Keith Anderson: Can the World Wide Web Put Humpty Dumpty Denominations Back Together?


On August 1, 1981, when MTV went on the airwaves for the first time, the very first video it showed was "Video Killed the Radio Star" by The Buggles”Š--”Ša song otherwise lost to musical history except as an answer at trivia night at your local pub. (You're welcome.) The video was MTV's way of announcing that it was a new platform for music that would challenge radio's decades of dominance as the only platform for music discovery.

Well, video didn't exactly kill the radio star. You could argue that came about thirty years later with peer-to-peer file sharing service, Napster, and today's legal but poorly compensating music streaming services. However, MTV certainly contributed to radio's displacement as the place for music.

Neither radio nor television executives could have imagined at the time how the world wide web could eventually disrupt both their industries. Now there are countless music outlets: internet radio stations, podcasts, digital downloads, video sharing, and music streaming. This moment in 1986, when the two great giants of modern broadcast media faced off, highlights how new technologies and platforms can and do supplant one another, and even disrupt entire industries.

The internet has also disrupted the Church, which, at least since the dawn of the printing press, has been shaped tremendously by mass media”Š--”Šfirst print, then broadcast”Š--”Šwith notable successes both on mainline and evangelical ends of the religious spectrum. But the church has been struggling mightily in a digitally-integrated, mobile, and social-media-fueled world.

Recently, Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, issued an invitation to the 38 national leaders of the Anglican communion to meet in Canterbury in January 2016, reportedly to reimagine the structure of the Anglican Communion. Church insiders suggest that rather than trying to reify existing structure of the global Communion in the face of increasing division, especially in regard to homosexuality, Welby will propose a looser affiliation among AC church bodies.

Giles Fraser, in a recent article in the The Guardian, credited the world wide web with these new developments. He writes that although the internet surfaced differences within the Communion as well as within other denominations by enabling us to see each other, it might also offer a new model for being church. Fraser writes,

"Berners-Lee's great invention...can provide a model for a more robust ecclesiology. For the great breakthrough that Berners-Lee made at Cern in 1989 was the creation of hypertext, connections that share information horizontally, between users, without having to pass through some central command and control. It was the ultimate Reformation, not just (as it were) the abolition of the pope”Š--”Šbut the abolition of the whole need for a hierarchical and centralised authority. This is how the church should develop”Š--”Šlocally based, and with a crisscrossing network of national and international connections where solidarity is helpful and required. Yes, a bit like the letters of St Paul, but not so bossy.

"But the hypertext church”Š--”Šconnected horizontally, not vertically”Š--”Šis not some future possibility. It is a present reality. ... The problem is not with the church on the ground. The problem is with the long, fictional notion of authority by which we are all supposed to be connected."

The Church of England, more than any other Protestant Reformation tradition, retained centralized power in the person of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Though many other traditions eventually developed their own hierarchies with national denominations, they look less like the medieval structures of Canterbury or the Papal See and more like modern, industrial bureaucracies like General Motors or General Electric.

Fraser's argument echoes what many scholars including Elizabeth Drescher, Heidi Campbell, Harold Rhinegold, danah boyd, and Clary Shirkey, have been documenting for years--that our use of this horizontally-oriented world wide web (which we see on full display in digital social media) has rewired daily practices, work, and relationships, so that we have become accustomed to looking for advice from our peers and wisdom from a range of traditions, rather than a centralized authority.

From this perspective, the maintenance of a vertical denominational apparatus has taken an oversized role, if not in raw numbers, then in time and attention given it. Reinforcing the traditional vertical structure in the face of the real diversity of the Church and the networked religious practices of believers who remain is something that, as Fraser writes, eluded even the previous ABC, the remarkable Rowan Williams.

The Death and Resurrection of Denominations

The world wide web, particularly through internet search and social media platforms, undercuts a large portion of the historic raison d'etre of denominational bodies”Š--”Šwhich has been largely focused on programming and resourcing congregations and ministry leaders. In a digital age, anyone can Google for information, or ask a colleague for advice, however geographically distant they might be from one another or from the centers of authority in the Church. Ministry leaders don't have to wait for the latest issue of the monthly magazine or quarterly resource newsletter to get ideas and information. It's right at their fingertips. And if your pastor can't or won't Google, well, you have bigger problems.

