Saturday, February 28, 2009

Resources on Successful Multiracial-Multiethnic Churches

Quick post - Online resource on ethnic and racial diversity in churches.

The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship still has a series of pages my research on racial and ethnic diversity in churches.

You'll find several links and lists of resources.

You can find it all here.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Idea Camp is Live Streaming Video Starting Thurs Nite

Diagram of Streaming MulticastImage via Wikipedia

Quick post:  

The innovative incubator "Idea Camp" for church leaders happening in my native Orange County, California, is streaming live video tonight and tomorrow.  Check it out for an online, front-row seat to this "unconference"  --

You might need to register yourself into the site first.

Fireproof Draws Attention to Christian Filmmakers

NPR asks "What was the biggest grossing independent film in 2008?" Not Slumdog Millionaire. Not Milk. It was a movie you've probably never heard of. The success of Fireproof draws attention to the world of Christian filmmaking.

Fireproof and Christian Filmmaking

Fireproof (film)Image via Wikipedia

Fireproof, featuring Growing Pains star Kirk Cameron (who also starred in Left Behind), is the latest independent film phenomenon, outgrossing Slumdog, the most talked about independent film of the past six months.

Made for less than $500,000, the film has grossed over $33 million. Thanks to NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty, the success of the flim provides an opportunity to highlight the very busy, very active, and potentially very lucrative, world of Christian filmmaking.

I wrote about Christian filmmakers in Hollywood Faith, and I had the pleasure of meeting Barb while she was still a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Her move to NPR was a huge opportunity (and a huge risk) that has been great for her. She now covers religion stories for NPR.

This is a nice story. She points out (correctly) that Christian filmmakers who make "Christian" films seek to counter the influence of the Hollywood machine by creating their own media content.

Fireproof Hits Evangelical Hot Spots

What makes Fireproof so popular for evangelicals?

NPR News logoImage via Wikipedia

"Fireproof touches all the bases for this audience — the raw emotion of a marriage on the brink of divorce. The conversion experience as the father tells his son — Kirk Cameron, the teenage idol of TV hit Growing Pains — that Jesus died on the cross for him. Cameron's efforts to win his wife back. And finally, forgiveness and redemption."

She's right. The movie hits themes, values, and beliefs shared among evangelicals. She notes that generally Christian filmmakers make movies about subjects they care about, "dramas about abortion, documentaries about creationism and home schooling — and even a musical about taxation."

Who are these Christian filimmakers? First, it might be good to look at what is meant by "Christian film."

What is a "Christian" Film

Some filmmakers believe Christian film should only be made by Christians and for explicitly Christian purposes. These are Christian film moviemakers who consciously reject the Hollywood system. I call them "Anti-Hollywood filmmakers."

Anti-Hollywood filmmakers make their Biblically oriented films directly available to audiences through independent channels like Christian bookstores; the audience buys them because they know a standard of conservative Christian acceptability is being placed on them before they are allowed in the store.

But for many, these "Christian films” have come to be stigmatized to mean inferior quality work that contribute to making the word “Christian” pejorative when used as an adjective in describing any piece of media. It may seem unfair to characterize explicitly Christian films as those of low quality, but to date Christian films have struggled with attracting the same financing and talent of major Hollywood studios.

And rather than providing entertainment, these message-oriented films like Fireproof made by the Anti-Hollywood group are dismissed as not-so-veiled forms of proselytizing.

Among Christians active in the entertainment industry, there is a sharp distinction between films that are story-driven and those that are message-driven. One filmmaker said, “Audiences are not allowed to make the connections; they were told what to think.” An Christian screenwriting instructor in Los Angeles once said to me, “A lot of Christian entertainment is such bad quality, so sappy and one-dimensional. If you want to be a preacher, go be a preacher, but if you want to be an artist, know your art.” There is an overarching impression that Christian filmmakers are “untalented, unfunny, uncreative, and less than technically savvy.”

Niche? Or Mainstream?

Christian Films Inc logoImage via Wikipedia

A core debate among Christians in Hollywood boils down to whether Christian filmmaking is a niche industry intended for Christian audiences and sold through Christian outlets or whether Christians are intended to participate in the mainstream entertainment industry with large budgets intended for massive audiences and working alongside non-Christians.

