What Do Our Communication Practices Say About Us?

by Will Miller

I am pleased to commend for your reading this brief commentary on the influence of our current communication culture on our identity, on our church life and on our relationship with the world, especially since the intensive graduate course I taught (Communication and Culture) is referenced in it.  In fact, I encouraged Will to find a way to disseminate it to a wider audience. 

A recent book by Leonard Sweet (Viral: How Social Networking Is Poised to Ignite Revival [Waterbrook Press, 2012]) speaks of our communication culture as TGIF (Twitter, Google, iPhone and Facebook).  In the class I learned just how extensive social media has become beyond even these dominating forms (see, http://www.forbes.com/sites/fredcavazza/2012/03/12/an-overview-of-the-social-media-ecosystem/).  I also learned how little I knew about their usage, let alone using them myself. 

But Will’s piece is not a how-to manual on such media platforms.  It provides an insightful commentary of what they mean for communication practice within the church.  For example, some have been encouraged by a return to tradition, including the liturgy, by younger folks.  But Will dissects that phenomenon and gives it a reality check by showing that this interest is not so much a looking “for” tradition, but “to” it.  Those are two different actions indeed!  But enough of my words, please dig into this article and begin to get a clearer picture of what social media has done to our once safe and predictable approach to communication.  And remember—the first iPhone was released in the summer of 2007; what incredible changes that have occurred in just six years!

Glenn Nielsen, Professor of Practical Theology

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Questions of identity are important.  Whether we’re talking about an individual or a whole corporate body, the question of who we are is foundational.  In an American context especially, identity questions (and sometimes identity crises) are part and parcel of a highly fluid and mobile culture where individuals can regularly define and re-define their identity for themselves through a process of invention.  But equally important as questions of identity are questions of praxis.  Rather than to revel in the existential angst of the question “Who am I?”, there is also a way of getting at who we are by what we do.  And it is that question of what we are doing as a church body that I want to address here, precisely because our identity in itself is in question and navel-gazing can only get us so far.  Perhaps beginning with our current practice can be a productive staring place for other, more immediate conversations.

While doing some coursework here at the seminary, I’ve been pressed to reflect on the changes currently happening in our culture and the church’s response to those changes.  I’ve been specifically looking at changes in communication practice.  The changes in the ways in which people in our culture communicate today became important for me because part of our identity as the LCMS is wrapped up in our proclamation of the gospel.  Like all theoretical education, this process of reflection on our communication habits within a shared American culture has been more difficult than I had originally thought.  Looking out into the blog-o-sphere you can find any number of different opinions about how to reach a generation of Americans that has demonstrated a marked ability to resist our easy assumptions and categories.  Like any working theory, those I have read in books or on someone’s website have varied widely regarding their explanatory power to account for both what is happening in the culture as well as what is happening when we proclaim the gospel.  When it comes to communication theory and the promise that theory holds for communicating the gospel effectively, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of viewpoints on the usefulness and faithfulness of applying an expanded capacity for communication to the task of proclaiming God’s good news.

I don’t pretend to have hard and fast answers, and that’s probably the greatest strength to what I have to say.  It isn’t just that an opinion piece shouldn’t claim to have a corner market on truth (much less so when the topic touches on God’s ultimate truth) but it’s that honesty about how quickly our culture is changing that can have the effect of humbling any pastor before he opens up to weigh in on the important task of preaching and teaching.  Below are some of my observations and the implications that I believe will lead to more focused discussion on what we are doing as a church body when we are communicating the gospel.  As I said above, my hope is that these short points will help us to take a reflective look at what we are doing, how what we are doing is communicating to the culture around us, and what picture those practices are painting within our current context before the wider society.  After all, part of understanding one’s identity is found in relationship to the others around you who are not you.  Part of personal or corporate identity is learned in relationship to the other.

Communication Principles for the Church Moving Forward:

  • Everyone/thing is accessible.

