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Monday, September 28, 2009

Paper versus Digital - Paper Wins

So, it happened. After several months of keeping up with blogging (more or less), I've suddenly found my time shrinking dramatically and have had to cut corners, re-prioritize, and make new to-do lists. And, guess what?

Paper-based projects take priority over digital ones.

A stack of manila paper.Image via Wikipedia

Let's start with the obvious. I've got journal articles in "the pipeline" that need attention, and draft chapters of my current book need revising (and quite a bit of writing left to go). These products will eventually become paper as the process of turning onscreen words into offscreen print is what drives the process overall.

At the end of the day, articles and books are also becoming online, digital entities. Just about everything I've ever published is available electronically. But the fact that these will be paper products -- and not just online -- makes it a priority because these products count more for my professional future.

In addition, my students turn in papers. Yep, I'm old-school about that, and my office is starting to collect a pile of papers that need evaluation for a final grade. I work these over with my pen, writing brief comments and assuring myself that I've understood their accomplishment which I then place into a matrix of my standards for the course.

And I continue to read, read, read. Although I've tried ebook readers and computer-downloaded content, I find I read more thoughtfully and more energetically when I have the physical paper in my hands. Yes, I even print out online articles to read on paper.

Wow, I'm feeling old.

Well, I will add more thoughts to this blog soon. I've been thinking about several things. I've also been asked to contribute to other blogs out there.

But, first, I've got to get these papers done.

Friday, September 11, 2009

My Experience Twittering Religion

Quick Post: In the past month, I've noticed a lot on the use of media in congregations. It also happens to be a very blog-friendly topic -- visual media items can be seen, reviewed, and downloaded by readers with the links provided.

Now that I've experienced a conference where I fully immersed myself in living the "twittering stream of religion," I want to again bring up the use of Twitter in religious gatherings.

What started my thinking for today is coming across another "Twitter and Church" discussion. The website Church Marketing Sucks posted a set of links to their recent entries on the use of Twitter (the micro-blogging service) you can explore:

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...Image via CrunchBase

But the extent of Twitter is far more than church services.

More broadly, posts like this lead me to conclude that churches, denominations, seminaries, and para-church organizations have moved American religion decisively toward mainstreaming social media.

My experience with this at the Moltmann Conversation organized by Emergent Village is the first time I decided to dive into this Twitter stream full-force.

Conferences like the Moltmann Conversation I joined at Chicago and the earlier Earl Lectures conference at Berkeley encourage attenders to "tweet" through the sessions. Wi-Fi is available in the auditorium, and extra electrical "plugs"are spread throughout the room. This allows laptops and other portable devices like smartphones to sustain power. I used the "twubs" service found at "http://twubs.com/moltmann" and the "#" hashtag "#moltmann" available through my twitter feed.

The collective "tweets" are available to participants and displayed on a large, public screen at the front of the auditorium. Between my laptop, my phone and the screen up front, I was able to access tweets continuously. This added another dimension to capturing the mood and messages of the conference by letting participants reverberate quotes, observations, questions, insights, and online resources through a continuous live stream.

In my experience, Twitter primarily echoes significant statements made on the platform. I found the 250+ audience in Chicago to be aggressive listeners. When they hear a good statement, they capture it and reel it in with the zeal of a fly fisherman. Fellow "tweeters" will snatch that sentence -- keeping it to 140 characters -- and "tweet" it to the rest of the group. The more times the statement is posted, and the more it is RT'ed (return posted by others), the more collectively important the sentence appears to be. As the conference goes on, I read and follow others thoughts as we revisit significant statements, drawing them out of the steady flow of talk happening out front.

This forces the conference to take on an aphoristic quality. Sharp, witty statements are accentuated; paragraphs of thoughts are assumed. It's less a summary, and more an attempt to help hearers remember what happened.

In addition, people post short remarks and questions. Some will add a link that sends others to online ideas and sources. This gives a privileged view of the "mind" of other participants. What are they asking? What are they critiquing? What do they highlight? What do they ignore?

Also, some at the conference took a few pictures. Using the service "Twitpic", you can capture the view of the conference as taken by one of the participants. Here's a picture twittered from the Moltmann Conversation. Using all tweets together, we have the potential of creating a type of textual and visual archive for the event.

Because the Twitter feed is accessible to anyone with an internet connection, people unable to physically attend are able to vicariously experience some aspect of the conference by also catching the tweet-flow. While it is not a summary of the conference, those not there still derive at least some small benefit and an unusual privilege of overhearing some of the best "lines" from a very long conversation.

Finally, it's hard to ignore that "tweeting" conferences is a fascinating form of participatory marketing. Conference organizers know that while actively twittering adds value to participants and observers, it is also a benefit to the organizers to "spread the word" and broadcast the happenings of the conference in multiple directions through social networks. Thus, the power of social media to promote this and future events is realized in a distinctive way.

My experience at the conference helped me appreciate the extent to which organizers are deliberately adding "tweeting" to their events. So Twitter is interesting and important not only for worship and liturgy but also for the expansive experience of religion and collective experience.

