This case study profiles the weekly online television program Darkwood Brew and the staff and volunteers who run it out of Countryside Community Church in Omaha, NE. I want to thank the full Countryside community for their generous hospitality and willingness to entertain my questions and welcome me into the nitty-gritty details of their project. They also fed me Nebraskan beef, humored my taste for good cabernet, and invited me to worship with them. In particular, I thank Cary Sharkey, the Project Director for Darkwood Brew, who pulled strings before and during my visit to make sure I had quality time to talk with many people involved in the project. Each interview shed new light on the whole, and I am grateful to all those who spoke so candidly about their experiences working on Darkwood Brew or participating in it. Finally, as will be apparent in what follows, the vision of Countryside’s senior pastor, Eric Elnes, guides the project and gives it energy and verve. So too during my visit, Eric energetically shared his vision for Darkwood Brew, its struggles and challenges, and the promise he thinks it holds for the future of Christianity.
This case study is one of six that constitute the main research component of the New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary. In the words of the project proposal, the New Media Project seeks to create “a theological interpretation and strategic framework” to help Christian religious leaders understand and navigate “the vast and rapid changes occurring in digital communication.” The task is not just to help pastors learn to use Twitter or build a more savvy website but to develop resources to help them think theologically about new and social media. At stake is the mission of sharing the Gospel faithfully in a new age—drawing from the deep wells of the Christian tradition while “staying awake” to the shifts and changes around us.
The project takes seriously the ways technology changes users. The communications revolution is not just providing new tools for humans to organize data and exchange information. Our very minds, bodily habits, epistemologies, and assumptions about reality are being rewired in the process of digital expansion. Current technological innovation is not the first to do this. The new media of print technology in the Renaissance and Reformation fundamentally altered our sense of individuality, spiritual practice, epistemology, and the role of the body and material reality in religious life. Hand in hand with easy access to print came increased literacy, which bore with it different kinds of mental and physical habits. Primarily oral cultures gave way to literate ones. The very habits of deep reading, individual reflection, and extended concentration over printed words and argument were not “natural” to human beings, or at least not something humans did in large numbers until relatively recently. Christianity changed too, as it adapted, embraced, and even helped promote the ethos of individual study based on deep reading. It is nearly impossible to imagine the Reformation slogan sola scriptura (scripture alone as a rule of faith) until you could assume all believers had access to a Bible. As reading became the central way people knew and grew in faith, faith became an increasingly individual affair, focused on assent to rational propositions more than a way of life woven into the fabric of a community.
It is too early to say all the ways that new media technologies in our own age are rewiring us as human beings and therefore as religious beings in religious communities. It is relatively clear that for the Millennial generation (those ages 18 to 30) and for those even younger, the web is not a tool to accomplish other things. It is a mode of existence that has distinctive characteristics. Authority is decentralized on the web—we don’t need an expert to tell us the facts about something, we have Wikipedia. Depth is not as important as breadth and interconnectivity—the web is exactly that, a web of hyperlinks, taking us rapidly across huge bodies of content. Likewise, we don’t get lost in discrete objects (like one book or one movie)—we get lost in the connections between objects (like one website leading to another and to another). We consume actively or help create that which we consume—we don’t watch live TV as much as we watch YouTube videos, most of which were made by other users just like us. We have strong community on the web, but we don’t distinguish between virtual and live reality—our digital reality is contemporaneous with our non-digital reality because, thanks to smartphones and wireless, we are almost never not connected.
One hope of this project is to begin to sketch a theological response to this new mode of being in the world. What form of Christianity will emerge out of the practices of digital interconnectivity? How will we remain faithful to the gospel, connected to our rich traditions, and relevant to our age? Even more so, how can we stay awake to the ways we are changing that are beyond our conscious choosing so that we can choose more consciously how to faithfully respond?
To ground future theological reflection, the New Media Project begins with six descriptive case studies, of which this is one. Each case study attempts to answer six questions:
- How do pastors, congregations, and religious leaders experience the massive changes in communication patterns and tools, especially regarding social media?
- Why do pastors, congregations, and religious leaders use new media and social media? For what purpose? Does the purpose further their mission? If so, how? What are they doing?
- How do pastors and religious leaders think theologically about new media? How do they help their communities do so?
- Has the social media revolution changed what lay people or constituents expect of religious communities and their leaders? What they expect of Christian thought and practice?
- How has this massive shift in communication patterns and tools impacted the way in which communities gather and are formed?
- How can pastors and religious leaders using new media be resourced well from the deep veins of wisdom in Christian thought and practice in this new context?
