What Can We Learn about Video Churches from Mars Hill’s Closing?

It’s been a while since I’ve written here, but I did put together a piece about the video satellite model of churches for OnFaith. As I write in the piece, I’ve always been a bit skeptical of the model since I want to favor in-the-flesh personal encounters and avoid celebrity preachers and branded models of church.

However, when I actually talked to churches using this model, I found that some of them had actually thought through a lot of the common objections and come up with creative ways to overcome them. Here’s how it starts:

At the Acts 29 Conference in Dallas, Texas last week, the recent events surrounding Mark Driscoll and the network he founded were in the air. But as one attendee commented to me, the pastors there weren’t focused on Driscoll himself so much as what they could learn from Mars Hill Church’s recent decision to dissolve its video-powered network of 13 churches.

As of January 2015, each Mars Hill Church location will either become an independent church or will cease to exist. And as the satellite model of churches continues to develop nationwide wide, the larger question, not just for Mars Hill but for churches and denominations of all kinds, is whether the video satellite model is a viable way to do church.

Continue reading: Is the End of Mark Driscoll’s Church a Sign for Satellite Churches?

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What Form of Video Best Addresses Phone Addiction & Isolation?

We all know the basic message: “put down your phone” “talk to a real person,” and “pay attention.” And we’ve probably all noticed the irony of people use social media to post videos that contain these messages and warn about  the dangers of social media.

As I’ve been watching these, I noticed that some struck me as quite powerful while others as predictable and even boring. Why is this? Is there a simple reason why some of these videos more effective than others? Why do some make us stop for a moment, but others are easy to dismiss?

Below is a small sample of a few of these videos representing the various ways they use video: direct speaking messages, some use infographics, and some are wordless stories. Watch them, and see which you think are most powerful.

Look Up (4:59) – Lyrical Presentation

The second half has a heart-tugging story element with a strong A/B storyline. It felt a little long and a tad predictable, but the lyrical style kept me interested.

Innovation of Lonelineness (4:20) – Infographics

The animations and graphics on this video are incredibly well done. They kept me watching even when I felt like the message was too strong and one-sided.

I Forgot My Phone (2:10) – Wordless Story

I think this video is the most powerful, because it was short, it told a story, and it avoided an omniscient narrator. To me, this made the message clearer and the emotional impact deeper.

Video as a Visual Medium

I appreciate each of these videos and want to thank the creators of each for their hard work. But I think the reason the final video seemed most powerful to me was that it uses video as a purely visual medium and communicates through images rather than propositions.

In the first two videos, the narrator tells the story, and he tells you what to think about the story. That means the visuals are secondary. The images, video, and graphics are only a supporting element to the statements the speaker is making. But if you didn’t have those statements, you’d still get mostly the same message. [tweetable]In the final video, everything essential is communicated visually, through the main characters eyes[/tweetable].

Even when there is a particularly powerful visual element in the first two videos, the narrator breaks in with statements and propositions, forcing your brain to enter into a more logical mode and making the video secondary. I think this is why the narrators chose a lyrical presentation rather than a more direct style of speech, because they intuited that they needed something more compelling that direct propositions.

And yet, I think [tweetable]the final video is still more powerful because the message is communicated entirely without words[/tweetable]. The power of that video is derived solely from its visuals, and the audio is secondary and supportive rather than the other way around.

Let me know if there are videos you find more or less powerful and how the medium itself contributes to that power (or lack thereof).

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Kids Are Addicted to Social Media Because Parents Are Addicted to Control

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as the headline makes it seem.

But new data suggests that while the often heard complaint, “Kids these days spend all their time online rather than face-to-face,” may be true, it’s not true for the reasons we think. No, today’s under-18 crowd is not made up of degenerates who don’t like human contact. Rather, they want face-to-face time as much as we did, it’s just that their parents won’t let them have it.