Do believers make “Christian films,” or do they make films and happen to be Christian? Does a Christian filmmaker have to produce “Christian films?” Is it morally acceptable for Christian filmmaker to make mainstream films?

For more on my take to this development, see chapters 3 and 4 of Hollywood Faith.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Richard Florida on the Future of Cities

I wrote this week on how churches are adjusting their ministries to the Creative Class. The man who coined the term, Richard Florida, wrote a nice piece on how the current economic crisis affects the future of cities.

Not everyone agrees with Richard Florida. He's bold, provocative, and prefers "Big Picture" ideas over nitty-gritty details. But many people resonate with his ideas, and I think he's got some thoughts we need to consider.

In The Atlantic, Florida throws down a few more bombs. I'll pull out a few sections of the article. Focusing on the current economic crisis, he writes:

Main Idea

Some cities and regions will eventually spring back stronger than before. Others may never come back at all.

New York - Model and Icon

Times Square - New York City, New York / ニューヨー...Image by Jose P Isern Comas via Flickr

[For example,] New York is much, much more than a financial center. It has been the nation’s largest city for roughly two centuries, and today sits in America’s largest metropolitan area, as the hub of the country’s largest mega-region. It is home to a diverse and innovative economy built around a broad range of creative industries, from media to design to arts and entertainment. It is home to high-tech companies like Bloomberg, and boasts a thriving Google outpost in its Chelsea neighborhood. Elizabeth Currid’s book, The Warhol Economy, provides detailed evidence of New York’s diversity. Currid measured the concentration of different types of jobs in New York relative to their incidence in the U.S. economy as a whole. By this measure, New York is more of a mecca for fashion designers, musicians, film directors, artists, and—yes—psychiatrists than for financial professionals.

Talent-Attracting, Talent-Clustering, Talent-Producing Cities

book coverImage via Wikipedia

The great urbanist Jane Jacobs was among the first to identify cities’ diverse economic and social structures as the true engines of growth. Although the specialization identified by Adam Smith creates powerful efficiency gains, Jacobs argued that the jostling of many different professions and different types of people, all in a dense environment, is an essential spur to innovation—to the creation of things that are truly new. And innovation, in the long run, is what keeps cities vital and relevant.

Chicago has emerged as a center for industrial management and has rolled up many of the functions, such as finance and law, once performed in smaller midwestern centers. Los Angeles has a broad, diverse economy with global strength in media and entertainment. Miami, which is being hit hard by the collapse of the real-estate bubble, nonetheless remains the commercial center for the large South Florida mega-region, and a major financial center for Latin America. Each of these places is the financial and commercial core of a large mega-region with tens of millions of people and hundreds of billions of dollars in output. That’s not going to change as a result of the crisis.

city map chemnitzImage by benedict stuart via Flickr

Big, talent-attracting places benefit from accelerated rates of “urban metabolism,” according to a pioneering theory of urban evolution developed by a multidisciplinary team of researchers affiliated with the SantaFe Institute. The rate at which living things convert food into energy—their metabolic rate—tends to slow as organisms increase in size. But when the Santa Fe team examined trends in innovation, patent activity, wages, and GDP, they found that successful cities, unlike biological organisms, actually get faster as they grow.

In order to grow bigger and overcome diseconomies of scale like congestion and rising housing and business costs, cities must become more efficient, innovative, and productive. The researchers dubbed the extraordinarily rapid metabolic rate that successful cities are able to achieve “super-linear” scaling. “By almost any measure,” they wrote, “the larger a city’s population, the greater the innovation and wealth creation per person.” Places like New York with finance and media, Los Angeles with film and music, and Silicon Valley with hightech are all examples of high-metabolism places.

Metabolism and talent-clustering are important to the fortunes of U.S. city-regions in good times, but they’re even more so when times get tough.

Who's in Trouble

While the crisis may have begun in New York, it will likely find its fullest bloom in the interior of the country—in older, manufacturing regions whose heydays are long past and in newer, shallow-rooted Sun Belt communities whose recent booms have been fueled in part by real-estate speculation, overdevelopment, and fictitious housing wealth.

Cities in the Sand: The End of Easy Expansion

The Sun Belt, highlighted in redImage via Wikipedia

Some Sun Belt cities—Phoenix and Las Vegas are the best examples—developed economies centered largely on real estate and construction. With sunny weather and plenty of flat, empty land, they got caught in a classic boom cycle. Although these places drew tourists, retirees, and some industry—firms seeking bigger footprints at lower costs—much of the cities’ development came from, well, development itself.

