Neue Media: Why the Church needs new media (before the edits)

from Neue Quarterly, Vol 1, 2008

Humanity has always engaged in the telling of stories.  They are the hallmarks of civilizations, the retellings of great myths and mores, told for entertainment and enculturation.  Communication, initially, was one to few; a single speaker communicating to an audience.  Then came the mass distribution of media, like the radio and movies, where we could begin to communicate via few to many.  In recent years, however, technology has forever changed the way we communicate and now allows for a new mode of conversation: many to many.  The message sent out by a communicator can easily be directly responded to, rebroadcast, changed and repackaged.  We have entered the age of New Media.

What is the New Media philosophy?

I define new media as the following: content created with the intent to interact.

Creators of new media are not concerned with simply utilizing language to tell a memorable story.  New media architects are about creating content where the engager of the media is encouraged to interact not just with the media itself – whether it be images, words, or something else – but that the creator has a desire for someone to engage with the media and interact with its producer.

With new media, content has become community.  Through digital distribution, mass conglomerates are no longer needed to put media on airwaves and into theatres.  Instead, emails or txts or videos can be sent from person to persons with a few mere clicks of a mouse and the paying of a few internet bandwidth bills.

New media architects aspire for true interactivity.  If an author creates a world, then the engagers populate it with characters and presumptions of their own.  If a designer creates an image, then they want to see that image manipulated, transfigured, and rebroadcast into other’s visions.  If a musician composes a song, then nothing could be more flattering than a remix or mashup to create some kind of new experience.

Why should the Church care about New Media?

God bestowed upon humanity one great gift that we – as a whole – have almost always taken for granted, and often times imply abused.  The Creator allowed us to interact with His creation.  From the beginning, when our language was small and our innovations involved fig leaves, God sought us out to be co-creators of what was truly only his to create.

We named the animals.  We built cities.  We gave birth.  We slaughtered animals for food and brothers for jealousy.  Just as He gave us creation after to creation to call our own children – as if the union of two humans could create a new soul without the blessing of God – He also gave us the freedom to destroy, tear asunder, and make mistakes.

God is the original New Media architect.

God sends us message after messenger, prophecy after prophet, and creation after created.  Since the dawn of humankind, man sought primarily to simply retell messages.  We were proclaiming what we thought we already knew and wanted someone else to know.  New Media – and the constructs and forms thereof – have opened the doors to allow us to create, co-create, and recreate just as God has desired us to do.

Why the Church needs New Media

The gift that God gave His bride was this: the opportunity to be His lover.  The church was meant to create with the Creator; to interact with His creations, to converse with Him, to tell not simply His story, but to tell their story.  What has always separated the Church from secular culture is the blessing of interaction the creator and the engager.

As the lives of mankind and its own media creations become more and more intertwined, there is a mesh happening between the creators of content and its consumers: they are interacting and creating New Media.  The Church now has an opportunity to give the gift it has received from God back to its individual members and those who have yet to engage the Christian faith.  In short, New Media forms and content are opening the door for evangelism to not just be one-on-one conversations, but discussions and forums of many-to-many.

The Church can embrace these conversations and interactions, or we can choose to ignore them.  If we ignore them, then they will still happen.  Narrative will form, fables will be created, and those who are untouched by the Gospel will continue to be untouched by the Gospel.  However, if we choose to utilize this shift to new media, we the created can better share our interaction with Creator to so many others.

The forms of new media are as diverse as the forms of “old” media are.  Just as “old” media may have been birthed out of the printing press and analog media, the introduction of digital connections has allowed the easy creation, distribution and manipulation of content.  The expanse of new media ranges from mashups of songs, interactive fiction and video games, and micromessaging for marketing.  The easiest step, and often first, step into New Media is almost always blogs.

Blogs: the Gateway to New Media

We are living in the “information age” not simply because of the amount of information being discovered every day, but the accessibility of it.  Just as the Gutenberg Press allowed the common person to access the scriptures in their native tongue, Google and Wikipedia have democratized specialized information.  Whereas many pastors may have spent years studying in seminary to have fact and interpretation stored away in their mind, a seventeen year old can access timelines and Greek-word origins even quicker through their mobile.  And so, pastors must be even more relational and give even better due diligence to their preparations.

In the past, if one disagreed with a pastor’s actions or interpretations, their choices may have been limited to “getting over it” or simply leaving the church.  But now, the free tools of new media have opened the doors for a new checks and balance system: blogging.