Parents Controlled by Fear

Its ComplicatedIn her forthcoming book It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens, dana boyd interviews teens about their social media usage versus time in person. In almost all cases she found that the students said they would much rather spend time face-to-face, but they cannot because, well, their parents won’t let them.

Two major cultural shifts seem to be at the root of this. The first is that many of today’s youth are over-scheduled with sports, school activities, community service, and so on, all in an effort to be visible in an increasingly competitive college admissions process. This means they have very little down time to rest or be with friends.

When teens do have a little precious free time, the second cultural shift takes over. Today’s parents are much less likely to let their kids roam free, exploring the outdoors, riding bikes, going over to the friend’s house down the street, or engage in other unstructured activities. Ben Wiseman of Wired suggest that this parental tightening began when, “over the [past] three decades, the media began delivering a metronomic diet of horrifying but rare child-abduction stories, and parents shortened the leash on their kids.”

In other words, 24-hour news coverage of kidnappings made it seem like American neighborhoods are less safe when, statistically speaking, there are fewer kidnappings than when today’s parents were kids. But today’s parents (the same ones who get all their parenting advice from online sources) scared by the unstoppable torrent of violent images and stories, respond by keeping their kids sequestered at home.

What Kids Really Want

danah’s data and conclusions shouldn’t surprise thinking Christians. Our understanding of humanity teaches us that every man, woman, child, and teen was created in the image of a deeply relational Truine God. Certainly some of that “image” is our longing for contact, community, and presence.

But left in solitary confinement with nothing but an internet connected device, today’s kids have little choice. They desperately want human connection, but the only parentally-allowed way to image the Triune God is to use Snapchat, Facebook, or the flavor of the week. As boyd puts it, “Teens aren’t addicted to social media. They are addicted to each other.”

So the next time you see a checked out kid on her phone, remember that there might be more going on that what you see outwardly. This doesn’t mean that we need to turn kids into victims or excuse every negative, narcissistic behavior. What it does mean is that saying “Turn off your phone” doesn’t address the very real social and culture issues at the root, nor does it offer a compelling alternative.

To an over-scheduled teen under constant parental surveillance “Turn off your phone” basically means “Go to your room and be alone.” That’s no good either. Without real, unstructured time with friends, kids can’t develop the healthy social interactions today’s adults long for them to have.

[Note: I say all this as a parent of preschoolers, so my time is coming!]

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10 Years of Facebook

In the first act of The Social Network, the movie depicting the origin Facebook, we are introduced to a fictionalized version Mark Zuckerburg who, after being spurred by his girlfriend and overlooked by Harvard’s elite final clubs, begins creating facemash.com, a site that lets visitors vote on which of their classmates is better looking.

After a night of beer chugging and code writing, Zuckerburg unleashes his creation on the Harvard campus which both delights and disgusts his classmates. Director Aaron Sorkin then juxtaposing scenes of students gathered around laptops ogling pictures of female coeds on facemash.com with students gathered around tables watching scantily clad women dance at the final club parties.

In this sequence, Sorkin seems to be asking us, “What is the relationship between these two worlds – the ogling women online and the ogling women in person, that of flesh and blood and that of bits and pixels?” Sorkin never ventures an answer, and ten years after the launch of what was then called “thefacebook,” it’s a question we’re still trying to answer.

Online vs. Offline is Dead

When Facebook started, there was still a raging debate that pitted the “real world” against the “virtual world.” In the ensuing years, confidence in this simple dualism has eroded, with researchers, pundits, and bloggers alike recognizing that the relationship between the two is more fluid and dynamic.

Online and offline interact with one another, influence each other, and augment one another, but they never exist in isolation. Even those that choose not to use Facebook still communicate and relate to others through forms of media (phones, letters, and so on), and one must look at the ecosystem of media as a whole rather than isolate one strand and pin various social ills or benefits on upon it.

This is part of the Sorkin’s genius depiction of Facebook’s birth. He shows that the two worlds are so inextricably intertwined that they are really one world. He doesn’t say it’s the one world that God made, but I think that’s the conclusion to which Christians should come.