To an uncommon degree, the economic boom in these cities was propelled by housing appreciation: as prices rose, more people moved in, seeking inexpensive lifestyles and the opportunity to get in on the real-estate market where it was rising, but still affordable. Local homeowners pumped more and more capital out of their houses as well, taking out home-equity loans and injecting money into the local economy in the form of home improvements and demand for retail goods and low-level services. Cities grew, tax coffers filled, spending continued, more people arrived. Yet the boom itself neither followed nor resulted in the development of sustainable, scalable, highly productive industries or services. It was fueled and funded by housing, and housing was its primary product. Whole cities and metro regions became giant Ponzi schemes.

On Suburbanization

An aerial view of housing developments near Ma...Image via Wikipedia

Every phase or epoch of capitalism has its own distinct geography, or what economic geographers call the “spatial fix” for the era. The physical character of the economy—the way land is used, the location of homes and businesses, the physical infrastructure that ties everything together—shapes consumption, production, and innovation. As the economy grows and evolves, so too must the landscape.

Suburbanization was the spatial fix for the industrial age—the geographic expression of mass production and the early credit economy.

For the generation that grew up during the Depression and was inclined to pinch pennies, policies that encouraged freer spending were sensible enough—they allowed the economy to grow faster. But as younger generations, weaned on credit, followed, and credit availability increased, the system got out of hand. Housing, meanwhile, became an ever-more-central part of the American Dream: for many people, as the recent housing bubble grew, owning a home came to represent not just an end in itself, but a means to financial independence.

On one level, the crisis has demonstrated what everyone has known for a long time: Americans have been living beyond their means, using illusory housing wealth and huge slugs of foreign capital to consume far more than we’ve produced. The crash surely signals the end to that; the adjustment, while painful, is necessary.

Economy of American SamoaImage via Wikipedia

But another crucial aspect of the crisis has been largely overlooked, and it might ultimately prove more important. Because America’s tendency to overconsume and under-save has been intimately intertwined with our postwar spatial fix—that is, with housing and suburbanization—the shape of the economy has been badly distorted, from where people live, to where investment flows, to what’s produced. Unless we make fundamental policy changes to eliminate these distortions, the economy is likely to face worsening handicaps in the years ahead.

Major Takeaway

The economy is different now. It no longer revolves around simply making and moving things. Instead, it depends on generating and transporting ideas. The places that thrive today are those with the highest velocity of ideas, the highest density of talented and creative people, the highest rate of metabolism. Velocity and density are not words that many people use when describing the suburbs. The economy is driven by key urban areas; a different geography is required.

The housing bubble was the ultimate expression, and perhaps the last gasp, of an economic system some 80 years in the making, and now well past its “sell-by” date. The bubble encouraged massive, unsustainable growth in places where land was cheap and the real-estate economy dominant. It encouraged low-density sprawl, which is ill-fitted to a creative, postindustrial economy. And not least, it created a workforce too often stuck in place, anchored by houses that cannot be profitably sold, at a time when flexibility and mobility are of great importance.

So how do we move past the bubble, the crash, and an aging, obsolescent model of economic life? What’s the right spatial fix for the economy today, and how do we achieve it?

Read the article - especially the last section - to hear Florida's suggestions for the future.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Evangelicals and the Creative Class

A short article from The Baptist Standard raises the tension between Creative Class lifestyles and the future of the local church.

I became fascinated with the Creative Class since finding Richard Florida's book on a Borders Bookstore shelf in 2002. I quickly read it, incorporated some of the ideas into my first book on Mosaic, and expanded the ideas in my next book and a forthcoming journal article that will eventually be available in the journal Sociology of Religion. I think the emerging Creative Class is important for the future of American religion.

The Rise of the Creative ClassImage by marklarson via Flickr

In any case, it seems like it always takes a while for ideas to get filtered more broadly. And the notion of the Creative Class is just beginning to get more attention among church leaders.

The Creative Class represents a different kind of economics and lifestyle. Episodic work, more creatively-intellectually intensive efforts, greater openness to diversity and multiculturalism are only some of the characteristics Florida suggests are central to this new social group. Cities have followed Florida's advice for revitalizing their urban environments in order to attract more of these "creative types" since Florida forcefully argues (and many city leaders agree) that economically thriving cities actively attract and engage the Creative Class.

