M y first book is The Wired Church. Published in 1999, it benefitted from being the first to market in addressing the church’s relationship to emerging digital technology in ministry. I wrote an updated edition in 2008, The Wired Church 2.0, and in it tried to put some more beef on the theological bones of media in worship and ministry. In this excerpt, I address the question of relevancy:
Wired Churches understand digital media are not just “skills”
Every new communication system must be taught. It’s a form of literacy. A new language is easiest to learn and retain when it occurs in the majority culture. Digital media is now that language. It is indigenous, a fundamental cognitive system of communication. Most people have heard the “tongue” since the day they were born. A media-literate person is no longer aware of media as a language or means of communication. In fact, resistance to media ministry usually arises out of ignorance of media as a formational system.
When I finished formal education I joined many unemployed and underemployed college graduates with degrees in communication and media, probably because media was still institutionally a skill. Most universities taught it only as a means of understanding sociological impact. “True” instruction still occurred at the literate level. But as the print culture fades, its purveyors are discovering what everyone else already knew: that media is no longer a profession; it is an entire system of communication. Digital forms coexist at the developmental stage with printed forms of literacy. Now, a four year-old child can edit a video. This means the use of digital media is not a fad or trend. This isn’t going away in our lifetimes.
Wired Churches become fluent at saying “new things” with media
The fluent church leader is not just a producer of worship but also a producer of culture by observing and editing the trends of the culture at large. In fact, it is these very trends that often give inspiration that may be adapted to ministry contexts.
However, even while looking to the culture for nuances of this visual, digital language, do not:
- Let the meaning within the messages of cultural media determine the meaning within your messages;
- Become bound to the very forms that inspire you.
Artists set the cultural agenda as much as they imitate it. Most great artists may be classified as either innovators or perfecters. Handel the innovator, Mozart the perfecter. Miles the innovator, Wynton the perfecter. As the filmmaker Steven Spielberg once said in an interview:
We define our times as we live them. Every time a studio plays it safe and says this isn’t the right time for a western, some western comes out and succeeds. Who would have thought a costume drama, a love story aboard a boat that sinks, was going to move anybody? The times define themselves as we move through time. The pundits that start to predict what’s right and wrong, what’s good timing or bad timing, I used to listen to that, and recently I just don’t. I just sort of shoot in the dark.
A media-literate producer is capable of speaking the language with fluency. Ultimately, Wired Churches don’t just use film clips and imagery that mimics trendy cultural styles, but figure out, each in their own way, how to say something new with digital media. A gospel storyteller who can achieve this will empower a human being beyond any message that the world may have to offer.
Wired Churches understand cultural/counter-cultural tension
Consider professional football. Each year, at the annual draft, someone is awarded the honor of being named “Mr. Irrelevant.” This dubious title is given to the last player selected. As one might guess, the moniker arose because the last pick in the draft often fails to make the final roster, making the selection irrelevant to the team.
Ironically, the highest relevance for the player is often that they’ve been selected Mr. Irrelevant. The “winner” gets treated like a king for a week at a festival, banquet and party. There’s a whole cottage industry around the concept, with its own website. They even have an award, called the Lowsman Trophy (that’s the opposite of the Heisman Trophy). Instead of the famous running back with extended arm, this trophy features a shocked player dropping the ball.
The idea of relevancy can get a little crazy, in both professional football and in ministry. In the church, some circles strongly emphasize it, while others are stridently opposed to the concept of being “relevant.” On one hand, there’s an entire ministry magazine called Relevant. You might guess their opinion. It reflects the relevancy concerns of the seeker movement that has been popular since the 1980s. On the other hand, some might say the recent movement called Emergent could be appropriately named Irrelevant, with its emphasis on stepping away from pop culture awareness and its search for new, authentic expressions of faith. This debate extends back through Christian history.
A church that I worked closely with experienced the tension of the “relevancy” debate on a regular basis. The pastor is highly interested in relevance. His desire is to break down barriers that prevent people from encountering Jesus. He likes to use language such as, “Our church is a place where you can use ‘fun’ and ‘church’ in the same sentence.” He also says the people of the congregation are “far from perfect, but they’re real.” The understated theology is that God is present in the places where we live, as sinful as we may be. This is the essence of the Incarnation. It could be said that the pastor’s focus is on the human Jesus – the one who hung out with sinners and tax collectors.