Everyone is accessible through the internet, but much more exposed and vulnerable through social media.  Any yahoo in the world can have an opinion and find a platform to rant and/or rave about your church, product, etc.  I recently googled my own congregation to read reviews of worship experiences that people had there on any given Sunday.  If enough folks post good or bad reviews of your church on line, those reviews will have more weight with potential visitors than your well-designed website.  Sadly, most churches are even behind on the importance of having a well-designed website and are completely unaware that people are already sharing unfiltered opinions of their congregation.

  • Communication is instant.

Twitter and Facebook, especially as accessed through mobile devices, means that communication happens in real time.  This is not different than the real time interactions that mobile phones made available to us.  The difference is that these forms of communication represent the phone call that never ends.  Communication is therefore also open-ended.  You never get to the point where you “hang up” with people in cyberspace.  Doctrinaire pastors completely miss this point with people whom they are teaching because they are seeking to find that point where the seeker/catechumen capitulates to their view of the faith/life and will accept the Lutheran faith as packaged for their consumption.  Not so.  Instead, the conversation about the faith is on-going and truth is shaped (never arrived at) in continuing dialogue.

  • Solitude and quiet are more valuable than gold and harder to procure than enriched uranium.

Social media doesn’t negate the spiritual truth that solitude is important to the fully formed spiritual life.  Social media doesn’t negate the fact that there is still what Henri Nowen called a “ministry of presence and a ministry of absence” that make up pastoral ministry and practice.  However, the speed at which people are able to communicate today requires that mature Christians seek out some time to be quiet and still before the Lord.  It also requires pastors to be intentional about the way in which they invest their time in their people so that those who are naturally more dependent on a pastoral presence do not go through similar withdrawal symptoms when their pastor is unreachable for a period of time as those who suffer from nomophobia suffer withdrawal when they find themselves without their smart phone.

  • Information comes in bite-sized chunks.

Micro-blogging, Twitter, Facebook, et al have forever changed the way in which folks consume information.  I learned during the course of a class on communication with Dr. Glenn Nielsen that my personal blog is already outdated and far too long for some Googlers to digest.  This post is too long for some Googlers to digest.  The implication for preaching and teaching in some contexts must be that we have even less time than we had before for getting to the point and bringing people into the sermon experience.

  • Faith is not only experiential, it is experienced in relationship.

The experience of the faith is not something that can be experienced in the same consumerist way that it was for the Baby Boomers.  Just as people today experience national events in a communal way through text, Facebook and Twitter, so too the experience of the faith has to be had in community.  Whether small groups are still a viable option or not is a different question.  The community that I have in mind must be defined more broadly because community experienced through social media is amorphous and mobile.

  • Faith is communal.

As I stated above, community needs to be redefined in the cultural sense.  People are looking for an experience of the faith that is communal, but that community is broader, amorphous, and mobile.  This means that the boundaries of who’s in and who’s out are not defined by doctrine.  Instead it is defined by participation.  This development is going to be problematic for confessional Lutherans of every stripe.

  • People are NOT looking for tradition; they are looking to tradition.

People today are very interested in tradition, especially the ancient traditions of the church, but not for the reason that many neo-conservatives might think.  They want to draw inspiration for faith life today from the tradition.  They are often not interested in adopting the tradition wholesale any more than they are interested in deeply understanding the history of the tradition.  Tradition is a font or source.  Tradition is to be googled and mined for what interests and inspires.

Whatever shape our church takes in the decades to come, one thing is certain: we are communicating something about who we are and what we believe by simply maintaining certain communication practices.  Those practices connect with our culture in varying degrees of effectiveness.  Since we are communicating something about our message merely by the practice of our communication, whether we mean to or not, the best thing might be an on-going evaluation of our practices in order to communicate more effectively on purpose and in service to the gospel.

Will Miller is a PhD student at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and associate pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, St. Louis.

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