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Digital Faith

By David Faulkner.

In March 2007, Andrew Graystone, Director of the Churches’ Media Council, said:

Many church leaders are blissfully aware that there is a revolution under way that’s every bit as radical as the invention of the printing press. Five years from now, we will either have learnt to minister in a digital environment or we will be its victims. Analogue churches won’t survive in a digital age.

For a church, going digital means recognising that most people spend many hours a day using a computer. It means acknowledging the important place that gaming, surfing and blogging play in many people’s lives.

It means learning to use contemporary communication tools like e-mail and podcasting, rather than photocopying the weekly news sheet. It means developing a language and a mindset - even a theology - that embraces digital culture.

Graystone was launching the programme for the annual Churches’ Media Conference, which was to explore the digital revolution. He keyed his comments in to the forthcoming switch-off of analogue television in the UK in favour of digital.

I originally found this statement from the Methodist Recorder on 16th April 2007. A bit of Googling showed that the Recorder was late reporting this: Methodist media chaplain Tony Miles blogged this on 30th March[1]. However, it was the first I had seen of this. So, before we note anything else, we need to acknowledge the obvious: digital culture moves so much faster than ‘traditional’ media. This changes communication, and our expectations of it. I wonder whether to blog something if the event happened a week or two earlier. Will anybody still be interested?

Reading Graystone’s words, I fear too many churches and Christians will interpret them altogether too superficially. They will spend a few thousand on a video projector and laptop, they will use e-mail, they will set up a church website (perhaps using bespoke templates[2]) and - er, that will be it. They will miss what I see as the most important part of Graystone’s thinking. It bookends the quote above: “the digital revolution is as radical as that brought by the printing press, and it will require a new language, mindset and theology.” What follows constitutes some preliminary thoughts on this subject. I make no claim to originality, and there is plenty of thinking going on around these issues. Rex Miller[3], Leonard Sweet[4] and a thousand others are further ahead in their thinking than I am. What might be the characteristics of ‘digital faith’?

Interactive, Conversational and Open-Ended

Interactive and Conversational

In my mind, the best introduction I have read to the need for a digital theology remains Rex Miller’s book The Millennium Matrix[5]. Building on Marshall McLuhan’s famous statement that “The medium is the message”, Miller avers that “The medium is the worldview”. In speech-based oral cultures, truth was found in relationship with others. In the print culture, truth is put in a logical sequence of propositions. In the broadcast culture of radio and television, it is in personal stories and experience. In the digital culture, truth becomes interactive, conversational and open-ended.

So what will digital theology look like? Methodologically, the old days of ivory-tower, one-way stuff from the experts (the papacy of scholars!) will go. It is no accident that the ‘emerging church’ talks about an ‘emerging conversation’. Take an example from early 2007.  Bill Kinnon[6] is a Canadian missiologist with technological skills, who works for Allelon. He was formerly on the staff of a North American mega-church. He wrote a blog post entitled ‘The People Formerly Known As The Congregation[7]’, which made a big splash in the Christian blogosphere. Note that Kinnon not only represents people who will not be just told what to do by experts (who may well use power abusively): he began a conversation. Emerging Grace[8] talked about the underlying issues of passivity, the clergy/laity divide, institutionalism and other dehumanising factors. Jamie Arpin-Ricci[9] then joined in with a community perspective. John Frye[10] couched a reply in the pastor’s voice. And Greg Laughery[11] offered a pastoral response. Theology was done here in conversation, and in this case, the Christological-missiological ecclesiology of the emerging church (as per Alan Hirsch and others[12]) was being developed.

In a conversation like this, theology is not being handed down. People are not being forced to sign up or ‘submit’. Beliefs are still held passionately - this gives the lie to the ‘post-moderns don’t believe in truth’ nonsense. However, it is being done differently. It is the methodology of digital theology. Kinnon did not give a paper and the others gave formal responses: this is truly the interactive and conversational approach characteristic of digital culture. It is surely no accident that the emerging church has so enthusiastically embraced blogging, where the website is not static but contains content for interaction.

It is not surprising, therefore, to find the phenomenon of blogging difficult among those committed to a Reformed theology. Adrian Warnock[13] is committed to the dogmatic stances of Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Together For The Gospel[14], the latter of which seems to believe that denying women leadership in the church is essential to maintaining the Gospel. For a long time Warnock allowed comments on his blog, thus facilitating a conversation. More recently, however, he has disabled comments, thus making public conversation difficult. Some accused him[15] of being uneven in his comment moderation prior to the decision. After he made it, he was thought by his critics to be lacking accountability, especially for his contentious theological views. Warnock used to debate in a remarkably irenic tone, a tone more in keeping with the conversational nature of the best blogging rather than the ‘flaming’ that has elsewhere and in other times characterised theological debates and arguments, particularly in parts of the Reformed ‘blogosphere’. Might it just be that part of the problem here is a theological difficulty with faith as conversation?

