Tragic and triumphant technology stories

Posted May 29, 2012 | New Media Project

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By Jason Byassee


Note: In the month of May 2012, the six New Media Research Fellows have been blogging about their newly posted theological essays. Look for the link below.

Most of the writing I do on technology has an “on the one hand . . . on the other” sort of character. I hope that doesn’t grow predictable, or mean—or, in the immortal words of Mr. Miyagi, that “walk middle of road, sooner or later, squish, just like grape.” I do more of the vacillating in the essay I wrote for the New Media Project. For now, I wonder if the nature of tragedy isn’t to oscillate between poles. Eugene Peterson shows how this is so.

We have no greater spiritual theologian alive than Eugene Peterson. He retells beautifully the old Greek myth of Prometheus in his classic book, Working the Angles. His reflections on technology in a book published in 1989 came long before the social media age began.

Prometheus had the gall to steal fire from the gods. They didn’t want this—not because they hated humanity but because they wanted our good. Fire can cook, warm, and forge steel, but it can also burn, harm, and destroy. Likewise, humanity has harnessed technology to create and to kill. To punish Prometheus, Zeus chained him to a great rock where an eagle ate his liver every day. It subsequently grew back to be eaten again the next day. Bummer.

Peterson is especially interested that we Americans don’t tell tragic stories about technology. From the Wright brothers to the lunar landing to Google, we only tell triumphant stories about it.

I recently visited the Church of the Resurrection (COR) in Kansas City (KC)—the largest congregation of the United Methodist Church in the world (18,000 members). Its latest ventures and growth have depended on technology. They started new campuses in 2005 in far exurban Olathe (Resurrection West) and in 2006 in downtown KC, and restarted a failed church plant in 2010 in suburban Blue Springs, Missouri. Each campus watches founding pastor Adam Hamilton preach from the church’s central campus in Leawood, Kansas. Lifechurch.tv in Oklahoma pioneered this multi-campus, preacher-on-screen model for church growth, and North Point Church in Atlanta pushed it forward. Pastor Molly Simpson from Olathe says Hamilton’s preaching on screen at her campus frees her up to do other work. “We advise churches to put their best foot forward,” she says. “And Adam is a really good preacher.” Two of those campuses have doubled in attendance with new buildings this year; the third, with only 36 percent growth since January 1, feels like it’s lagging behind.

Another new venture is Resurrection Online, which streams Leawood’s church service in its entirety. It has grown from 1,500 viewers in 2010 to 2,500 in 2012.  COR doesn’t speak of Resurrection Online as a “campus”—it has no pastor of its own, no community life or announcements, but folks can worship and give. It is an extension of their main campus worship, especially for the homebound, the ill, those on vacation, or those who are “non or nominally religious” but not now worshiping in a congregation. Travis Morgan, Director of Resurrection Online, says, “We hope to be a first step on the way to getting involved in a local congregation.”

Technology both makes new things and creates new problems, as fire both cooks and burns. One campus struggled with the screen coming down and covering its chancel cross. Another situated the screen off-center with the cross draped around it. “We just didn’t want to have Adam’s head front and center,” Rev. Molly Simpson says. Resurrection Online struggles with whether folks can join the church from afar. If they fly in to be received into membership, can they fly back to Dallas and serve and grow in faith from there? Can they just be part of COR? They’ve decided yes, though it’s not optimal. Even so, problems remain. How does one participate in a sacramental community online? Morgan admits COR doesn’t know.

My curiosity about online church is this: at what point is it no longer diverse? If every church everywhere offers its worship online and anyone anywhere can watch and “participate,” then we’re reduced to the basest form of competition against one another to entertain well—playing for ratings rather than building a community of people being redeemed together face to face. Maybe that’s what we already have, to some degree. But one still has to summon up the bravery to walk into a church door, to go to the picnic, to sign up kids for programs, to serve in the neighborhood. COR is as deeply committed to those things as anyone else. But doesn’t worshiping online make them harder to do?

Jason Byassee, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Senior Pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, NC and a Fellow in Theology and Leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School.

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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