I met a gentleman at a speaking engagement recently who was about my age. He was an ordained United Methodist and he wore a priest’s collar. He was on the verge of weeping as he spoke to me, as he explained his desperation in trying to learn how to create digital age worship. He said to me, “I’m 33 and I feel like I’m to generations away from people my own age!” As we spoke, I got the impression that he felt like he had sold his identity to a modern age model of ministry, either out of ignorance, weakness or the desire to advance himself professionally, and was now desperately looking to me to help him get his passion back.
During my conversation with my new friend it occurred to me that all my friends and acquaintances in ministry about my age (30) or younger are in some way participating in redefining worship for a digital culture. Why? I believe it is because there are a number of defining characteristics to our collective histories. These characteristics have been variously defined according to post-modern, generation X, or other constructs. Even for those of my peers who couldn’t say that they are intentionally conducting ministry according to a particular cultural paradigm, they are merely acting out of what they know innately to be true.
Growing up, I was both plugged in to my church and the world around me. At home and in Sunday School I was learning about Jesus, but I yearned for a way to understand Him, and the basics of my faith, more fully. I remember listening to secular music and wanting to find lyrics that lifted up Jesus. One song in particular was Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” It’s debatable whether that song is really about much of anything, as I look at it now. But when I was 12, I heard one particular line- I can feel it coming/In the air tonight/Oh Lord- and was convinced that because Phil sang “Oh Lord”, he was a Christian and I was listening to a “Christian” song. I had a natural yearning, just like the Israelites in Nehemiah 8, to hear the Word of God in my own language.
It is the same question that ministers have asked for centuries: What makes something real to people?
To know the answer to that question, it is important to know that any culture may be understood according to its communication forms. Digital culture is no different. The media of digital culture, or “digital media”, is becoming a self-descriptive codifier for the collection of a wide variety of communication forms such as telephones, televisions, and the internet, that are all converging together. It’s a new phrase which I hadn’t heard used a whole lot outside of tech circles prior to us starting Lumicon in 2000, but I have since heard a lot.
In fact, “digital media” is a technically and culturally more accurate term for what used to be known as electronic media. Technically, it is a medium that uses bytes, not atoms, as its transmitting device. Culturally, through the Internet and the rise of desktop video for the layperson (think iMac), digital media is the choice medium for a new generation that prefers interactivity over passivity. Of course, if you are reading this magazine you probably know that.
More importantly, however, digital media is closely associated with another new millennium value seen so ubiquitously in marketing: experience. Take the use of film clips in a worship setting. Is it a shared experience or an illustration for the lesson of the day? To reach digital culture, don’t follow a film clip in worship with a question like, “What do you think of the question John asked?”, or, “John represents Jesus, blah blah blah.” It is trite, clich?┬ęd and obviously a teaching ploy to do that, says the digital culture person. Using an experiential moment simply to drive home a point is still trying to conduct the same modern culture didactic where an authority figure imparts wisdom and the student passively receives it, just with a digital culture veneer. Digital culture people, or “digetari,” see right through it, because they don’t want to be spoon-fed a lesson for the day.
On the other hand, say in the midst of a talk about his or her personal experiences related to a subject, a speaker stops to show a clip that says the same thing in its own unique way, and then returns to his or her story and learned experience. In this case the clip becomes an experience unto itself, and not an illustration for the lesson of the day. For example, the movie “Shrek” has a lovely scene with Shrek and Donkey that captures the fear of loneliness and rejection. A speaker talking about the need for community might refer to their own experience of rejection and then show the clip of the ogre Shrek opening up to the talking donkey about his fear of rejection. The clip doesn’t have to “preach” a point because it demonstrates very effectively that we are all community.
A lesson of the day mindset is the same thing I referred to in “The Wired Church” as an AV mentality, whether done orally, read, or presented through a film clip. Digital culture requires a presentation of experience that may be mutually shared, through which the Holy Spirit may move, imparting each one with the comfort and wisdom of God. It comes not through the education, training, and study of a single leader, but through the jointly created and shared experience of a team of leaders.
So when applying technology to worship, remember: It’s not about the technology, it’s about the culture. Make it real.