Method and data
I conducted this case study from June to September, 2011. The majority of my time was spent online at the Darkwood Brew (DWB) site: www.onfaithonline.tv/darkwoodbrew. I attended the live web broadcast as a virtual participant four times and watched nearly every back episode via download. I read DWB blogs, joined the Facebook group (which I checked daily), and read through the DWB and Countryside Community Church websites in their entirety. I also spent two days in Omaha interviewing staff and participants of the program, attending worship on Sunday morning, and attending the DWB web broadcast live on Sunday evening (where I was able to observe production and participate in it). I interviewed seven people on site and another person by phone after my visit. I also conducted informal information gathering with live chatters during the broadcast and via Facebook and email after.
My presence on site was met with a generosity of time and energy and a desire to make sure I got what I needed. Undoubtedly, this meant interviewees were thinking about the new media and technological aspects of the project in a way that was not native to all of them. I sent my research questions ahead of time, hoping this might help people know what to expect, but I think it also overwhelmed some of them, since they had not thought about the theological implications of online broadcasting or social media and worried they were unqualified to talk with me. In the end, more people than I anticipated were willing to sit down and share their experiences and reflections, but in order to overcome their nervousness, we talked in much broader terms than the six proposed questions, the answers to which were largely inferred by me from our conversations. Other than short online interactions, I did not interview anyone at length who only participates in Darkwood Brew virtually.
I also bring to the project strong assumptions about the revolutionary nature of new media. As is probably clear above, I believe that the tools of technology shape the tool makers and users. I do not pass moral or theological judgment on this, as though it is something we could stop if we don’t like it. I take the interaction between material reality (including virtual reality, which is material in a different way) and the human soul/self to be a mutually constituting relationship—we make stuff and stuff makes us. These assumptions certainly influence what I think counts as theological engagement with new media and will be apparent in my analysis and summary. I did not, through great restraint, share these assumptions with anyone I talked to in Omaha as they did not come up naturally in conversation.
As mentioned above, this is one of six case studies conducted by six Research Fellows for the New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary. I am sure other Research Fellows bring other assumptions and proclivities to their very different cases and that these levels of diversity will create a more rounded description of how new media is being used by particular Christian communities.
Summary of Findings
My central finding is that the folks at Countryside Community Church (CCC) who create and participate in Darkwood Brew are deeply in, but not of, the new media world. Whether or not this lack of identification with a new media mode of being in the world will serve the project or not remains to be seen.
Darkwood Brew is a project of Countryside Community Church, a United Church of Christ church in Omaha, Nebraska. It is a weekly online television program that, according to the DWB website, “blends ancient contemplative practices with cutting-edge interactive web technology, world-class music, arts, biblical scholarship, and special guests from around the globe via Skype.” The program itself is a blend of old scriptural meditation practices (a take on lectio divina they call pneuma divina), world-class jazz, talk-show format interviews with religious and theological leaders via Skype, and funny, punchy video montages and pop culture references. The broadcast is filmed in the church lobby, which has been renovated as a state-of-the-art coffee shop/studio. Members of the church attend the program live on site as do, on average, 50 to 60 virtual participants, watching via live stream from all over the country and occasionally outside the U.S. A dozen or so of these virtual participants actively participate in a live chat stream that runs parallel to the video player in one’s web browser. The program hosts a Facebook group and has hired a Pastor of Social Media to coordinate and encourage online community. In other words, CCC has invested considerably (in capital, space, and time) in new media and social media to create a program they hope will resource a new form of Christianity, one that escapes the deep polarizations between “left” and right” and focuses instead on the three great loves—of God, neighbor, and self.
For all of this investment, the people who create and participate in DWB are not particularly savvy about technolgy or new media. Most of them are on Facebook, but they are clearly not part of the demographic that lives and breathes by their or anyone else’s status updates. “I’m really quite media averse,” Eric Elnes, the senior pastor of CCC and creator of DWB, confesses to me somewhat sheepishly. “People perceive me as a big tech head, but I am highly resistant. My first reaction to new technology is to be skeptical and swear I will never use it. But I end up thinking about it so much because I am so resistant to it that then I often end up converted and using it, and people think I am an early adopter.” Of the people at CCC who most faithfully attend and support DWB, most of them fall into the 40 to 60 age range. All but one person told me they could never really engage the virtual component of the program. DWB could not be “real church” for these folks (though it is spiritually and theologically very meaningful to them) because, as one of them puts it, “church are the people I see on Sunday morning who will make you casseroles when you are sick or watch out for your kids.”
