Technology Matters

Brad M. Griffin | Aug 14, 2006

Photo by Blickpixel

Television erases the line between “believer” and “non-believer.”

A picture is worth a thousand feelings.

The right brain is the prodigal hemisphere.

Virtual communities are one but not the other.

Most of the world has never heard their own voice.

Do not question consumption?

These are some of the welcoming lines on author Shane Hipps’ website (www.shanehipps.com), created to continue the conversation generated by his recently released book The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, the Gospel, and Church. [[Shane Hipps, The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, the Gospel, and Church, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006).]] Leaving a career in big-name corporate advertising to pastor a Mennonite church in Arizona, Hipps has experienced firsthand the intricacies of both media and ministry.

The truth is, most of us adopt and use new technologies with little thought about how they impact us on any level beyond finances, convenience, novelty, or perhaps time-effectiveness (perhaps!). But what about the way technology impacts our theology? Or our anthropology, or our sociology? Does what we think about God, other people, or our interactions with each other undergo a change when we shift technologies? And should we stop to think about those changes before picking up a new ipod or Blackberry? Hipps challenges us to take some of those next steps in assessing our use – and misuse – of technology, shattering the typical assumption that technology can be “neutral”. We recently caught up with Shane and asked him to share some of his insights specifically for youth workers.

To get everyone on the same page, can you give us quick definitions of “media” and “technology”?

I use the words “media” and “technology” in a very broad sense. A technology or medium is anything that extends or amplifies some part of our human capacity. So for example, the wheel extends the function of the foot, clothing extends the skin. Even an outline is a technology in that it extends our ability to organize thought. This definition includes the obvious things we typically think of as media like cell phones, TV, or the internet, but it also includes things we typically don’t think of as media such as money, houses, or even small groups.

Shane, you talk about the danger of “seeing but not perceiving” when it comes to technology. What do you mean by that?

People see that technological changes are happening in our culture, but few are able to perceive what these new technologies truly have the capacity to do and undo. We might see the way MySpace is fast becoming a preferred means for youth to relate, but we fail to perceive how this “virtual community” is one but not the other. Or that it radically alters the social, spiritual, and emotional formation of youth.

In what ways are the youth in our churches and communities especially vulnerable to the unperceived effects of media?

Youth and youth workers are profoundly vulnerable to miss the hidden power of our technologies. While I am deeply empathetic and appreciative of youth workers who make every effort to relate to kids on their own terms and in their own context, the pressure to be “relevant” can often blind us inadvertently.

The only danger is that their greatest intentions may be undermined by the very media they use to relate. It’s the law of unintended consequences and it often happens when we fail to perceive the true power and meaning of media and technology.

I am not suggesting that we simply reject new technologies. This is like rejecting the spinning of the earth. Instead I want us to understand the power of our media to unconsciously shape our minds and our message. Only after we understand are we able to use our tools without being used by them. In many ways youth workers need to help youth discern these hidden powers.

How do you address the mantras of many churches that go something like, “Our methods, in and of themselves, are neutral; it’s how we use them that counts;” or, “Our forms are always changing, but our message never does”?

These mantras have become the evangelical rally cries around which innovators huddle to defend new methods of ministry. I am all for innovation; however, the mantras are illusions. The famous aphorism of Marshall McLuhan “The medium is the message” is instructive here. He says it more dramatically when he suggests that the content of any medium has about as much importance as the stenciling on the case of an atomic bomb.

In other words, every medium has a message or a bias of its own, regardless of the content that is channeled through it. We are too distracted by the content to even see it. We do not perceive TV’s flickering mosaic of pixels—a medium that makes us more emotional while reducing our capacity for abstract thought – instead we see Desperate Housewives and critique its overt depiction of sex or violence. We are distracted by the content and miss the power of the medium itself, regardless of content, to alter our very patterns of perception. The content is the magician’s sleight-of-hand that distracts while the medium slips the watch from our wrist. My book is an effort to train our eyes to perceive the sleight-of-hand and the power of media, regardless of content, to shape our message, our minds, and our ministry.

What exactly are some of the “forces behind the forms” of technology that ultimately do cause changes in our faith and theology? How does this happen without our realizing it, especially in the church?

Consider the hidden bias of the printed word. This is a medium of linear sequence. It is a medium that demands decoding through a relentless sequence of letters creating line after line of words. Our thinking patterns then begin to mirror our media—we become what we behold.

