A vision to become the media

Posted Sep 12, 2011 | New Media Project

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By Eric Elnes, guest blogger


"Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." This difficult line from Luke's version of Jesus' Beatitudes is often passed over in preference for Matthew's version, "Blessed are the poor in spirit...." Yet when it comes to emerging technologies, it is sometimes the physically poor who are responsible for technological innovation and who glean its earliest benefits. Understanding this may reveal surprising opportunities with respect to the use of new media by churches, seminaries, and denominational bodies that struggle with limited resources.

In 1999, I spoke at the first-ever International Symposium on Multimedia and Worship in Ulsan, Korea. In the midst of the conference, I asked my host where I could find a pay phone to check in with my family back home. The gentleman exclaimed, "No use phone booth. Use this."

He pressed a small object, which had been hanging around his neck, into my hand. I had presumed it was a pendant. I was shocked to find it was a cell phone a fraction of the size of those available in the U.S.

"Thank you very much," I responded, "but I'm making an international call. That's too expensive to use a cell for."

"No, no," he insisted, pressing his hand over mine. "Call is free."

"Free?" I asked, incredulously.

"Yes. Phone is connected to Internet in sanctuary. Your call is free."

It would be five years before Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) would reach the U.S. and about a decade before cell phones could make use of it. How was a country like South Korea able to benefit from technology a decade ahead of the richest, most technologically advanced country in the world? Surprisingly, poverty played a key role.

Throughout the twentieth century, providing nationwide landline service required such a high investment in infrastructure that for the most part it remained a luxury enjoyed by only the wealthiest nations. The new cellular technology was cheap by comparison. Recognizing the opportunity just as their economy was starting to grow, South Korea rode the technological wave for all it was worth, rapidly developing newer and better technologies to keep up with demand. Since the wealthiest nations were already heavily invested in landlines, they were far slower to adopt cell technology and slower to innovate.

As a 47-year old member of a mainline denomination, I have witnessed the gradual "mainline decline" in membership, financial resources, and public voice nearly all my life. While I've lamented the decline as much as anyone, we can take a lesson from South Korea's cellular phone experience and turn our current poverty into an asset, at least with respect to our use of media.

One of the assets we've rarely afforded in the mainline church is traditional mass media. What little investment we had in television and radio has largely been sold off or given away to preserve other ministries, leaving print media as our largest (though diminished) resource. Some have hoped that secular media would pick up where we left off, covering stories about compassionate mainliners doing good in the world, or at least focusing on justice issues that might move society forward. But we have been wholly disappointed. Secular media isn't interested in telling the Christian story the way we believe it should be told. Instead they focus on churches in Florida who burn Korans, and ministries in Kansas that proclaim hate. In essence, the philosophy, "if it bleeds, it leads," applies as much to religion as anything else.

Over the same period that we were divesting ourselves of media resources, some religious entities were making enormous investments. They invested in global satellite systems, built cable television studios and stations, and purchased or built some 1,500 of the nation's 11,000 commercial radio stations. In most cases, these television and radio networks have told the Christian story in ways very different from what we tell in the mainline church.

My purpose is not to evaluate the theological strengths and weaknesses of one Christian tribe over another. Rather, it is only to note that if mainliners wish to offer a voice in the public square—at least in so far as the media can deliver it—they cannot rely on secular or existing religious media to do it for them. They must become the media.

If we think in terms of traditional media this would require a miracle. But with the advent of new media that streams video and audio over the Internet and networks people from around the world, perhaps what is needed is not so much a miracle, but a vision.

Since January of this year, my church in Omaha, Nebraska, has been broadcasting a "television" program called Darkwood Brew over the Internet for a fraction of the cost of traditional television. Darkwood Brew streams live at 5pm Central/6pm Eastern each Sunday and provides resources for small groups based on our weekly episodes.

While we can't replicate the production standards of network television, it is surprising how close we get. In certain respects, we go beyond network television. We don't just broadcast our views to the world; we interact with our audience—live, in real time, using a combination of text and video technologies—making them participants, not simply viewers. We get to hold a worldwide conversation about Christian faith each week, combining ancient spiritual practice, world-class jazz, arts, social media, and biblical scholarship to explore the growing edges of progressive/emerging Christian faith.

The point is not that we can spread the Good News with no cost. As followers of Jesus, could we ever expect that? Rather, as relatively cash-strapped Christians, we are in a better position than ever before to make our investments count, particularly if we combine our resources with others. Truly, when it comes to interacting with the public and telling the Christian story the way we feel it should be told, we are no longer limited by our resources, but by our vision.

Eric Elnes
Eric Elnes is the Senior Minister of Countryside Community Church in Omaha, Nebraska, one of the case studies of the New Media Project. He also serves as Executive Director of OnFaithOnline.tv and host of Darkwood Brew. He holds a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Princeton Theological Seminary ('97) and is the author of The Phoenix Affirmations: A New Vision for the Future of Christian Faith, and Asphalt Jesus.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

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