Hollywood, a well-known district of Los Angele...Image via Wikipedia

Now that cities are paying attention, churches are trying to shift as well. This little article from The Baptist Standard gives a glimpse at how conservative churches are altering their ministries to accommodate what they see as a surge of the local population (gentrification, anyone?) and still want to be "church" for them. From blighted to revitalized, these churches want to be part of the upswing in local happenings.

And when you consider how many congregations had initially been built in city-centres (and then promptly lost their memberships as automobiles and suburbs moved church-going populations outward), they really want to find ways to redefine their ministries to reach these new urbanites.

churchImage by 1546 via Flickr

Are these the first efforts to reach the emerging Creative Class? Nope. I continue to see Mosaic in Los Angeles and Oasis in Hollywood as archetypes for ministry that reaches this group. But the spread of the Creative Class to even moderately sized cities across the U.S. who are regional "creative capitals" will certainly foster more renovations in church ministries.

What may have seemed like "crazy ministry philosophies" for people in L.A. doesn't seem so crazy now.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Audio: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic Church

Still available online, here is a guest lecture at Calvin College (co-sponsored by the Department of Sociology and the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship) where I focus on insights from my first book.

The institute posted the lecture titled "Diversity and Innovation in a Multi-Ethnic Church."

Friday, February 20, 2009

ELCA Ordains Gay Pastors - But Only Churches Hire Them

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) will allow the ordination of gay pastors, but leaves individual congregations and synods discretion on ordaining or, more importantly, hiring them.

A pastor in the ELCA churchImage via Wikipedia

The issue of homosexuality (and the host of LGBTQQi issues swirling around American Christianity) continues to strain the decision-making processes of denominational bodies across the United States. Some are solving it in some fashion or other, but others are waiting and waiting, hoping that some bold solution to the issue will present itself.

Yet no easy solution is being found for positions that simply fail to recognize any form of homosexuality as legitimate. The ELCA now offers a type of compromise solution. The denomination ordains gays, but ultimately it is up to churches to hire them.

As an outsider to the ELCA, this strikes me as an interesting position. This is a move that may protect the reputation of the denomination ("Hey, we ordain gays!") and stave off controversy from the standpoint of denominational headquarters (who can publish official positions on the matter), but it certainly leaves the issue unresolved.

The burden of actually figuring out an approach to gay pastors will be done on a church by church (or synod by synod) basis. This not only heightens the salience of local churches but also has vast implications for the issue -- and the decision will be watched closely by other "conservative" denominations.

Overall, this position is essentially a conservative solution. The denomination is throwing up its hands in the face of what are undoubtedly several progressive leaders in the body and their many compelling arguements for gay ordination.

But it is a conservative position in that most congregations will likely continue the path of barring both the ordination and employment of gay pastors.

Example of a small Image via Wikipedia

On the other hand, the "open" denominational position does leave the possibility of new ELCA congregations being formed by gay pastors. I would guess that as ELCA seminaries graduate more openly gay ministers -- and perhaps some seminaries will become havens for such ministers -- they will seek to establish new ministries where the issue is solved at the outset by their very presence.

The history of homosexuality in the modern church is still being written. How important are ELCA's actions? Or will they only be seen as a side-step to another, larger development? Finally, as church-planting efforts continue, are there new, gay-affirming, "strip mall" ELCA churches coming to a neighborhood near you?

A 5th Way Economic Woe Affects Scholarship and Innovation

Quick update: After my post on economic woes for academics yesterday, I knew I would find even more.

As the Dow Jones Average appears to drop again today, the current economic woes continue to affect scholarship and innovation in many ways. In addition to yesterday's list, I'll add one more:

5. Institutions are canceling sabbaticals and faculty leaves which are almost always oriented toward initiating, expanding, or renewing research efforts.

The Chronicle for Higher Education reports that Kent State University canceled faculty sabbaticals for 2009-10 to save money.

This affects 60 professors and will save the public university about $500,000. The University of Georgia is another institution that canceled leaves abruptly, just days before the start of the fall term, for faculty research leaves that had been canceled for the 2008-9 year.