I'm not advocating here for toppling denominational offices. There's no need. That's going along all by itself with declines in attendance, membership, and financial giving. Economic and demographic shifts, along with declines in religious afflilation (up to 23% in a recent Pew Research report; more than 30% among adults under age 30), along with people living into this globally, digitally networked way of being human is doing more to reshape denominations than any self-study or strategic plan could. It's already happening. The question is how to manage it: focusing on things that matter most, and experimenting with new ways of being and doing church. The slower the church adapts to these new ways of living and working, the more out of touch and irrelevant it feels, and daily.

A Networked Ecclesiology

I write at length in my book The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World about this kind of emerging networked ecclesiology”Š--”Šthe billions of horizontal connections fueled by hyperlinks and social media, which are ecumenical, interfaith, cross-issue, and transcend believer and "None" alike. We are seeing a shift from both the classic hierarchical organizational chart with Jesus and the bishop at the top, as well as hub and spokes, where information is funneled through a central bureacratic entity--to a web with varieties of tight and loose connections as well as organic and mutually beneficial networks of collaboration and relationship.

I tell the stories in my book of nuns using internet radio to promote religious life, a bishop on a motorcycle crisscrossing his territory, coffee shop Bible studies, worship in public places, monasteries that are on Pinterest, congregations that are redefining what it means to belong, and a pope that regularly does selfies.

These emerging models for ministry and church are resonant with their communities because they seize on the shift in the networked way we live our lives, as Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman describe in their enormously helpful book, Networked: The New Social Operating System. They write, "Each person has become a communication and information switchboard connecting persons, networks, and institutions." This is "in contrast to the longstanding operating system formed around large hierarchical bureaucracies and small, densely knit groups such as households, communities, and workgroups."

What's a Denomination to Do?

In this new digital context, denominations should be fostering unity without conformity, supporting theological identity, nurturing and facilitating networks without absorbing them, training whip smart and innovative leaders, providing inspiration, helping us serve our neighbors at scale, lifting up voices from all corners without insisting on softening their rough and distinctive edges.

To its credit, my home synod has developed a campaign around four key areas: Equipping, Networking, Communicating, Innovating. This represents an enormous culture shift from a model where we used to look for the synod for programming and authoritative direction. We are still figuring out what that looks like as a synod, but it is undoubtedly the right direction to be moving.

But the burdens for making these changes do not rest on denominational bodies alone. In a digitally-integrated world, local ministry leaders now have ability, and I would argue, the responsibility, to contribute to and shape this global, networked way of being church by sharing their very best ideas, encouraging other congregations and colleagues, and nurturing relationships across and beyond well-worn denominational clusterings of our history. It is way too easy for ministry leaders to blame denominational bodies for not moving quickly enough to help them meet the demands of a networked world. In a networked world, the responsibility lies with all of us.

The question each individual ministry leaders faces is this: are we willing to invest in each other with a generosity of spirit, time, and energy as we discover how we will be church now and into the future, or are we just going to wait around to let someone else--either a denomination or some other pastor--figure it out for us? If we choose the later, it is already too late.

If our denominations are like Humpty Dumpty, who all the king's (or queen's) men (or women)”Š--”Šincluding the Archbishop of Canterbury”Š--”Šcan't put back together again the way they were, perhaps the world wide web and our commitments to and care for one another, can help reconstitute them in a way that adheres to the contours of our networked, relational culture and meets the needs of the people living in it.

The question is not whether denominations will change, its how these changes will happen. In his invitation to leaders of the Anglican Communion, ABC Welby has recognized not only the disruptive but also the potentially positive power of this new networked ecclesiology. It remains to be seen if his church leaders, other denominations, and we ourselves will follow suit.

This post first appeared in The Narthex.

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