Amid the revolution

What do you do when the old model is broken?

Mar 31, 2014 by

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It is no coincidence that the Protestant Reformation shook the foundations of Christendom less than a century after Gutenberg invented the printing press. A revolution in communication sparked a revolution in religion. It happened 500 years ago, and it is happening now.

When ideas and information spread quickly to more people, old institutions and authorities break down. In the early 1500s, as Martin Luther’s writings churned off the presses and people read the Bible for themselves, the Catholic Church lost its monopoly on religion.

In the 20th century, Christendom felt the earth shift again. Christianity lost its dominance in Western culture as people found new sources of meaning and fulfillment. By the early years of the 21st century, the Internet freed people from centralized sources of information. It sped up the rejection of old authorities and the weakening of traditional loyalties.

Our time is a lot like Gutenberg’s, says John Longhurst of Winnipeg, Man., a member of the Mennonite World Review Inc. board of directors. He presented “From Gutenberg to Google: Stories from the Front Lines of the Digital Revolution” at the nonprofit corporation’s annual meeting in North Newton, Kan.

Longhurst quoted Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, on the impact of social media: “During revolutions, the old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.”

Today we find ourselves, Longhurst said, “in a new hybrid land called Gutengoogle, or maybe Googleberg. It’s a time in between, when the printed word is still alive but giving way to the digital world. It’s like we’re a ship on the ocean, one world behind us, the other one somewhere in front.”

The challenge for the media — and the church — is to steer a course when we don’t know what’s on the other shore.

Long­hurst suggested starting by acknowledging there’s no going back. In the print media, everyone can see the old model is broken. In the church, it is becoming clear that the old way of doing things — running institutions and planning Sunday morning worship services — isn’t working like it used to either.

Like the print media seeking to understand what 21st-century readers are looking for, the church needs to understand what people need from it today. It may not be Sunday morning pew-sitting. And probably not an institution to join. But it may possibly be a community that, in the words of British author Alain de Botton, “seems sufficiently good, forgiving and sane that one might want to contribute to it.”

The church could be like that.

De Botton, whom Longhurst quoted, wasn’t referring to the church. He was talking about the media’s need to go beyond the murders, scams and fatal crashes that make the world look more dangerous than it really is. As Longhurst noted, people are drawn to positive, uplifting stories. The church — and the church media — has many of those. The challenge for both is to find the best ways to share them in this new and unsettling time.

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