Hard to argue with the numbers. And there's little sympathy outside academia since sabbaticals are seen outside the academic world as a luxury. But this isn't about professors and their work conditions. It is about the continual churning of research and innovation.

The mill of careful, scholarly work turns slowly, and demands a level of concentration and persistence that is almost impossible to appreciate at a distance. Sabbaticals are actually earned -- the majority of professors must apply for such privileges with written justification for what is to be accomplished during that time and follow-up reports when they return. More importantly, the exchange of ideas through travel and paid leaves is vital, and the time to work without interruption necessary for creative work.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

4 Ways Economic Woes Impact Scholarship and Innovation

The downturn in the economy will affect scholarship and innovation for the coming years.

From my academic perch, I'm seeing first-hand how the downturn in the economy is affecting scholarship. Why does this matter? Here are a four things to consider:

Academic doctors gather before a graduation pr...Image via Wikipedia

1. Colleges and universities are contracting the ranks of professors by releasing contractually-hired lecturers and freezing new hires for academic departments.

Currently, about 50% of college classes are taught by these "adjunct" professors hired semester-by-semester (or quarter-by-quarter). Many will find their contracts fail to be renewed, new jobs unavailable, and their already-meagre wages lost. And the failure to staff new tenure-track lines means new PhD's are struggling for stable work in a smaller market.

Not only is this a loss of academic jobs, it also means an increase in class sizes for students and work load for remaining professors. Think you have a hard time getting an appointment to talk to a professor? It will get even harder.

2. Traveling expenses to academic conferences are being cut by institutions, and grant monies for travel are being cut back or removed entirely.

Conferences matter because much of the engine of scholarship happens at these meetings. The presentation, discussion, and general networking that occurs at thousands of conferences held every year both domestically and abroad fuel ideas at every stage of development. Also, journal editors and book publishers often meet with academics to discuss new projects. The book displays at conferences also offer a unique opportunity to review hundreds and hundreds of new ideas at one setting within a few hours time.

Bottom line: Empty meeting rooms translate into the failure of ideas circulating.

3. Grant funding from private endowments will drop for the coming years as the percentage of proceeds from endowment investments goes negative.

The loss of grant funding opportunities means that bold, new, and needed research initiatives will be delayed or dropped entirely as cycles of funding pass. Grant funds (ranging from small of less than $10,000 to large at over $100,000) contribute directly to the employment of professors, graduate students and support staff.

Grant funds also support the operation of universities who receive a percentage of funded grants (which helps bring down the cost of student tuition, for example).

researchImage by suttonhoo via Flickr

4. Libraries are cutting expenses by pulling back on book orders and journal subscriptions.

Not only is this a loss of keeping "up to date" with the continual stream of new knowledge generated daily but also a loss for academic presses that publish this work.

If academic presses contract their publishing efforts (which appears to be happening), then good work will be delayed in publishing or fail to be published at all.

And there's more.

I believe higher education is one of the great strengths of the United States. Our knowledge and our graduates are one of our greatest exports. I hope to see the contributions coming from our institutions further expanded. At the very least, we all need to be aware that the downturn in the economy will contract the many important intellectual efforts being made today.

Any stuttering in the unexpected inspirations that accompany diligent academic work may impede the kinds of innovations we are used to seeing from the labs and libraries of our institutions of higher learning, including those highly practical discoveries that will help alleviate our economic woes.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Hollywood Prayer Network Kid's Calendar

The Hollywood Prayer Network now has a Kid's Prayer Calendar.

The Hollywood Prayer Network (a ministry I wrote about in my book Hollywood Faith -- see an intro video about their mission on their website) is dedicated to praying for all aspects of the Hollywood entertainment industry.

One of their most interesting innovations is a quarterly prayer calendar listing influential industry personnel on-screen and behind-the-scenes. Their monthly prayer updates are "published" to an audience of several thousand supporters. And they have a variety of other prayer ministries they've developed.

Their latest is a Kids Prayer Calendar that seems to indicate people and industry projects most influential among our nation's youth.

American IdolImage via Wikipedia

February '09 features the American Idol edition - past contestants and current finalists. A nice PDF file can be downloaded for parents to print and pray with your kids.

I wrote here recently about a book that gives a recent history on how conservative Christians reinvented their relationship to pop media in an attempt to influence and protect their children's spirituality.