Embodied communities who know each other outside of digital space are at the heart of CCC’s vision for DWB. The program was born when the church decided to make video guides for a small group study and then realized that others might want access to the same kind of video guide but might want it in a more interactive, web-based way. The vision for DWB is not 1,000 individuals tuning in every week, but 1,000 small groups using the episodes to enrich in-person discussion and study. In other words, DWB is a resource for church in various guises, from youth groups to house church study groups.
It remains to be seen, however, if a new media project that doesn’t embrace the new media mode of existence will survive. Especially among younger generations, the idea of viewing a one-hour program live every week or even downloading and watching it in segments might seem a little too much like old media in a new package. New media is less and less something we consume and instead the way we manage and mediate all aspects of our lives. Resourcing a reformation of Christian faith in that mode will require a similar kind of immersion. The folks at Darkwood Brew are not oblivious to these challenges. The program is barely a year old and the core creative team is already thinking about what the next five years could and should hold. They aspire to be more than just short-format video producers aiming for a viral video hit. They want to resource a reformation in Christianity, and they believe deeply that there are hundreds of thousands of people who need the theological and spiritual resources they want to share. The task now is to figure out how those who don’t just use but live new media will receive those resources.
Narrative responses to research questions
1) How do pastors, congregations, and religious leaders experience the massive changes in communication patterns and tools, especially regarding social media?
Most of the people I talked with at CCC are only moderately involved in new and social media. They are on Facebook, but many of them primarily use it to promote Darkwood Brew or connect with Darkwood Brew participants. They all own smart phones and laptops and some own iPads, but most confess to barely taking advantage of their devices’ potential. One staff member who works on Darkwood Brew had a very negative experience due to new technologies at a previous job: her boss insisted that she be reachable at absolutely any hour and considered her phone a permanent 24/7 extension of her physical office presence. This person left that job because of this abuse of technology. The same woman confesses that her teenage daughter is immersed in social media to an entirely different degree, believing she “might die without it.” Perhaps in the most poetic twist of irony, the current social media pastor for the project was about to disconnect his Facebook page when he took this job. New media and social media are a daily reality for these folks, but they still feel able to weigh the costs and benefits of opting in to any particular platform on any given day. If anything, there was a general sense of discomfort with overreaching technology and wariness to ideas that it might replace older modes of connection or attentiveness. When I asked at one point if he ever thought about the way new media might be rewiring our brains, Elnes responded decisively: “That stuff seems really scary to me.”
2) Why do pastors, congregations, and religious leaders use new media and social media? For what purpose? Does the purpose further their mission? If so, how? What are they doing?
Without a doubt, Countryside’s major use and innovation with new and social media is the production of Darkwood Brew. Thanks to a grant of three-quarters of a million dollars from a private family foundation, they were able to remodel their church lobby into a coffee house/television studio and build a state-of-the-art live editing production room. Every week they produce an hour-long television show aired live over the Internet and available for download later that focuses on different theological and biblical themes. They incorporate video segments, humor, world-class jazz, Bible study, and weekly guest interviews via Skype to create a reflective, worshipful program they hope will serve as a resource to their own congregation and to individuals, congregations, and small groups around the world. Darkwood Brew has a Facebook page with around 700 fans as of September 30, 2011. Another closed (invitation-only) Facebook group allows people to have more sustained discussions on spiritual and personal issues. The producer also creates edited 15-minute “Guided Episodes” that include pauses for discussion around open-ended questions to serve as explicit aids for small group study. The episodes are available for download a few days after the live broadcast on Sunday.
3) How do pastors and religious leaders think theologically about new media? How do they help their communities do so?
The staff members and participants I talked to have different theological interpretations of Darkwood Brew. For some, Darkwood Brew is a mission field for CCC to reach the “spiritually homeless” or to provide resources for those seeking a more expansive and progressive understanding of Christianity. Others see this outreach in more ecclesial terms. They see Darkwood Brew as the third worship service of the church. Complementing the “Classical” service at 9 a.m. and the “Jazz” service at 11 a.m., DWB is the über-contemporary, new media service. When I asked if the virtual participants scattered from Massachusetts to Uganda were in effect members of Countryside, most I asked said yes. Those, however, who think of DWB as missional outreach tend to consider it to be its own church, of which the virtual participants are members.
Elnes didn’t agree with either assessment, exactly. Yes, DWB is an extension of CCC’s mission in the broadest sense, but viewers aren’t members of Countryside or of DWB as a church. The goal is not to replace live communities or serve as a virtual church. The goal is to provide resources to strengthen and grow the faith of individuals, small groups, and congregations that already exist. There are tiny churches in North Dakota without a regular minister who have asked for guided episodes with study guides to use in small groups. There are groups meeting in living rooms in Higgins, Texas, and in Omaha who search out resources to challenge and strengthen their faith, even if they also attend more conservative churches on Sundays. There are the spiritually homeless who haven’t heard the good news that Christianity might be a home for them. Web technology and social media make it easier than ever before to provide needed resources for these communities and to connect them to each other. Being faithful to the Gospel and the love of God known in Jesus requires giving what we can to serve our sisters and brothers. Countryside happens to be uniquely resourced at this moment to give so freely.