More specifically the particular conversation begun by Kinnon has a lot to do with the fallout from spiritual abuse, where power has been used badly and people have been damaged, often by leaders who themselves have unresolved damage in their own lives that leads to an insecurity that is falsely satiated by power and prestige. Postmodernity has rightly criticised the abuse of power; theology has sometimes done that, but the most obvious example in recent decades is liberation theology, and to pick up some books from that movement is also to read the papacy of scholars, however much the authors have been involved at street level. The interactive conversation of digital theology brings new hope for dealing with the abuse of power, of encouraging a ‘servanthood’ mentality and celebrating what we learn from one another.

Open-Ended

Digital theology, like digital culture, will also be open-ended. This can sound quite threatening to someone like me whose basic theological instincts are fairly conservative. After all, I believe the biblical canon is closed, because I believe in the finality of Christ. How open-ended can we be when we believe in the finality of Christ? Actually, we can still be open-ended. Theology is a provisional task and it always has been. It is always, like the task of preaching, about building a bridge between the world of the Bible and the world we inhabit. That is why it is a mistake to fetch upon the doctrinal statements or creeds of particular generations. One might prefer the Fathers (the Apostolic and Nicene Creeds) or the Reformation (the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Thirty-Nine Articles) or the founder of a movement (Wesley’s Forty-Four Sermons). Yet, worthy and profound as they all are, they are snapshots of their times, and specifically related to the issues of their days.

My nervousness about open-ended theology and the finality of Christ is about the danger of losing the foothold in the biblical revelation, because that is determined by the finality of Christ. Provided that remains, then theology has an ongoing task to interpret the Christian faith for the time and place in which we live. It is also open-ended because we cannot claim the same inspiration that we claim for the biblical writers. Even the biblical writers expressed the message of Christ in different cultural forms, according to the situations they were describing and the recipients of their work. So the Synoptic Gospels couch the Gospel in terms of the kingdom of God, a very Jewish concept, reflecting the geographical and religious context of their stories - and in fact Matthew expresses it in the most Jewish language, the kingdom of heaven, with the classic Jewish aversion of the divine name. John, with a Greek background in mind, speaks of eternal life. The Acts of the Apostles concentrates on the kingdom while the message is being preached to Jews, but this becomes ‘Jesus is Lord’ in the wider Roman Empire, in contrast to the claims that Caesar is Lord. Writing to the Romans, Paul picks up the Roman legal term ‘justification’ and uses it to describe the Gospel. Open-ended theology, rooted in the finality of Christ, will, if you like, be incarnated in a particular culture, and this notion makes such an approach even more attractive in ‘emerging church’ circles, where mission and church are increasingly conceived in incarnational terms. We have a task to theologise incarnationally today. And what we do for our day will not do for future generations, although I hope they will learn from us as we learn from the Fathers, Reformers and others.

Surfing

All this makes for a non-linear theology. Gone are the systematic theologies. They never could cover everything, however much they tried. At best, they were consistent theologies, but tended to make one theme an organising principle to the detriment of others. For Calvin it was the sovereignty of God, despite the fact that the most fundamental statement made in the whole of Scripture about God is, ‘God is love’. However, the theology will be non-linear as it mimics the habit of web surfing. We go to a website, read or look at something, and while we are there, we see a hyperlink to something else and off we go. At the next site, the same thing may happen. The little ‘down arrow’ next to the ‘back button’ in the web browser becomes vital in tracing our way back.

What would a non-linear, ‘surfing’ theology look like? It would be one that makes ‘connections’. If the conversational, interactive theology makes connections between people in a dialogue, a non-linear theology will make connections between different fields. The narrow specialisms will shrink. Years ago, I read Stephen Lawhead[16]’s sci-fi novels. I think it was in Dream Thief[17] where a key character describes himself as a ‘connections man’. He connects different disciplines rather than doing what the typical PhD candidate does, finding one restricted original area of one discipline. The connections people needed to be valued, he said, rather than to be despised. A digital theology would value such people. It will connect biblical studies, doctrine, church history, missiology, liturgy, pastoral studies, cultural analysis, art criticism, literature, politics, economics, the sciences and so on. Breaking free of the restrictions and jumping across the boundaries of various disciplines, it will re-tell what Middleton and Walsh called in Truth Is Stranger Than It Used To Be[18] “the non-totalising metanarrative of Christ crucified in our cultures”[19].