Rather than see “online” and “virtual” as two magically distinct spheres, one fully incarnate and the other its discarnate doppelganger, Christians especially must affirm that the entire created order, including all that humans create (yes all that “virtual” stuff) is part of one continuous spectrum of creation over which God have complete dominion and control and through which God’s Spirit is actively working.

The Interactions Are More Complex Than We Acknowledge

While we are breaking down the online vs. offline dualism, it is also becoming increasingly clear that the interactions between the technology and culture are more complex than initially imagined. One still doesn’t have to look far to find one person offering effusive praise of the new world of social networking and another offering outright condemnation of all things Internet. But happily it also doesn’t take a terribly long view or much data to see that both of these extremes miss the complexity of what’s really happening. Take for example the idea that “Kids spend all their time online rather than face-to-face.” Statistically speaking teens may in fact be spending less together face-to-face, but to link this effect exclusively to the cause of Facebook is both wrong and unhelpful.

Its ComplicatedIn her forthcoming book It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens, Dana Boyd interviews teens who say they’d much rather spend time face-to-face, but they cannot because, well, their parents won’t let them. It turns out that today’s kids are overscheduled (bowing to extreme pressure for college admissions) and today’s parents are overly fearful (while kidnapping and crime is down in America, 24 hour coverage of gruesome crimes contributes to a general state of fear among parents). Left in solitary confinement with nothing but an internet connected device, kids have little choice. They desperately want human connection, and the only parentally-allowed way to image the Truine God is to go online.

So the problem of “less face-to-face” time isn’t simply caused by social media and neither is social media merely a symptom of some deeper boogey man whose secrets are only available in a book or special conference. Instead there is always complex ecosystem of cultural forces.

Even when Facebook itself is making terrible commercials encouraging narcissism and self-focus (see below), we must also take into account the spiritual forces at work, the “powers and principalities” of which Paul writes and about which Wormwood’s uncle encourages us to forget. Christians have a vocabulary of spirit and flesh and of word and spirit that can add richness, power, and depth to the comparatively anemic ideas of narcissism, privacy, and identity.

The Questions Change as Both We and Facebook Age

And yet, for all this talk of complexity, over its 10-year existence Facebook has made an undeniable impact on society and individuals. Ten years may not seem like a long time, but it’s long enough to see that Facebook has come to have different meanings at different stages in our lives, and that these meanings shift as we age.

Early adopters of Facebook, who were then scruffy college kids, are now approaching the threshold of untrustworthiness, the age of 30. Where they once used Facebook to update their “relationship status” and Poke one another, they moved on to sharing wedding photos, and eventually parenting advice, and now Vitamix coupons. The then bewildered 40 and 50-somethings who didn’t “get it” when Facebook launched are now grandparents who have gone from joining Facebook to see baby pictures (which are no longer mailed to them) to using Facebook independently to share the thoughts that didn’t have an outlet in their earlier lives.  And then there are today’s teens who were never given the chance to know a world without the word “selfie,” and whose use of social media will, too, evolve as they enter college and the workforce.

Many of these same people have now deleted their account in disgust with the entire social media enterprise only to rejoin again in order to reconnect with loved ones who no longer call or write. Some are on their third of fourth account, and many of us maintain multiple accounts on different networks that we use for different purposes. We often complain about the system, but we also recognize that it is a new and constant part of our reality.

The Continuum of Home, Work, and Play

So in this new reality what role should social media play in our lives and in the lives of our communities? How has our conception of identity and relationship shifted? Can we just unplug and things will get back to normal?

Long ago, it was expected that the way one interacted with professionally with co-workers was different from the intimacy afforded in marriage and different yet again from one’s orientation to one’s children or one’s parents, and different still from a relationship with a long-time friend or pal at the gym.