I left considering this question: could the use of Twitter become as "normal" to Christianity as the use of hymnals?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Instant Cool: Explaining the Diffusion of "Contemporary" Church Culture

Church Marketing Sucks, a website concerned with the use of contemporary marketing techniques by church leaders, recently provided a list of great media resources for churches freely available online. Through sites like these, we have a privileged window into American religion. Why? Because understanding the circulation of these media materials gives us an alternative means for understanding the widespread diffusion of "contemporary" church culture.

The Fields Church - Newspaper AdImage by mufan96 via Flickr

We know contemporary churches use rented facilities. Not just movie theaters and high school auditoriums--churches are using bars and coffeehouses, community centers and warehouses, even lake shores and parking lots. How do these church leaders focus spiritual attention in these architecturally challenging sites?

Well, what's happening is that even churches who do not have specially-designed or "megachurch" aesthetics are adopting sharp media imagery to promote an exciting "vibe" that directs devotional attention and speaks to quality (and money) even when the church is just starting out.

Take a look through the free resource sites listed by Church Marketing Sucks below. Each of these congregational ministries have longtime experience producing entire suites of visual materials that compliment and accentuate message series:Clicking and exploring these sites, you get a sense of what non-high liturgy, "contemporary" churches are bringing into their services.

(For church-researcher types, these materials provide fodder for understanding seeker churches, new paradigm churches, and emerging adult spirituality.)

But, I'm writing this post to make a particular point: The availability of these materials points out an aspect of the modern diffusion of church culture. Here's what I see.

The internet is allowing more easy accessibility to media resources. Churches which have produced these materials (and are frequently asked by scores of other church leaders who literally salivate over obtaining such things) are seeing the extension of their local church ministry as giving away these resources--at zero cost.

See, churches that produce these materials are well aware of the money and time invested in the creation of media materials that have an inherent disposability to them. They'll never be used again in their church (since churches don't "repeat" sermon series). So they are happy to have them used by others and see their investment put to good use by others.

In other words, providing media resources to other churches (after they have been used in the base church) is understood to be part of the missional outreach of the congregation.Graphic materials are viewed as tools (modern, necessary, missionary tools) that can be easily adapted by like-minded ministries who are perceived to be essentially partnering with them to spread a message they already believe should be widely promoted.

Because these media items are used in many different churches across the nation (perhaps the anglophone world), and because church attenders are highly unlikely to know the materials they see were originally used somewhere else, there is an unacknowledged yet powerful diffusion of Christian visual culture -- at last a type of Christian culture.

And because we have not studied this, I speculate that the diffusion of style, ambiance, and ethos of religion embedded within these media materials is reinforcing particular boundaries of similarity and identity.

In the research literature, this is a type of "institutional isomorphism." But I won't go into all that now. It's enough to say that researchers DiMaggio and Powell* defined imitating or "Mimetic Processes" as coming from similar external conditions. In particular:

Uncertainty encourages imitation.

What does this mean for how "contemporary" church culture is widely reproduced?

Let's look at how this works. Using DiMaggio and Powell's framework, predictors of similarity (or "isomorphism") are based on premises like this:

Principle 1: The greater the centralization of resource supply, the more it will change to resemble the organizations it is dependent upon.

Application
1: There are only a few churches willing to give away these media materials, so the dependency on these few churches raises their influence as models for how to "do church."

Principle 2: The more uncertainty, the more an organization will model it's structure after successful firms.

Application
2: The means to growing new (and struggling) churches is highly uncertain, so leaders look to the successes of other, usually much larger and media-rich, churches.

Principle 3: The more ambiguous the goals, the more an organization will mimic a successful one to establish legitimacy.

Application
3:
A mission statement like "Reaching our community with the gospel" is quite ambiguous, so church leaders quickly become alerted to widely accepted models of ministry and absorb their media practices.
These are not exhaustive, and certainly the principles are not directed soley toward understanding the use of media. Nevertheless, these principles provide a quick peek into the dynamics of isomorphism that can be applied.

Other important aspects are how organizational models can be diffused is through employee migration, which in the case of churches would include the movement of clergy, lay leaders, as well as members between churches. Larger churches with well-institutionalized media ministries more quickly diffuse their media-intelligent people in comparison with smaller churches which are not likely to have as extensive of media practices.

Also, organizational models are spread by consulting firms, which in the case of leaders is usually accomplished through church leader conferences. Highlighting and discussing the use of media is a common aspect of "contemporary" church conferences.

I've come a long way in this post, something I thought I'd shoot off much more quickly than I did. Here's my main point.

In short, I've come to think that the accessibility and wide-spread use of church media materials gives us an alternative pathway to grasping how the cultures of "contemporary" churches can be understood. For me, this highlights that the occurrence of "contemporary" churches are not isolated phenomena--and most of us know this.

Further, it also suggests that "contemporary" churches are more tightly networked with each other than we usually think, specifically around assisting one another to reach similar goals with similar methods. Media materials provides a tangible means to enact those networks.

*P. J. DiMaggio & W. Powell, "The iron cage revisited" institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields", American Sociological Review, 48 (1983), 147-60.