It might reasonably be argued that the Gospel of Christ crucified has always been at the heart of the Christian proclamation. The trouble is that it has become tied up with the baggage of empire that has undermined it. This is not to suggest that digital theology is, or will be, without baggage; it is bound to be, because it is the work of fractured, fallen humans, “cracked eikons”, as Scot McKnight[20] dubs humankind. No sphere of human activity is automatically immune from sin. As I write and revise this article, one Methodist blogger has announced the closure of his blog[21] due to ongoing verbal abuse. However, if we can maintain the interactive, conversational and open-ended values, surfing our theology together, we have a chance of creating a suitable wineskin in our day for the new wine.

Flattened Leadership

All this means a reshaping of church and of theological education, and both for Gospel reasons rather than the financial and church decline pressures that are currently forcing denominational leaders into painful decisions. The digital community can help. Tim Bednar[22]’s paper from circa 2003, We Know More Than Our Pastors[23], points out the way bloggers connect and converse across a wide range of people and subjects. The colleges and the non-residential training courses have much they could offer if they went for a conversational, connections approach to theological education. They might even model something that new church leaders could take into active ministry.

But perhaps the coalface will be the church. If more churches start with the Hirsch DNA of beginning with Jesus, going on mission with him into the culture, and then letting the resultant church take a shape appropriate to the culture in which she has grown, that will be a prophetic sign. Meanwhile the older churches can still find new life. We who lead may still wish to preach (I do!), but we need to encourage a proper conversation in the church - about what has been preached, about what to preach in the first place, about the gifts and passions God has given each of us for his mission.

Frost[24] and Hirsch make a passionate case in The Shaping Of Things To Come[25] for a fivefold Ephesians 4 ministry leadership team in churches, consisting of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Generally, in our conceptions of ordination and leadership, we just concentrate on the pastors and teachers, making for inward-looking churches. However, a team leadership with these gifts would balance the church and help re-emphasise the missional priority of the church. Team leadership would also model what needs to happen across the whole body of the church, namely the sharing of all gifts and talents. So, for example, although, in Ephesians 4, Paul seems to anticipate some prophets who are in a leadership position in the church, in 1 Corinthians 12-14 he assumes that the gift of prophecy resides in the body - it need not be exercised by a leader. Ministry and leadership arise from the Body of Christ, and are exercised by the Body.

Typically, this is called ‘flattened leadership’, in contrast to traditional notions of hierarchical leadership. It applies not only to the local congregation, but has implications for networks and denominations of churches, where the anti-hierarchical impulse leads to decentralisation, just as the Internet itself is fundamentally a decentralised entity.

Hence, the ‘control freakery’ of which many leaders are guilty will have to go - we cling onto things like there is an old-fashioned demarcation dispute and say, “That’s my territory, not yours”. We do so out of the same sense of personal insecurity that leads to spiritual abuse. In a world where, as Chris Edmondson says in Fit To Lead[26], the identity of Christian leaders is under considerable pressure, we can fall back into a defensive attitude as self-protection.

That is not exactly Christ-like, though. I am not entirely with those ministers who say their role is to work themselves out of a job, but there is a blessing and a giving away that needs to be done if we are to have an interactive, conversational, open-ended approach. I have heard it said by a colleague that he believed in the priesthood of all believers; nevertheless, it was his job to come down from the mountain like Moses with the word from the Lord. I would not be in this calling without a sense that it involves bringing ‘a word from the Lord’ to people, but the idea that I have an exclusive claim on that in the Body of Christ is something with which I struggle. Ministers still have their particular skills in interpreting the written Word and such interpretations can and will be prophetic, but we bring our gifts to the conversation; we do not use them to shut down the discussion.

The ‘surfing’ element is also quite a challenge to ordained ministry. I am someone who likes to keep a committee meeting to the agenda. It drives me crazy when people go off on tangents. I am still very ‘linear’! A committee meeting to me is a task-focussed group and we need to deal with that task, preferably without the meeting dragging on until late at night. Bringing the group back to the subject in hand can be a wearing task, especially trying to do it lovingly. Yet sometimes the tangents need attention. People have surfed off as if clicking a hyperlink that interests them in the initial conversation and it alerts us to other important interests. We will have to press the ‘back button’ to return to the original discussion, but in the meantime the surfing in the conversation may make us aware of other things that need to be taken into account in the life and mission of the church and certain individuals.

There is nothing new under the sun in what I am advocating here. For thirty or forty years, charismatic Christianity has been advancing the cause of ‘every member ministry’. However, it seems to have become lost in the midst of an unholy combination. On the one hand, leaders try to cope with dodgy mavericks who use that as a base for causing trouble. On the other hand, there are the afore-mentioned insecure, damaged leaders. It certainly needs wise handling. Similarly, people have always gone off on tangents in conversations. However, the digital age makes it even more important to be attentive to these trends and phenomena.