4) Has the social media revolution changed what lay people or constituents expect of religious communities and their leaders? What they expect of Christian thought and practice?
When I asked Elnes this explicitly, I received a resounding “no!” He does communicate with parishioners via email, but he is careful not to respond immediately to ordinary correspondence, lest he give the impression that he can be reached at any time.
Likewise, most of the members of CCC who are also involved in the production of DWB or participate in it do not see it as a replacement for church. They all attend a morning service in addition to DWB and all but one person I talked to confessed that while they found the live experience to be very spiritually rich and meditative, they did not get much out of watching it live online.
5) How has this massive shift in communication patterns and tools impacted the way in which communities gather and are formed?
Darkwood Brew is an experiment in whether or not online content can resource communities differently. So far, the pastoral staff knows anecdotally of small groups in Omaha and elsewhere that gather to watch Darkwood Brew live or that download episodes for viewing together. The activity in live chat and on Facebook is primarily from individuals who attend DWB live, in person or virtually, or who watch faithfully via download. The number of people who participate online is not as high as the visionary leadership dreams it will be one day. Right now they average 50 to 60 live viewers and several hundred downloads; they dream of reaching one out of every one thousand U.S. citizens. Those that participate tend to be very faithful, however. Forty percent of their web traffic comes from those who have visited at least six times, and most have visited many more times than that.
Of those who are not already members of Countryside, there is a high percentage of pastors active in the chat and Facebook community. Via Facebook interaction, they have identified five to six pastors of other congregations who participate regularly. As DWB producer Scott Griessell said: “This may not be a large number, but given that we have about 12 to 15 active chatters and Facebook posters, it may not be statistically irrelevant at all.” Reaching out to pastors and tailoring content and format to equip pastors may turn out to be a promising and missionally appropriate avenue for future growth.
DWB has not advertised in any serious way. They have purchased a few Facebook ads and created promotional materials to hand out at the Wild Goose Festival, but most of their traffic comes through word of mouth, quite literally, or online.
6) How can pastors and religious leaders using new media be resourced well from the deep veins of wisdom in Christian thought and practice in this new context?
Using new media to draw from the deep resources of Christian thought and practice is a perfect description of what Darkwood Brew does. For an online service that does not consider itself virtual church, it is remarkably worshipful—prayer, contemplation, scriptural meditation, and theological reflection ground every program. Each episode concludes with communion. Simple words of institution are spoken over a loaf of bread. Those present in the studio pass juice and bread, administering the gifts to each other around the coffee shop. Those watching online are encouraged to partake of whatever they have on hand (bread and juice/wine or milk and cookies, as one live chatter informed the chat group one night) in a eucharistic spirit. I did not talk with Elnes or others about the theological implications of a virtual institution of the elements, but it is clear that they consider the sacrament validly shared by all involved. In many ways, this deep love of and respect for traditional forms—monastic scriptural meditation, sacramental participation—is what defines and sets Darkwood Brew apart from other online programs. Providing theologically rich, expansive, nuanced content is only part of what they are trying to do. They also want to provide a spiritual experience that will fuel a renewal of the faith.
It would be nearly impossible for another mainline congregation to try and mimic Darkwood Brew, at least as it is currently produced. Funded generously by a private foundation, they have been able to invest considerable capital to transform their space, create a mini-television studio, and hire a production team. Then again, most online content that ends up virally infiltrating everyone’s inboxes and consciousness was made with a flip camera and iMovie, so imitation may not be impossible if certain production standards are relaxed. In fact, Elnes’s original vision was and remains an online portal—www.OnFaithOnLine.tv—that would curate programming representing non-polarized, love-based Christianity from many different places. This idea came to him during another daring project—a 144-day walk from Phoenix, AZ, to Washington, D.C. (see Eric Elnes, Asphalt Jesus: Finding a New Christian Faith Along the Highways of America, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007). When this walk did not generate as much media attention as hoped, he realized that progressive Christians could not wait for the media to cover them, they had to become the media. This is a prescient revelation and an inspiring call to action. As Darkwood Brew continues, it faces the ongoing challenge of assessing what it means in a new and social media age to be that media and the challenge of changing with the media revolution as it continues around us.
Kathryn Reklis, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is the Executive Director of the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D candidate in religious studies, concentrating in theology, at Yale University.
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