It is not coincidental that modernity and the “Age of Reason” came about just after the printing revolution. Printing gave rise to modernity, which celebrated the syllogism – a form of logic characterized by “if/then” linear formulas. Modernity also elevated knowledge and reason above all else. And the church of the print era followed suit by pressing the gospel into a linear, sequential formula:

Apologies for your sins + Believe in Jesus = Go to heaven

As the print era wanes and electronic culture reigns, we are witnessing a morphing of modernity’s gospel. Something as simple as communicating with images and icons has changed our approach to the gospel. Images, regardless of their content, erode our capacity for abstract thought and linear reasoning; while at the same time reviving our preference for narrative, concrete experience, and an appreciation for mystery.

The result is a gospel according to electronic culture, which is a gospel encountered through iconic story, mystery, and experience, rather than linear proposition and reasoned argument.

At one point in the book you note, “The church is God’s chosen medium for God’s ongoing revelation to the world…” [[Shane Hipps, 92.]] Can you unpack that a little bit? What significance does that have for the ways we minister with kids?

Christianity, more than anything else, is a communication event — a revelation, a message. It is God’s revelation about God’s self to the world. And God used a variety of different media to convey that message: stone tablets, a burning bush, a donkey, prophets and ultimately Jesus Christ — the only place the medium and the message were perfectly united.

When Jesus died and ascended, God ensured that this medium would continue on in “the body of Christ” — the church. The church is a corporate body, not a collection of individuals. The medium God has chosen for his ongoing message is a community, not a person. To participate in God’s mission to the world, the community plays a vital role. It is God’s medium for his message. If the medium is the message, then what messages do our local faith communities offer the world?

The great challenge for youth ministry is to form youth in ways that affirm the church community as integral to a life of faith and mission in the world. Youth ministry is notoriously individualized — the overwhelming historical emphasis has been on personal salvation followed by moral living, and healing hurts. Naturally these are of great importance, but this has a tendency to erode the corporate nature of the life of faith. And we end up missing God’s medium.

How would you suggest youth workers deepen their process of discernment as they approach and use technology in ministry? And what ideas do you have for youth workers who want to help kids and their parents wade through electronic culture?

In general we need to start perceiving our world and the powers that shape us in a radically different way. We need to move beyond the age-old debate between technophiles and technophobes. Instead we must seek to understand before we assess. This happens by asking different questions of our media and ministry methods. That is what I hope the book does for people: provide a different way of looking at things in hopes that we can better navigate the swirling maelstrom of electronic culture.

Thinking Forward

Youth workers are often faced with the challenge (perhaps in their job description) of being “relevant” or creating “relevant” ministries, which often means adapting new technologies and “keeping up”. The bulk of ministry-related assistance in this area teaches us how to do just that: keep up with the latest in media projection software and hardware, keep up with the latest ipod, keep up with the most efficient phone/email/calendar system (for the more sophisticated of us), and on and on, without looking dumb. Perhaps we, too, have given in to worshiping the cultural gospel’s holy trinity of efficiency, entertainment, and consumption, [[Shane Hipps, 160.]] and need to take an evaluative step backward. Shane Hipps prophetically calls us to consider a more holistic picture of ministry forms, functions, and meanings that we will do well to contemplate.

Action Points

  • Write out a list of new questions to start asking about technological forms and their potential effects on our theology and our ministry practices (If you have no idea where to start, Shane offers a great set of questions in the book). Take a stab at some of them with your ministry team, perhaps even attempting a full evaluation of technology in your ministry.
  • How do you respond to Shane’s assertion that the medium of the gospel is the church? What could that mean for youth ministry and its place in the church? What messages are coming through in the way we do community as a youth ministry and as the church as a whole?
  • What’s one technology you use right now in ministry that could be undermining the good news because of the way the form impacts the message? Are you being “used” by any form of technology, rather than being the one who uses it? What can you do about that?
Brad M. Griffin

Brad M. Griffin is the Senior Director of Content for the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), where he develops research-based training for youth workers and parents. A speaker, blogger, and volunteer youth pastor, Brad is the coauthor of Faith in an Anxious World, Growing Young, several Sticky Faith books, Every Parent’s Guide to Navigating Our Digital World, and the series Can I Ask That?: 8 Hard Questions about God and Faith. Brad and his family live in Southern California.


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