The worship leader, however, is highly interested in what he usually describes as “deeper” worship. He says that his goal is to create a worship environment that enables people to glorify God and know God’s presence. In worship, he uses language such as, “Let’s enter into a time of worship,” and, “Let’s give honor and respect to God today.” The understated theology is that we as sinful people must cleanse ourselves through faith in Jesus to experience the presence of a God who is without sin and wholly Other. This is the doctrine of sanctification, or to be made holy and set apart for God. It could be said that his focus is on the divine Jesus – the one who became transfigured on the mountaintop.
These may seem like fairly opposite goals and beliefs. In some ways, they are. But these two points of view are not mutually exclusive and can and we should coexist in the way the Gospel is communicated. For this church, it has on occasion created tension. But his church is better off for it. Because of the pastor’s and worship leader’s unique personalities and passions, the Christian paradox of being cultural and yet counter-cultural at the same time remains present in this church community.
When a congregation experiences this paradox, it is in a very real way reflecting an ancient tension. At the Council of Chalcedon, in the year 451, the church confessed Jesus as truly man, truly God. Two natures that are in perfect unity. This belief is about as universal as it gets in the Christian Church. Although we confess it with our mouths, we often don’t show it in our actions. Many churches can’t handle the tension, and end up focusing on the human side (being “in the world,” or relevant), or the divine side (being “not of this world,” or irrelevant). As R.C. Sproul states,
When we think about the Incarnation, we don’t want to get the two natures mixed up and think that Jesus had a deified human nature or a humanized divine nature. We can distinguish them, but we can’t tear them apart because they exist in perfect unity.
If the two natures—human and divine—are equally present in Jesus, this means the challenge for those in ministry is to always hold the two in tension: To not get so engrossed in connection that discipleship is lost, or not to get so engrossed in discipleship that the door closes to the world.
At the church where I got my start in ministry, Ginghamsburg, we experienced a period in which the effort to be relevant surpassed the effort to create a thriving counter culture. We were doing a great job of using cultural language and images to attract people, but the “back door” was almost as big as the “front door.” Many people left, or stayed mired in their human condition, because in our rapid growth we didn’t yet have discipleship programs to match evangelistic programs. The focus on relevancy without the balance of creating a counter culture unfortunately has happened a lot in the church, especially during the “seeker” period of the 80s and 90s. Out of these movements a newer emphasis on what some call “believer” worship has emerged. Taken from the classic tension, the emphasis on the human Jesus is now shifting back toward the divine Jesus.
The use of visual media gets caught in the undertow when it is closely associated with relevant worship and is seen as primarily a tool for outreach. Digital media is not only for outreach purposes. It is true that biblical truth can be expressed in ways that are potentially more enlightening through images relevant to our culture, when compared to images that have long established meanings in the church. But contrary to what some demonstrate, images may be used for devotion as well. Any single association is false, just as any would be for the printed word. Both are mediums for creating an experience and awareness of God, and are equally valid. This means images are good for worship that strives to be relevant and also good for worship that strives to make disciples. The cultural language of digital media has resonance in both cultural connection and counter-cultural discipleship.
This marriage of the human and divine languages creates an awareness of the Spirit through which believers and non-believers alike can find hope and meaning. The nets are cast much wider when we balance the use of digital media for both outreach and discipleship. It is when we exclude one purpose or the other that the catch is greatly reduced.
If Jesus is both human and divine, and if our goal is to proclaim the Word and make disciples, then we need to be willing to stay near the human Jesus even as we are drawn to the divine Jesus. If we follow the lead of Jesus’ ministry on earth, we’ll find ourselves striving to communicate in a relevant way through stories and parables that relate to people living in this time. Speaking the language of the culture, or being a Wired Church, means learning how to remain relevancy even as we strive to create a counter-culture separate and apart from the world.
What is your opinion about the role of media and the question of relevancy in worship?