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A Collaborative World?

 

Apparently, the revolution will be tweeted,

says Jason Gardner in an article which begins by reflecting on the use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter in recent people movements in North Africa. You may have read about the Egyptian who called his newborn child ‘Facebook’ in tribute to the way that site was used to spark potential social change.

So Gardner asks us to pay attention to Web 2.0, which

is about customisation and collaboration … That means that the story of the world is no longer dictated to us: we write it together.

Even powerful dictators’ efforts to use kill switches on the Internet have run into trouble as international people movements such as Avaaz have solicited funds from tens of thousands of people around the world to provide satellite links and other means for the previously disempowered citizens to keep communicating with each other and the outside world.

When I have written about this before, I have quoted Rex Miller‘s maxim that it isn’t that the medium is the message; rather, the medium is the worldview. Collaborative media mean collaborative approaches to life. And Gardner rightly says the church needs to take heed.

His particular application is in involving youth, and he makes the point that God is involving us collaboratively in his kingdom.

However, it’s worth thinking about for the whole church. While we have a long way to go, it gives me great pleasure to be involved in leading a church that already has signs of taking this seriously. I have a Leadership Team that meets weekly at Knaphill, and although I’m seen as the overall leader we take counsel together.

Or for another example, you’ll notice this is one of those weekends when there is no new sermon on the blog. That’s because it’s All Age Worship Sunday, and we have a team that plans these services. While I might bring a general overarching theme or message, I couldn’t possibly put together the services we lead. The creative gifts present among the team are amazing, and the worship is all the richer for it.

OK, if I get round to it, I might put up the short PowerPoint presentation that accompanies my brief talk on a site like Slideshare, but it isn’t a conventional sermon. It’s a talk on the theme of ‘belonging’, because we’ve just had Founders’ Day for the Scouts and Thinking Day for the Guides. And actually, did I come up with the theme this time? No. I couldn’t make the planning meeting, due to an emergency. Two other people prayed and set the theme, and I have attempted to fit in.

Of course, we need to go much further, but one thing is for sure. However much I am set aside to pray and discern, there is no going back to the world where an Anglican rector friend of mine saw his calling as to come down from the mountain with the tablets of stone, and for the people simply to accept his word to that effect.

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Methodists And Social Media: The Methodist Council Decision

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Posts are starting to fly in on yesterday’s Methodist Council decision. Pete Phillips and Dave Warnock (both members of the Council) have blogged the result in some details, and Richard Hall has offered a brief comment with an appeal for grace.

Broadly speaking, the report was accepted, but with two qualifications. Firstly, Council has sensibly removed the words ‘after the meeting’ from the discussion of the Chatham House Rule, for otherwise people would have been prevented from discussing non-confidential matters together before a meeting. That would have been absurd, and conspiracy theorists would have eaten that for breakfast.

Secondly, this resolution was passed:

The Council adopts the guidelines (sc. sections 5 to 10 of the main paper) for use in the bodies and situations over which it has jurisdiction, and recommends them to the Conference for adoption in other parts of the Methodist Church. The Council further invites the Team to keep these guidelines under open review. The Council also directs the Team to produce a summary version of them similar to the Civil Service guidelines.

I find this hopeful, too. We shall see how Conference debates this in the summer. I might have preferred more than an ‘invitation’ to the Connexional Team to keep the guidelines under review, but I trust there will be people in the Team and on the Council who will take sufficient active interest in the matter to ensure this is not forgotten. I also think the summary will be a good move – so long as that concentrates on values, not legislation.

I’d like to echo Richard’s call for gracious participation by bloggers in monitoring and discussing this. There is no reason why that cannot be so. Indeed, it should be so for us as Christians. I know there are times when I’ve flown off the handle about something and clicked ‘publish’ or ‘send’ too quickly, but a Christian approach would involve consideration before publication. That needn’t mean a lack of debate, as I see it. We don’t need to become like the Chinese public looking over their shoulders at the secret police when weighing their words for the western media. Methodism can have authoritarian tendencies at times (and we inherit that from our founder!), but I don’t think we’re that bad.

How might we debate? Here’s how I see it as a minister: every year, I have to attend the Ministerial Synod, where I renew my promises to uphold the doctrines and discipline of our denomination. If I can’t make that affirmation, I have to resign – and rightly. I will be candid and say there are things in our practices I don’t like, and I wish to see changed. I can freely campaign for change, just so long as I continue to believe our doctrines and operate our discipline. I have to ask whether the things I dislike are life-and-death issues. If they did become matters of absolute principle, then resignation would be the only option. Thankfully, it has never come to that. I hope it never will. However, you never know. SoI could start a debate on one of my pet issues without fear, so long as I do not do so in a manner that means I am actively rejecting our beliefs and ways of doing things.

And in passing, for those of us who are ‘card-carrying evangelicals’. who have sometimes been upset by certain ‘liberal’ decisions in Methodism, let me just quote something I found helpful a few years ago from the evangelical Anglican bishop Pete Broadbent. He said, ‘Look to the title deeds of your church. Have the core doctrines been changed?’

Beyond that, I think we just need to stop and wonder what led us to this (at times) painful debate over the last few days. One major issue is about a breakdown of trust between local Methodists and the Connexion. It is a separate and big question about how we address that. Those who have a more positive relationship with Connexion have approached this and other issues differently.Without coming over all ‘hello trees, hello flowers’, we need to address and heal our relationships.