The HPN Kid's Prayer Calendar is a great example of spiritual concern for kids. Rather than protest, HPN says prayer is more powerful and calls on Christians to direct their concerns about media to God. It also encourages parents and children to be more mindful of the media influences they are allowing into their lives. And more importantly, they actively prayer with compassion for people working in the industry who are sick, troubled, or facing any form of personal crisis.

More information on the ministry, including access to a free media packet, is available on their website.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Strip Church, Las Vegas NV

The XXX Church guys have just started a church in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Craig Ross, the long-haired and still-young founder of (never heard of it? It's a ministry to the porn industry and to those struggling with porn addiction. Please visit here, here, and here), and his team have taken the next step in the development of their ministry. The same team that sells t-shirts saying "Jesus Loves Porn Stars" has now moved their offices and their families to Las Vegas to start a church in the heart of Sin City.

The Strip Church is now open.

City of Las VegasImage via Wikipedia

They began their unique ministry on January 8th, 2002, when they arrived at their first adult entertainment industry convention dressed in a bunny suit. "Understated, outsmarted, and underfinanced, we knew we could never compete with the 70 billion dollar a year sex industry. But then we realized, we didn't have to compete, we just needed to show up."

In 7 years of continual evangelistic ministry to adult industry trade shows and industry workers, they've continued to move ever closer to the core of the industry. They've even had a documentary made titled Missionary Positions, by filmmaker and non-Christian Bill Day.

Pastor Craig Ross writes on the new church's website, "Every year we head back to Vegas for the porn show in January. This year we plan on staying." His thought is, "Heck, if we can share Jesus when there are naked people distracting from the conversation, how can we not be able share Jesus during a concrete convention or an automotive trade show?"

A nice video and continual updates on The Strip Church are also available.

As a bonus, their vision and plan for the church is nicely described in a "graphic novel" format.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Expanding Our Digital Selves - It's a Small World After All

The New York Times comes through again -- here's' an extended article Kelly Rutherford pointed out on my facebook account originally published last September on the growth and consequences of our increasingly intimate online presence.

LONDON - JULY 10:  In this photo illustration ...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

An article I missed from September in the New York Times by Clive Thompson gives a nice summary of the growth and implications of our expanding digital selves.

Here's a brief abstract of what I found most interesting. Thompson writes,

Facebook users didn’t think they wanted constant, up-to-the-minute updates on what other people are doing. Yet when they experienced this sort of omnipresent knowledge, they found it intriguing and addictive. Why?

It's Called "Ambient Awareness"

Twitter's Update PageImage via Wikipedia

Social scientists have a name for this sort of incessant online contact. They call it “ambient awareness.” It is, they say, very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does — body language, sighs, stray comments — out of the corner of your eye. Facebook is no longer alone in offering this sort of interaction online. In the last year, there has been a boom in tools for “microblogging”: posting frequent tiny updates on what you’re doing.

There are other services for reporting where you’re traveling (Dopplr) or for quickly tossing online a stream of the pictures, videos or Web sites you’re looking at (Tumblr). And there are even tools that give your location. When the new iPhone, with built-in tracking, was introduced in July, one million people began using Loopt, a piece of software that automatically tells all your friends exactly where you are.

Social Interactions as Constant Status Updates

For many people — particularly anyone over the age of 30 — the idea of describing your blow-by-blow activities in such detail is absurd. Why would you subject your friends to your daily minutiae? And conversely, how much of their trivia can you absorb? The growth of ambient intimacy can seem like modern narcissism taken to a new, supermetabolic extreme — the ultimate expression of a generation of celebrity-addled youths who believe their every utterance is fascinating and ought to be shared with the world.

Ben Haley, a 39-year-old documentation specialist for a software firm who lives in Seattle, told me that when he first heard about Twitter last year from an early-adopter friend who used it, his first reaction was that it seemed silly. But a few of his friends decided to give it a try, and they urged him to sign up, too.

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

Each day, Haley logged on to his account, and his friends’ updates would appear as a long page of one- or two-line notes. He would check and recheck the account several times a day, or even several times an hour. The updates were indeed pretty banal. One friend would post about starting to feel sick; one posted random thoughts like “I really hate it when people clip their nails on the bus”; another Twittered whenever she made a sandwich — and she made a sandwich every day. Each so-called tweet was so brief as to be virtually meaningless.

