18 March 2013

This is the World You Live (and Lead) in Now

Posted in Digital Ministry, Culture, Social Media, Church, Tagged with digital cathedral

You may have seen this photo published by NBC News about the difference in the crowd in St. Peter's Square from when Pope Benedict XVI was elected the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005 and the announcement of the newly minted Pope Francis just last week.

It is an image that dramatically captures the rapid advance in technology and culture—and the difference in the way we live our lives—over these last eight years. 

This change has profound implications for how we live, lead, and minister today.


Remember that in 2005, the iPhone, the advent of the modern smartphone, didn’t exist. It was still two years in the offing. Facebook was available to college and high school students, but would not be open to the public-at-large for another year.

Mobile technology and digital social networks have changed our habits, rhythms of life, the way we connect, and get news and information. Pope Francis inherits a profoundly different world than Pope Benedict XVI, who, like many, muddled his way through understanding and using digital social media.

These technologies are rewriting the ways we connect (or perhaps amplifying the ways we’ve always preferred to connect), and this changes the way conversations, influence, community, ministry, and leadership happen.

They are not just tools. They are ways of being in the world. They have become an integrated part of our culture, our lives, and, indeed, the practice of faith.

This image of St. Peter’s Square reflects our new reality in several ways:

People are continually connected to an array of social networks

There are always more people present than those just physically in the room, or the Square. These people in St. Peter’s Square, through their smartphones, are bringing their digital social networks with them to this event.

Ministry leaders know that each person is part of overlapping and intersecting networks of family, friends, communities, and congregations. Now those connections are hyper-linked, immediately available, and digital. Ministry leaders have to be aware that we are constantly engaging a much larger group than those we can see. We are preaching, teaching, and speaking to many audiences at once.

Today authority is born not out of position or title or pulpit, but relationships and the robust engagement with your network. Authority is gained through consistent, authentic, helpful engagement in digital and face-to-face networks. Notice how the leading voices are emerging from small corners of the church. That’s because they leverage social media to tell their story and cultivate their networks.

Everyone is a photographer, director, and publisher (And preacher, teacher, and spiritual guide)

Each person in the Square is their own media outlet, broadcasting the moment in pictures, video, and written dispatches. The pulpit (or congregation) was once a dominant platform for shaping public understanding, culture, and faith. 

Now everyone has a platform and it fits neatly in their pocket. Encourage people to share your content. More, encourage them to create and share their own. Engage with their creations and content rather than always expecting them to respond to yours. This stance can help move our churches from places where people consume services to where people not only participate but co-create the ministry.

We've gone fully mobile

No longer do we have to run back to our computers to email or journal our experiences. We can do it all in real time on our mobile devices. Websites and social networks report that traffic to their sites from mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) is skyrocketing. This means our websites should be responsive (that is, they automatically adjust to device they are viewed on).

It also means that most our interactions will be of a shorter, punchier nature—like texts and tweets and quick videos—and longer form communication will be less frequent but will give support those conversations and connections. 

Mobile devices and digital social networks are creating a new lingua franca. We have to speak the language to connect, not only online, but also face-to-face. It's about consistent connections over time.

Screens are an integral part of our lives

Screens are often derided in churches as low-brow because people supposedly "turn off" their brains when then watch them. The critique is less than fair, but understandable in that it is born out of the age of television, where we have been passive receptors of information.

Now people use their screens to "turn on" to engage, create, and connect. It is active and participatory, rather than passive. My congregation has screens in the sanctuary for media display and TVs in the narthex for pictures and announcements. We don't stare at them mindlessly, but instead move between face-to-face and screen, in sermons, worship, coffee hour conversation. It's not jarring. It just looks like the way we live the rest of our lives.

People in this picture are sharing a religious event

The technology in the picture is so striking that its easy to forget that these people are capturing and sharing a religious event—and not just any event—an ancient practice of an ancient institution. They are capturing and interacting with an institution, a religious happening, and, for many, a shared spiritual experience. Mobile technology and digital social networks can communicate, extend, and, yes, deepen religious and spiritual experiences.

People share faith, religion, spirituality, and meaning making everyday across their social networks. Recognize, affirm, and engage with it.

We live in a very different world than we did just eight years ago. Our lives have changed. Our religious institutions and their leaders are trying to keep up. What strikes you about the way your ministry has changed due to technology and culture these last eight years?

[Note: it came to my attention after posting this that the pictures were not taken under similar circumstances. The 2005 picture is from the funeral of Pope John Paul II. The 2013 picture is from the introduction of Pope Francis. More from the Washington Post here. Although it is not a one-to-one comparison, it is still instructive, I think, on how our lives have changed. All the points I make below still apply (even with the more accurate pictures in the Washington Post article). Thanks to those who brought this to my attention.]

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