It is also about how Methodism moves into the new ways of communication. How well do we understand them and work within them? It’s about more than Marshall McLuhan‘s 1960s truism, ‘the medium is the message’, it’s more like Rex Miller‘s aphorism, ‘the medium is the worldview’. Internet values of transparency and openness (not all of which should be adopted uncritically – witness the storm when Facebook changed every user’s privacy settings recently) change the way we debate confidentiality and privacy. The libertarianism in major areas of the Internet (which again shouldn’t be accepted unthinkingly) affects how we handle laws, values, censorship, restrictions and all manner of things.

David Hallam’s angry tirades on this subject and others make both these points (in rather extreme ways, in my opinion). I checked his blog before completing this post. At the time of writing he has not yet written about the Methodist Council decision, but he has posted another item in his ‘Blogger Beware!’ series. I thoroughly dislike his jibes at other Methodist bloggers in that piece and others, and I do not like his immodest conclusion,

On Wednesday 25 April 2007 this blog changed British Methodism forever

but threads in his writing underline my comments. David, perhaps more than any other British Methodist blogger, distrusts the Connexion, and sometimes he has a right to do so. He is also acutely aware that the openness of the Internet democratises debate to a considerable extent, and Methodism must get used to that.I just fear his tone will give ammunition to those who do not understand or who dislike the world of social media and its ramifications.

If we could get on with discussing the values behind David’s writing but without the tone, we could make progress with this debate.

Clay Shirky: Social Media And The Communications Revolution

In a wonderful TED Talk recorded last month, Clay Shirky details why the arrival of social media on a massive scale is a true communications revolution. His talk is prescient at a time when Twitter has been seen to be the most immediate way of delivering news from the front line of the Iran election protests.

Much of what he says derives from his fine book ‘Here Comes Everybody‘ that I blogged earlier this year during my sabbatical. If you don’t have time to read the book, watch this video, which is only seventeen minutes long. It introduces you to some of his key thinking, and it is highly relevant. Here are a couple of salient points he makes in this talk.

It isn’t when tools are shiny and new that they are revolutionary; it is when they are familiar and boring – because then they are widely distributed and used.

Furthermore, the contemporary communications revolution works on a number of fronts. First of all, we are no longer passive consumers. We do not simply receive what the professionals and the powerful broadcast to us. The same tools that make us consumers also make us producers: computers are not just for looking at websites and receiving messages, we can send messages and create our own websites and blogs. Mobile phones are not only for telephone conversations, we can send SMS and MMS messages.

And not only can we reply to the powerful and the professionals, we can then network among ourselves. We are way beyond ‘one to one’ and ‘one to many’ conversations; we now have ‘many to many’ conversations, and their significance grows exponentially with each new participant.

When the last Chinese earthquake happened, Twitter was the first service to break the news, because eyewitness accounts could be uploaded immediately. The BBC learned of the quake from Twitter. The so-called ‘Great Firewall of China‘ which existed to censor unsuitable material from the rest of the world was facing the wrong way. It was a long time before the Chinese authorities reverted to their normal clampdown methods.

Ultimately, though, the nature of the new social tools is such that there is no point discussing whether we like them or not, professionalism versus citizen journalism and all that. The horse has bolted, and this is the new world. Not to operate in it is like refusing to have a printing press, a camera, a telephone, a radio and a television.

The Barack Obama presidential campaign understood the new world well when they set up the My Barack Obama site for supporters. When Obama announced his support for something unpopular, they formed a forum on the site to oppose him and lobby him. Obama had to reply, explaining he had considered the issue and come to a conclusion they did not like, and that he would take the hits for that. What the campaign never did was censor the supporters. It realised that in the new world they could only convene them, and that was their task on the website.

Where does this leave Christians? Firstly, ignoring the new world is not an option. Communications (in all directions) are key to our faith. While we shall want to beware any values that might be inimical to our core beliefs (for example, the ‘instant’ or ‘real time’ nature of this stuff cuts both ways, between news spreading fast – good – and stunted reflection – bad), we cannot opt out. Churches that just want to set up static websites and think they are hip are behind the times. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, FriendFeed, Flickr (I simply name the ones where I happen to have a presence) are now critical. We need to be active there. They are about more than the popular stereotype of Facebook and Twitter updates of saying what we had for breakfast. It is heartening in my own denomination to see that this year for the first time the Methodist Conference (which happens in a couple of weeks’ time) will have a Twitter feed. It’s already up and running. It will be the primary way in which I stay up to date with debates and decisions. Why wait two weeks for a Methodist Recorder report? Our weekly newspaper has instantly been rendered even more moribund than it already was.

By virtue of where I am publishing this article, I am probably to a considerable extent typing to the converted. But the argument needs to be carried elsewhere. I am not suggesting that every ninety-year-old in our churches buys a laptop and sings up with Twitter (although plenty with lively minds certainly could). However, it is as essential for the church to embrace the life in this new world as it was for the Jewish exiles to embrace life in Babylon. Not everyone will like it, but it is where we are right now, and we need to be involved.

Secondly, we must recognise that these different forms of communication will affect our worldview. Rex Miller argued as much, if not more, in his book ‘The Millennium Matrix‘. He said that Marshall McLuhan‘s famous dictum that the medium is the message wasn’t radical enough: the medium is the worldview, Miller claimed. Social media moves us from one-way proclamation of the type I engage in when I preach on a Sunday to an interactive and conversational approach. This must affect how we do church and especially how we do mission.

Thirdly, while some will be bewildered and confused by the new world, I think it gives us cause for hope. If others can get their message out so quickly and broadly, then we can too. And we should be at the forefront of the revolution, not merely copying a new trend but innovating. We are the children of the Creator God. The Church’s history of arts patronage is something we could recover here, in that we could be leaders, not simply followers in the social media world. Why not?

Anyway, I said this was a conversation, and I’ve rattled on for a thousand words now. Over to you. What do you think?