Further Exploration

There is no simple conclusion to this article. The whole field is ongoing and provisional. However, there are plenty of avenues for those who would like to explore further. The world of blogs is particularly fertile, and you are welcome to comment on mine[27], although there are many better!

However, good old-fashioned books (often with associated websites) are very helpful. In addition to Rex Miller’s book quoted earlier, pride of place probably goes to the groundbreaking publication from the Wikiklesia Foundation[28], Voices Of The Virtual World: Participative Technology and the Ecclesial Revolution[29], edited by Len Hjalmarson[30] and John La Grou[31]. On thoughtful use of technology by Christians, see Shane Hipps[32], The Hidden Power Of Electronic Culture[33].

Miller, Hipps and the Wikiklesia contributors write from a Christian perspective. There are also some influential books from a technological background that are not necessarily Christian. The Starfish And The Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations[34] by Ori Brafman[35] and Rod A Beckstrom[36] has influenced issues of ‘flattened leadership’. Everything Is Miscellaneous[37] by David Weinberger[38] explores decentralised and collaborative approaches to knowledge. He also co-authored the influential The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual[39] with Christopher Locke[40] and Doc Searls[41].

On philosophical issues, look for titles by Albert Borgmann[42], such as Holding On To Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium[43] or Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology[44].

Moreover, if you follow the buying suggestions at Amazon for these books, you will come upon many more.

Happy reading and surfing!

[1] http://www.mayb2day.co.uk/?p=309

[2] For example, http://www.churchedit.co.uk/, http://church123.com, or http://www.2day.2s/.

[3] http://www.millenniummatrix.com/

[4] http://www.leonardsweet.com/

[5] San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004.

[6] http://www.kinnon.tv/

[7] http://www.kinnon.tv/2007/03/the_people_form.html

[8] http://emerginggrace.blogspot.com/2007/04/underlying-issues.html Note her blog is now at http://kingdomgrace.wordpress.com/.

[9] http://emergentvoyageurs.blog.com/1664695/?page=last&msgsuccess=1#cmts Note his blog is now at http://missional.blog.com/.

[10] http://jesustheradicalpastor.blogspot.com/2007/04/people-formerly-known-as-pastor.html

[11] http://www.livingspirituality.org/2007/04/exodus-church-part-2.html

[12] http://www.radicalcongruency.com/20050722-christology-missiology-ecclesiology Hirsch’s own blog is at http://www.theforgottenways.org/blog/.

[13] http://www.adrianwarnock.com/

[14] http://www.t4g.org/

[15] http://www.qaya.org/blog/?p=310; http://42.blogs.warnock.me.uk/2007/11/adrian-warnock.html

[16] http://www.stephenlawhead.com/

[17] Oxford: Lion Hudson, republished 1998.

[18] London: SPCK, 1995.

[19] The postmodern suspicion of metanarratives, the big story explanations of life and meaning, is due to their having ‘totalising’ tendencies - that they lead to oppression and exclusion. A proper biblical metanarrative that centres on the Cross should be the very antithesis of this. See also Richard Bauckham, ‘Bible And Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World’ (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2003), in which he describes the biblical metanarrative as non-modern.

[20] http://www.jesuscreed.org/

[21] http://turbulentcleric.blogspot.com/2007/11/this-blog-is-closing.html

[22] http://www.turtleinteractive.com/

[23] http://djchuang.googlepages.com/WeKnowMoreThanOurPastors.pdf

[24] http://www.cegm.org.au/staff/frost_michael.htm

[25] Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003.

[26] London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2002.

[27] http://davefaulkner.typepad.com/

[28] http://wikiklesia.wikidot.com/

[29] Wikiklesia Press, 2007. Available either as a print book or e-book from http://stores.lulu.com/wikiklesia

[30] http://nextreformation.com/

[31] http://microclesia.com/

[32] http://www.shanehipps.com/

[33] Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.

[34] Portfolio Press, 2007. See also http://www.starfishandspider.com/

[35] http://oribrafman.com/

[36] http://www.beckstrom.com/Main_Page

[37] Times Books, 2007.

[38] http://www.evident.com/

[39] Ft com Books, 2000; see also http://cluetrain.com/

[40] http://www.panix.com/~clocke/

[41] http://www.searls.com/

[42] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Borgmann

[43] University of Chicago Press, 2001.

[44] Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003.

David Faulkner

Methodist Minister, Chelmsford Circuit

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You are reading Digital Faith by David Faulkner, part of Issue 42 of Ministry Today, published in March 2008.

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