Any true blogger is not simply writing their ideas on paper; that would just be a digital diary.  A blogger seeks, nay, thrives upon, eyeballs and interaction.  Bloggers want people to visit their site.  They want people to read their thoughts but – perhaps even more important – they want people to comment on their blog and add to their own words.  They want interaction.

Someone who disagrees with a pastor – or agrees, for that matter – now has a digital forum in which to address anyone who stumbles upon their blog.  Any particular phrase or search for a keyword can bring a wandering internet surfer to a blog.  And there, a church member’s frustrations – or joys – can be exposed for the unknown visitor to see.

The church needs to know that this is possible.  A pastor needs to know what his flock is thinking.  A pastor can know the thoughts and concerns of his members just by pulling up a webpage and investing a few moments to comment.  And the honor which a comment bestows upon the blog author!  If a church member is blogging, then to have their pastor stop by their little page on the vast world wide web is just as joyous to them as a house visit (and much less intrusive).  Blogs let new discussions happen, and can give visitors the insight to what the people of Christ truly are like.

Blogs are, perhaps, the most obvious form of new media content.  A blog post is clearly tied to its author’s personal biases and interests.  But a blog inherently is written to entice interaction between the author and the reader.  If you turn off comments on a blog, it’s become just a webpage; it loses its “blogginess.”

Who are the bloggers?

Many of the well-known church leaders in America today are out there blogging regularly.  Leaders like Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church, Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, and Ed Young of Fellowship Church are all regular bloggers.  Those are just the well known names; unknown men like Andy Woods at Pleasant View Baptist Church in Kentucky blogs about leading youth ministry in rural areas, while women like Adria Lambert blog about being an American going to seminary in Jerusalem.  The beauty of blogging is that whether you have an audience of thousands or an audience of dozens, we can quickly and easily share the happenings of God, the church, and culture all around us.  Quick looks at links and blogs can lead to wonderful discoveries of talented, wise brothers and sisters.

What Can I Learn from the Bloggers: How to Grow Your Blog and Make Friends

Ed Stetzer is the Director of LifeWay Research.  Stetzer does a number of things that have helped him grow his blog to quickly become a must-have on many people’s feed readers.  First, he has a recurring post called “Friday is for Friends” where, usually on Fridays, he posts links to his friends and the great things they are doing.  This pushes Stetzer’s readers out to blogs on a regular basis, and you know that the content he’s linking to is worthwhile.

One of the criticisms of blogs is that they are often considered to be just repeating the noise around them.  Stetzer continually has new content, as he’s often the first blogger to report on the LifeWay Research findings.  Stetzer is not content to repeat content; he’s giving new opinions and new information.  Of equal importance is that Stetzer has a specific passion: his life is about planting churches.  If you go to his blog, you’ll be able to see his desires for a missional church in nearly every post he makes.

What Can I Learn from the Bloggers: Why Organization is Important

No article on new media in ministries would be complete without referencing LifeChurch.tv.  LifeChurch.tv hosts their offices out of Edmond, OK, but has campuses in six states and online.  Each individual campus has their own blog to meet the needs of the unique communities.  Two of the lead pastors at LifeChurch.tv, Craig Groeschel and Bobby Gruenwald, host a blog at swerve.lifechurch.tv.  Through their blog they are able to disciple hundreds of pastors through their preaching tips and thousands of readers through life lessons posted thoughts.

One of the best lessons to learn about blogging technique from Groeschel and Gruenwald is the importance of properly categorizing and tagging their posts.  The sheer volume of their posts can be broken into digestible topics, so one can find the information most pertaining to them.  By coming from the church’s leaders, the Swerve blog sets the tone for the entire church while making the hearts and interests of its leader transparent.

What Can I Learn from the Bloggers: Engaging the Community

Blogs can also unite beyond the influence of a church or knowledge of a leader, but also to organizations getting out their message.  The sense of community that can develop from blogging can be as strong as friendships made in real life.  This is why well-known secular bloggers like Robert Scoble and Penelope Trunk have such strong followings; they interact with their readers on a regular basis.  As readers read blog posts day after day, the relationship grows.

Compassion International recently developed a program that utilizes bloggers to do what they do best: tell their stories.  Compassion International’s site at compassionbloggers.com is all about bloggers using their site – and, thusly, their life – to tell about the ways Compassion International is helping children in impoverished countries.  Participating in initiatives like expands the Compassion International story into understandable impressions and experiences from people like Anne Jackson at flowerdust.net.  After going on a trip to Uganda with Compassion, Jackson has written story after story about how the trip affected her life.