But by today’s standards, acting differently in these scenarios might be considered “inauthentic.” To be “genuine” today, one must be the same in every sphere of life. Interestingly, this is just what most social networks require – a single, flat identity equally discoverable by anyone. A teacher cannot have a different Facebook relationship (in its current iteration) with her students than she has with her mother, and a student’s relationship to parents, teachers, and friends must be the same as well.

As we’ve previously mentioned, such shifts are multi-variant; we cannot blame them soley on Facebook. In the same 10 years, the physical distinction between one’s job, one’s home, one’s leisure, and one’s school have been blurred by economic and technological forces, each playing on one another.

The cumulative effect of these forces has allowed (or forced) many Christians to re-examine fairly basic concepts like discipleship, preaching, and Sabbath. To take just one of these areas – Sabbath – we know taking a break from “work” is a biblical idea, but when our work machines are also our leisure machines and our social machines, where can we go to truly rest? We can unplug the laptop to stop working during out Sabbath, but what if we need it to socially connect through Facebook? If stopping the use of media is important for true rest, what other technologies might we also give up?

Such questions bring us back to Sorkin’s original question: What is the relationship between the offline and online, the physical and the digital world? It seems that simplistic, binary answers don’t offer us much hope. We must proceed carefully and with perhaps more discipline than previously thought.

A Mirror and a Window

What I hope is emerging from these questions is a sense that looking deeply into Facebook and its impact is not altogether different from looking closely at humanity itself. This is not to say that Facebook is humanity or that Facebook is inert. To the contrary, our global culture has undergone some big changes in the past decade, and Facebook is one of the forces behind that change.

What I mean to say is that the benefits and problems we attribute to Facebook are in many ways a reflection of the two sides of our humanity as the Scriptures portray it.  Every thoughtful post, every beautiful image, every impactful campaign is rooted in the stamp of God’s image embedded on every Facebook account’s human. And every case of bullying, every self-focused rant, and every single game of Candy Crush betrays our brokenness and need for Christ to finish his work of redemption in us.

Facebook can be a convenient punching bag for all kinds of social ills, but it can also offer us a window into the struggles and beauties of a human race that still bears God’s image and which is in need of a complete resurrection.

I think our understanding of technology is clearest when we can carefully take into account its downsides while also seeing its benefits as pointers and foretastes of the resurrection. To that end, I’ll leave you with this commercial from Microsoft. It of course places too much hope in technology itself, but if you can see past the technology and see the time and place to which it points, it is indeed encouraging.

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How Churches of the Future Will Use Technology to Overcome Ice Storms

From Wallpixr.com
From Wallpixr.com

Today, churches all over the country cancelled services because of dangerous, icy road conditions. Many resorted to online only streaming services and pre-recorded events from years past.

Thankfully technology is coming that will ensure churches never again have to close their doors during a storm.

1. Powerless lighting

Technological advances may one day create a kind of lighting system capable of running even when electricity is unavailable. It sounds like science fiction, but it may one day make worship possible around the clock.

2. Unamplified Instruments

Even “pagans” want this one – instruments capable of generating sound without the use of amplifiers. Now we just need vocalists who can sing without monitors – perhaps an entire group of them signing together would work!

3. Genetically Modified Transportation Animals

As a genetics major, I’m really excited about this one. It’s possible that during our lifetime animals may be created that can traverse even the iciest fields. I’m told they also have built in navigation systems capable of avoiding other drivers.

4. Pastoral Housing

As churches grow larger, it is likely that they will soon be able to include rooms for pastors to live in, ensuring the flock will never be without its shepherd.

5. Local Messaging Systems

To find out what was happening at my church, I first checked the website and then was directed to Facebook. In the future, some churches may opt to put large metal objects on top of their buildings that, when struck by another metal object, could carry audio messages to the surrounding community.

Until the future arrives, stay warm my friends!

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Microsoft’s Tragically Unironic Promotion of the 24 Hour Workday

A few weeks ago, the Microsoft Office blog posted an infographic showing how the new  Office 365 products allow workers to get more done since the tools are now available everywhere – in every room of the house, at the kids’ soccer games, in bed, and so on.