But as the days went by, something changed. Haley discovered that he was beginning to sense the rhythms of his friends’ lives in a way he never had before. When one friend got sick with a virulent fever, he could tell by her Twitter updates when she was getting worse and the instant she finally turned the corner. He could see when friends were heading into hellish days at work or when they’d scored a big success. Even the daily catalog of sandwiches became oddly mesmerizing, a sort of metronomic click that he grew accustomed to seeing pop up in the middle of each day.

Keeping in Tune with Individual Moods

My social Network on Flickr, Facebook, Twitter...Image by luc legay via Flickr

This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting. This was never before possible, because in the real world, no friend would bother to call you up and detail the sandwiches she was eating. The ambient information becomes like “a type of E.S.P.,” as Haley described it to me, an invisible dimension floating over everyday life.

“It’s like I can distantly read everyone’s mind,” Haley went on to say. “I love that. I feel like I’m getting to something raw about my friends. It’s like I’ve got this heads-up display for them.” It can also lead to more real-life contact, because when one member of Haley’s group decides to go out to a bar or see a band and Twitters about his plans, the others see it, and some decide to drop by — ad hoc, self-organizing socializing. And when they do socialize face to face, it feels oddly as if they’ve never actually been apart. They don’t need to ask, “So, what have you been up to?” because they already know. Instead, they’ll begin discussing something that one of the friends Twittered that afternoon, as if picking up a conversation in the middle.

Co-Presence Dates from Digital Phones

This driver is using two phones at onceImage via Wikipedia

Facebook and Twitter may have pushed things into overdrive, but the idea of using communication tools as a form of “co-presence” has been around for a while. The Japanese sociologist Mizuko Ito first noticed it with mobile phones: lovers who were working in different cities would send text messages back and forth all night — tiny updates like “enjoying a glass of wine now” or “watching TV while lying on the couch.” They were doing it partly because talking for hours on mobile phones isn’t very comfortable (or affordable). But they also discovered that the little Ping-Ponging messages felt even more intimate than a phone call.

“It’s an aggregate phenomenon,” Marc Davis, a chief scientist at Yahoo and former professor of information science at the University of California at Berkeley, told me. “No message is the single-most-important message. It’s sort of like when you’re sitting with someone and you look over and they smile at you. You’re sitting here reading the paper, and you’re doing your side-by-side thing, and you just sort of let people know you’re aware of them.” Yet it is also why it can be extremely hard to understand the phenomenon until you’ve experienced it. Merely looking at a stranger’s Twitter or Facebook feed isn’t interesting, because it seems like blather. Follow it for a day, though, and it begins to feel like a short story; follow it for a month, and it’s a novel.

The Benefit of Socially "Loose-Ties"

Many maintained that their circle of true intimates, their very close friends and family, had not become bigger. Constant online contact had made those ties immeasurably richer, but it hadn’t actually increased the number of them; deep relationships are still predicated on face time, and there are only so many hours in the day for that.But where their sociality had truly exploded was in their “weak ties” — loose acquaintances, people they knew less well. It might be someone they met at a conference, or someone from high school who recently “friended” them on Facebook, or somebody from last year’s holiday party. In their pre-Internet lives, these sorts of acquaintances would have quickly faded from their attention. But when one of these far-flung people suddenly posts a personal note to your feed, it is essentially a reminder that they exist.

This rapid growth of weak ties can be a very good thing. Sociologists have long found that “weak ties” greatly expand your ability to solve problems. For example, if you’re looking for a job and ask your friends, they won’t be much help; they’re too similar to you, and thus probably won’t have any leads that you don’t already have yourself. Remote acquaintances will be much more useful, because they’re farther afield, yet still socially intimate enough to want to help you out.

Social-networkImage via Wikipedia

This is the ultimate effect of the new awareness: It brings back the dynamics of small-town life, where everybody knows your business. Young people at college are the ones to experience this most viscerally, because, with more than 90 percent of their peers using Facebook, it is especially difficult for them to opt out.

Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who has closely studied how college-age users are reacting to the world of awareness, told me that athletes used to sneak off to parties illicitly, breaking the no-drinking rule for team members. But then camera phones and Facebook came along, with students posting photos of the drunken carousing during the party; savvy coaches could see which athletes were breaking the rules. First the athletes tried to fight back by waking up early the morning after the party in a hungover daze to detag photos of themselves so they wouldn’t be searchable. But that didn’t work, because the coaches sometimes viewed the pictures live, as they went online at 2 a.m. So parties simply began banning all camera phones in a last-ditch attempt to preserve privacy.