This is the power of blogs: to share our stories, and have others interact with them.

That’s part of the excitement of blogging and new media.  We freely give away thoughts and – just as freely – receive the thoughts of others.  Pastors and leaders are able to put their thoughts out there and let their friends and church members interact – and challenge, perhaps – what they post.  The reward of conversation and relationship is well worth the risk of exposing ourselves for what we truly believe.

How do I start a blog?

Need to start a blog?  It’s easy!  You can sign up for free public blogs a number of different places:

www.wordpress.com: Wordpress is one of the most popular blog platforms, boasting over 3 million blogs.  Using a site like wordpress is great for ease of use and is a leader in setting blog standards.  Aaron’s blog is hosted on wordpress.

www.blogger.com: it’s owned by Google, so you know it’s good (and free).  Being a hosted site, like Wordpress, they’re constantly making improvements.

www.tumblr.com: this is for the media-savvy user.  Tumblr integrates easily with flickr accounts, vimeo videos, and whatever media you can think of.  This is for the more experimental set.

Of course, once you set it up, you need that hook, that first post that introduces yourself to the blogging world.  If you’re nervous, here’s the perfect first post title: Hello World, This is Me.  And then tell the world who you are.

Ideas and Best Practices for Your Blog

Create a reoccurring feature for your blog.  Decide on a specific day that each week you’re going to post on a certain topic; perhaps it’s links to friends like Ed Stetzer or the YouTube videos you watched that week like my friend Ariah Fine.  Perhaps it’s an analysis of what you read in the Bible this week, or a commitment to read (and review) a book every other week for the winter.

Every pastor tells stories in their sermons.  They’re always abbreviated and never fully mined for all of the life and spiritual lessons they could provide.  Great content for a blog would be to expand on your sermons or lessons each week.  On Monday, repost the sermon outline or content so your church members can better remember what you spoke about.  I often recreate my small group lessons as blog posts for the people that might miss that week.[1]  Midweek, expand upon one of the personal stories you told in the sermon so they can get the “rest of the story.”  Blogs can also create buzz for the upcoming week’s sermon; on Friday give a glimpse into what you’re going to be preaching on – a teaser, of sorts.

Make sure you put your posts into categories.  You’ll discover over time the things that you consistently write about.  Link to other posts you deem interesting, but don’t just repeat the noise; add to the conversation and feel free to give our opinion.  If there’s a topic you’re passionate about, be passionate!  It is, after all, your blog. 

Interactive Metanarrative: telling the story together

In 1980, one of the first digital narratives was released: the text-adventure game, Zork.  Since then, digital interactive narratives have grown from simple words on a screen to flowing graphical adventures on home video game consoles and computers.  Many video games could easily be considered new media simply by the fact that you interact with the story; however, it wasn’t until recently that they allowed you to create the story.

In games like EverQuest and World of Warcraft, the programmers and publishing studies develop a world that simply exists; by adding your own character and personality, by interacting with the other online players, and by making your own decisions, the story is told as a truly interactive narrative.  In engaging the created content, the engager takes part in the creation of the larger story.

The idea of an interactive metanarrative is the audience, or engager, gets to help craft the story.  Instead of being merely an observer, the engager gets to be a creator in the story.  The story pieces itself together through out various media channels and builds upon the interactions between the storyteller and the participants.  Instead of just passively hearing a story, the audience/engagers/participants get deeply hooked into the happening.

Interactive Metafiction Success

One of the most engaging triumphs of new media narrative is the YouTube sensation, lonelygirl15.  In this online, video-blog-formatted series, a web of mystery and intrigue was created though interaction and personal development.

The series featured a young girl, Bree – whose screenname was lonelygirl15 – who, as strange things were happening in her life, was recording a video blog through her webcam.  The question for many people when it stated was simple: is this real or not?

Lonleygirl15 would interact with people who were her friends on YouTube.  She would make comments on other popular YouTube personalities.  She had a MySpace page.  As far as one could tell, she was real and she wanted you to think she was.  It was a metanarrative at its best.  Viewers would respond to Bree’s posts and friend her on MySpace; and it was always Bree who responded back with bits of her personality… never hinting that she was not real.