I know they are trying to show how good the Office 365 products are, but when you look at the infographic below it really looks like something made by someone with a darkly sarcastic sense of humor, mocking our inability to disconnect.

It seems like it would be better marketing to show that you can get your work done faster so you don’t have to work during happy hour, in bed, at the game, or on the toilet.

microsoft-all-day-work

Update: the great folks at 37Signals seems to have felt the same about Microsoft’s promotion and countered with their own #WorkCanWait campaign.

Check out their tongue-in-cheeck update below and then go to their website to create your own:

work-can-wait

 

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Airplane Mode is Gone: Now You Never Have To Talk to a Stranger Again

Airplane Mode

In a long-awaited announcement, the FAA will stop requiring passengers to turn off phones and computers during take-off and landing.  Under the old rules you had to keep them off (“that’s fully off and powered down, not airplane mode, not hidden in your pocket” as some flight attendants used to say) until the airplane rose above 10,000, but that ceiling has now been removed.

You still can’t actually talk on the phone, but you can keep reading, playing games, or writing emails as long as you like. Apparently, while the FAA used to say that phone signals could interfere with the plane, they now that’s not usually the case although carriers must demonstrate that their planes can withstand the interference. Here’s the statement:

Passengers will eventually be able to read e-books, play games, and watch videos on their devices during all phases of flight, with very limited exceptions. Electronic items, books and magazines, must be held or put in the seat back pocket during the actual takeoff and landing roll. Cell phones should be in airplane mode or with cellular service disabled – i.e., no signal bars displayed—and cannot be used for voice communications based on FCC regulations that prohibit any airborne calls using cell phones. If your air carrier provides Wi-Fi service during flight, you may use those services. You can also continue to use short-range Bluetooth accessories, like wireless keyboards.

faa_ped_flight

So What Does it Mean?

Airline takeoff and landing was probably one of the final places in modern life where phones were absolutely not tolerated. It stood out as the place where you couldn’t readily turn away from an awkward (or interesting) conversation. Now that this ban is gone, it seems a whole line of stand-up and sitcom humor will almost be completely forgotten.

I don’t of course think this is the downfall of society or a major breakdown in face-to-face reality. I personally love working on a plane where I don’t have all the distractions of my office or home, but I have read reports that people today have much less eye-contact with other human beings than they once did and this contributes to depression and other problems. So I do lament what the represents even if, like most of us, I’m glad for the change and what it means for my personal productivity.

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Cutting Edge Digital Evangelism in 1984

Although the title of this post might make some recall George Orwell’s famous book 1984 or even the Apple ad shown at the Super Bowl that year, I’m actually referring to much smaller, probably entirely unknown event.

The 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans

As part of my mom’s current downsizing project, she gave me a folder full of old keepsakes. One of these was a little coloring book from Louisiana World’s Fair held in New Orleans in 1984.

Below is the cover and the first few pages:

booklet-11-full booklet-02 booklet-03

If you look closely, you’ll notice a few things. First off, apparently I wasn’t the most gifted “inside the lines” colorer of all time.

But more importantly, you can see that the book was printed in a dot matrix style with my full name “John Dyer” and the name of the person who acquired this for me: “Granddad Dyer.” In the subsequent pages, you’ll notice a few more customizations: my name is used several more times, there is a reference to me as “young man” and my “very special grandfather,” and then on the last page our old address in Mississippi is printed out.

I was only about 5 at the time, so I don’t remember the Fair or how this was done, but I imagine that at the time this was a fairly impressive project. The theme of the 1984 Fair was “The World of Rivers—Fresh Waters as a Source of Life” and the booklet references a special “River of Life” exhibit put on by the Churches of Christ  (wikipedia | equip). The back cover refers to a company called Ideact in Knoxville (there is a still a YellowPages reference to them, but when I called them the number is no longer valid) which was evidently tasked with producing some kind of live printing system for the exhibit.