“It’s just like living in a village, where it’s actually hard to lie because everybody knows the truth already,” Tufekci said. “The current generation is never unconnected. They’re never losing touch with their friends. So we’re going back to a more normal place, historically. If you look at human history, the idea that you would drift through life, going from new relation to new relation, that’s very new. It’s just the 20th century.”

You can read the full article at the New York Times website.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Mosaic of Believers - 2nd Edition Paperback Fall 2009

I just found out from Indiana University Press that my first book A Mosaic of Believers will be published in paperback with an updated preface in Fall 2009.

Good news for readers all around the world (I can hear them cheering now).

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Wired Church of the Future - GPS Religion

Reading the latest issue of Wired Magazine themed around GPS continued to feed my thoughts on possible connections between churches and innovations in portable computing.

Religion and the Digital Bandwagon

Churches have by and large climbed on the digital bandwagon in the past decade. Computers and internet connections are no longer considered luxuries, and most churches have a web presence (or at least feel like they should have one).

But the past two years have seen a rapid acceleration in the adoption of portable computing by the average consumer, and this will inevitably prompt changes by church leaders. Here's my quick take on how one such innovation could be closer to us than we think.

Location, Location, Location

I am impressed with the GPS capabilities expanding to phones. GPS takes advantage of satellite technology so that your device always "knows" where you are. The Apple IPhone has remarkable apps that take advantage of location specifics so that users can find local restaurants, movie theaters, and gas stations -- all based on where they happen to be at that moment.

We can't be too far from inventive congregations creating applications that take advantage of the GPS in these devices.

For example, congregations could allow users to discover church services and other congregational events. GPS devices could allow people to automatically connect with things offered in the area by city, zip code, or mile-radius.

I can imagine the day coming when I visit a city for a conference and can look up services and events (perhaps indexed by religious orientation) and see what is happening religiously in the area -- whether it starts in 12 minutes or in 2 days time. Description, times, and further information would be at my fingertips. And the phone would give me turn-by-turn directions to the place whether by car or on foot.

Artist's conception of GPS satellite in orbitImage via Wikipedia

This technology does not have to be tailored just for new visitors. Religious organizations could also pre-program their events to actually "begin" as people arrive to services. Because of GPS capabilities, these can automatically begin when a person comes within "range" of the congregation.

Picture this -- users could elect to connect to their congregations either by pre-set time (20 minutes before services or events) or by pre-set radius (within 1 mile of the meeting place) and have music begin to play as a "pre-event" or "pre-service" preparation. Prayers could be read aloud. Readings from scripture, or church history, or a weekly newsletter could be included. And images could be displayed to set mood and ambience.

In fact, announcements could also be programmed to play for users either before or after events.

And for study groups that require some advance reading, these apps could remind people of their assignment (again by time or pre-set location radius) and even allow people to download the required reading right to their phones. Or have it read aloud to them using speech-to-text software as they are traveling.

Expanding the Land-based Local to the Online Global

Connecting all of these services through twitter, facebook, friendfeed, etc., vastly expand the presence of a local congregation.

Facebook, Inc.Image via Wikipedia

All of these features could be hyperlinked for more information. They could also include a "forward link" so that people could invite friends, neighbors, and co-workers to participate. People who have moved away for work, school, or vacation, could also keep in touch with their church indefinitely, especially if such services are complemented with downloadable video streams and continued interactive features like "comment" or "chat" extras.

Image representing FriendFeed as depicted in C...Image via CrunchBase

Inventive programmers in specific congregations could do this right now (if they had the motivation and encouragement from their pastors to do it). Perhaps the initiative of larger networks of denominations or para-church support organizations would commission programmers to create these apps.

However it happens, I guarantee that if such apps are created, they will be implemented in thousands of congregations overnight.

In short, the wired church of the future is just around the corner. The emerging electronic capacities of portable computing and the overwhelming presence of these devices in the consumer world will soon be co-opted by religious organizations.

It only remains for the first set of innovators to create the apps that take advantage of these capacities in religiously creative ways.