitor, and report to the group. I followed Comcast, the cable provider. During the time I followed Comcast they acquired NBC Universal. I had to explain to the group just why Comcast would want to make such an acquisition, and what it might mean for the cable industry in general.

Here is what I learned. Young people don't watch television, at least not on television. They watch programs, movies, and the like on tablets (like iPads), game consoles, smart phones, and old fashioned computers (remember desk tops and lap tops?). And they watch them when they want to watch them, not when the television schedule says they should watch. Cable is expensive, and why would they pay for something they don't use. Cable is expensive because programming is expensive, and the business model of bundling channels into a package, most of which have no interest for a given consumer. Hence, Comcast fears it has an unsustainable business model. Cable is doomed. In acquiring NBC Universal, they are betting on the future of content.

The telecommunications industry is highly volatile. Ten years ago I read that CD sales were doomed, that music and publishing companies had unsustainable business models, and that print media were likely to go out of business on a grand scale. This all seemed far fetched to me at the time, but now it is coming to pass.

Another development with staggering implications that has just taken place only in the last year, is the emergence of the Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC, in the field of higher education. One year ago Jim Brenneman had likely not even heard the term MOOC, my guess is now giving it attention is one of his top priorities. If it isn't it probably should be. Some people imagine that the MOOC will mean the end of many educational institutions, as millions and millions of people enroll in free online courses taught by professors from the most prestigious educational institutions, and at the top their fields. Some people are excited about the potential of MOOCs to make the finest education available to anyone in the world with access to the internet, a democratization of education. Even as this transformation is underway, many questions linger, but the implications are off the charts.

We are in the middle of a stunning, whiplash inducing, change in the way people organize, share and consume information, communicate with each other, and engage the world. By reading a blog post, you are participating in this change right now. When Pastor's Puddle began, I would watch the hits when a new post was up, and within seconds the number climbed into the dozens, and it all felt strange to be communicating with so many people in this new way. I keep in touch with many of you via facebook, and also have a sense of connection with people I rarely see. I find I am beginning to send and receive text messages more frequently. I hear sermon responses from people who haven't set foot in CMC for years, if ever. Many people who are rarely (again, if ever) here on Sunday morning think we are their church. People who do not think of CMC as their church watch or listen to our services, often at their convenience.

I believe we are in the middle of a communications revolution that rivals the revolution that gave rise to the Anabaptist movement, and led to a profound reordering of church and the way Christians think about what it means to be a Christian. The invention of the printing press transformed a society of illiterate folk who gained information orally, visually, and in community, to a society of readers, where ideas could be spread in print, and where people read on their own. This transformation led to new and exciting ways of thinking about faith and studying scripture. It empowered believers to study scripture and other ancient authorities for themselves, without relying on the church or other authority figures to tell them the biblical story or explain and interpret what it meant. This empowerment became central to the growth of Anabaptism. But some things about the transformation brought by the printing press we might bemoan. Widely available printed material made it possible to have a personal faith rather than a corporate faith, where each individual was free to discern truth for him or herself. The long journey to epistemological individualism was begun. It also led to the elevation of the printed word over against some other kinds of authority or spiritual experience. The destination of this aspect of the transformation has been bibliolotry, or veneration of the words of scripture as a kind of deity.

In this transformation, the church adapted, but much changed and much had to die. The same will likely happen now. The church will adapt, incorporating new media. And as it does so, some practices will die (are dying, really), and others will emerge. As before, the introduction of new media into the life of the church will mean not just a change in method, but the message will change as well, although it is difficult to know how.

The cultural and social forces being brought to bear on educational, telecommunications, publishing, recording and other institutions are being brought to bear on the church as a whole and on congregations in particular. The most important public square in our society today is the internet, and it will be increasingly so. The most important birthday for many young people is no longer 16, when they can drive, but 13, when facebook and other forms of engaging the online public square become available to them. The most vibrant churches of the not so distant future in our society will be those that effectively engage this public square. Churches are already working at community building, faith formation, pastoral care, and worship, through social media and other internet vehicles, transcending geographical barriers. The question is not will it be done, nor whether people will see the internet as a place where they engage a faith community, but who will do it and how it will be done. Will Mennonite congregations engage this public square?

I believe College Mennonite is uniquely equipped to engage this public square, but we will need resources to fully engage it. For some of us, these changes represent unspeakable loss, others can't imagine that authentic church done online, others of us are excited about the opportunities these changes represent, and perhaps some of us are simply bewildered by the changes and not sure what we should do. I am cautiously optimistic that these changes represent a rare and exciting opportunity for the church in mission.