My guess is that they had a walkup computer terminal of some kind that allowed people to enter their name and a few details, and then it “magically” printed a booklet right on the spot that recalled the exhibit.

Imagine how cool that would be in an era before most people had a computer in the home.

30 Years Later

Today, believers around the world are experimenting with ways to use technology to communicate the Gospel, and I find examples like this to be great reminders that we stand in a long line of men and women who have been doing this a lot longer than us.

By God’s Spirit, I hope they succeeded in reaching a few.

Booklet Gallery

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How Google Hacked Our Imaginations with #IfIHadGlass

htgo_banner

In just about every James Bond and Batman film, there is a segment where Q (or Morgan Freeman) introduces us to a few new gadgets. At first, the hero looks over the objects quizzically, but then the handler demonstrates how to use them, unlocking their mystery and inviting both the hero and the audience to imagine how the tool might become integral to the story about to unfold.

Google Just Made You Batman

If you’re a tech junkie like me, you might have noticed that Google is attempting to become our own personal Q in its efforts to promote Glass, the futuristic/super-nerdy looking eyewear that present a user with a heads up display and an always-on camera.

Just like Q, they first showed us the strange looking device (pictures of impossibly good-looking people wearing the hideously unfashionable glasses), then they demonstrated a few basic uses (queue the demo video with spunky music below), and finally – and most importantly – they created a social media campaign inviting people to use the hashtag #IfIHadGlass and imagine how Google Glass might become integral in the story of their life.

The Importance of Imagination for New Technology

Google recognizes that the success of Glass has very little to do with how many features it has, and everything to do with embedding the product in our collective imagination. They know that if you want to get the entire world to buy something that no one is asking for, you can’t start with specs, you have to start with story.

Before people buy things, they have to “see themselves” with the product. For example, if you try on a new cardigan and you look ridiculous, you probably won’t buy it. But if the mirror reflects a more awesome you, then you’ll probably bring it home. With technology, we too need to “see ourselves” using the device, and the image we create in our minds needs to show us overcoming some obstacle that would be difficult without the gadget. Without that story in place, we’ll never feel compelled to buy.

Creating an Alternate Ending

Tell Me a StoryIn his great new book Tell Me a Story, Scott McClellan writes, “A story is progress, action toward an outcome. Characters without a pursuit do not make for a [good] story” (29).

The problem for Google is that when we first look at Glass, we’re not quite sure what the “outcome” is or how Glass gets us there. My life seems fine, we say, why would I want to look like a cheesy character from Argo?

Google is saying, “Yes, yes. Ask that question. Ask it again and again and again, until you find the answer. Once you do, you’ll love it.”

If we try to imagine what it will be like to use Google Glass, and we can’t come up with anything, Google looses big time. But if they can coax us to keep imagining and keep trying to tell and hear better #IfIHadGlass stories, then one day the once strange product will become a normal, unquestioned part of our larger cultural myth and we’ll consider it as necessary as a microwave or mobile phone.

Reclaiming the Narrative

There is nothing particularly troubling about all this. But as always there is a danger lying around the corner, and that when we spend a lot of time focusing on what the product can do for us, we sometimes allow the product to takes over the story we were originally trying to tell. Instead of using Glass toward some larger pursuit, the acquisition and use of Glass becomes the outcome.

We’ve probably all caught ourselves doing this on occasional. For example, we all bought cameraphones to remember those great moments in life, but then we found out that sometimes the goal of “capturing the moment” gets in the way of the moment itself. Or imagine a pastor who wants to tell people about the surpassing beauty of Jesus, but then becomes enamored with bigger and bigger screens and more and more downloads.

The goal of this post is not, of course, to bash on cameraphones, podcasts, or Glass, but to give us the chance to rethink on the place of technology in our lives and in the stories we are trying to tell with our lives.

What is the true outcome toward which we are striving? Do our tools help us overcome conflict to get to that goal, or somewhere along the way did acquiring new toys become a chief pursuit?

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