Interactive Life Stories

The church has been a part of a greater story since the Garden.  We are experienced with merging the supernatural with the physical.  We understand spirits and miracles and mysteries.  And so, we have a choice: do we continue telling our stories in the simplest form possible (going back to the days of language and oral tradition), or are we willing to pick up our heritage and show our expertise in the guise of New Media?  We have the best story; can we be the best story tellers?

Better yet, could we have the courage to tell our stories together?  Can the American church somehow join with the African church and the English church to tell a story of unity and diversity?  We have the digital means to do so.  Will we embrace the opportunities or dismiss them as a newfangled fad?

If the world is interested in the telling of stories like lonleygirl15, but also enamored with reality tv, could we not tell of our beautiful stories of redemption online?

SIDEBAR CONTENT

What to get involved with telling visual stories?  Try these free video tools:

www.youtube.com: the biggest video network out there.  If you post your video on youtube, it’s going to be able to reach the broadest audience. However, your video is limited to 10 minutes.

www.kyte.tv: one of the more social video network, kyte.tv allows users to actually chat on the video itself.  Kyte.tv is Aaron’s favorite video service.

www.vimeo.com: vimeo allows for the best quality video to be distributed, including uploading of HD content.  Vimeo is free up to 500GB a week.

 

Micromessaging: knowing your community better than they do

The Church has been associated with several core messages that all get intermingled and sewn together: the love of Christ, sinners in the hands of an angry God, sexual molestation by priests, Promise Keepers, a slew of faith-based music, and the authority of the King James Bible.  There are many, many more messages we send (and trying to list them here would just serve to leave hundreds out).  The problem is that every church is associated with all of these messages, whether they are applicable or not.  And, ultimately, most everyone – believer and non-believer alike – has been hurt by someone in their local church at some time.

Marketing in the new media world is two-fold: there is the macromessage and the micromessage.  The macromessage is unavoidable.  It’s the brand name and all of the history and emotions that come with it.  Microsoft will always be Microsoft, and everyone will always have their own biases and presumptions thereof.  The only thing that can ever change those ideas is the micromessage.

Much of marketing is now based on evangelism.  If you are shopping for a new tv, you ask your tv expert friend what to buy.  If you are going to buy a new car, you ask your father what he thinks.  When you’re looking for stroller, you ask your neighbor who just had a baby.  No matter what the big massage a company sends out is, it’s the smaller messages that get through.

New media allows us to control, send, receive and monitor those messages.  Twitter isn’t just about telling people what you’re doing, it’s about telling people who you are and what you believe.  Church websites aren’t just about telling people when the next event is, they are about giving a glimpse into the church.  What are the micromessages we choose to send to our community that aren’t the stereotypes and all the things they’ve already heard before?

 

SIDEBAR CONTENT

Want to start pushing out some micromessages?  These services are like micro-blogs and a public IM space:

www.twitter.com: twitter is the original micro-blogging service, allowing you to post only up to 140 characters.  Twitter’s claim to fame is being able to post from anywhere… cell phones, IM’s, online, etc.

www.pownce.com: slightly more reliable than twitter, but also not as many users. Pownce’s claim to fame is being able to attach and distribute files in addition to text.

Can the Church embrace New Media?

We already have.  If you have young adults in your church, they’re blogging and doing life on MySpace and Facebook.  They’re playing interactive metafiction through World of Warcraft or engaging in epic battles through Call of Duty.  If the church is not looking at new media as simply a regular part of life, then the church is not engaged with the culture that surrounds it.  If this is the case, then instead of embracing God’s gift to interact with His creations we have chosen to create monuments to the past ways of life.

We must know the culture that surrounds us.  We, the Church, are the natural inheritors of New Media as we’re been interacting with the Creator – not just His creation – all along.  Let us find our place in the New Media World and embrace our opportunities to share in the story together.  And, along the way, perhaps someone will blog about it.

 

SIDEBAR CONTENT

Blogs mentioned in this article:

Mark Driscoll

theresurgence.com/md_blog

Rick Warren

blog.pastors.com

Ed Young

edyougblog.com

Andy Woods

fieldofblog.com

Adria Lambert

seaofadria.wordpress.com

Ed Stetzer

edstetzer.com

Swerve

swerve.lifechurch.tv

CompassionBloggers

compassionbloggers.com

Anne Jackson

flowerdust.net

Aaron Linne

aaronlinne.com

Robert Scoble

scobleizer.com

Penelope Trunk

blog.penelopetrunk.com

 


[1] http://linne.wordpress.com/category/small-group/