February 29, 2012

Technology vs Gathering (and the role of the Leader)

For most of history, the primary tool of mass communication was a cathedral (or amphitheater) and the best broadcasting system was the carrying voice of a knowledgeable cleric. From this perspective, the rise of telecommunication might be the single most practical reason why church attendance fell steadily in the US since a century ago, especially in Protestant churches that promoted teaching & preaching as the main reason for gathering.

It only makes practical sense. If the group's key duty is merely to ingest brand-approved content, there are much more convenient alternatives.

Increasingly, today's large audiences only assemble for exceptional headliners who put on a higher quality show. That doesn't mean we're psychologically bent towards rock stars, or anything. It just reflects the practical value of exclusivity. Whether it's Joel Osteen, Bon Jovi or the Los Angeles Lakers - in general - we only get out for high quality, one-of-a-kind, live experiences. In stark contrast, as far as lectures & sermons go, most of them can be audited later without loss of content or quality. That's not a tragedy, just the nature of things. Some have therefore concluded that churches need better shows to draw bigger attendance. (Add more incense & stained glass, while we're at it?) But that's not necessarily so.

What we need are more compelling reasons to gather, at all.

Fortunately, in terms of pure exclusivity, nothing compares to the value of you - not necessarily as a headliner, but as participants in a genuinely interactive experience.

((***Of course, this is somewhat hard to find, and daunting to try and produce. The practical difficulties of achieving such group activity are essentially two: (1) finding participants who are semi-equipped to jump out of audience mode into positive, healthy and constructively corporate activities, and (2) finding a skillful, benevolent and patient facilitator to train a group as they seek better ways of interacting effectively; but on that, I digress. Whether easy or difficult, the promise of finding Chist in that which each joint supplies is something I might just get up on Sunday to go participate in... unless I'm just hearing mini-lectures in sequence. (Or, much worse, ignorant, wishful, indulgent mini-lectures in sequence; but I digress again).***))

Throughout christian history, the necessity of the cathedral gave clergy more power, both controlling the message and presenting its broadcast as vital, but congregations assembled primarily because gathering was practical, not because the priest/pastor insisted. Today's believers increasingly find ourselves edified by a litany of voices. So, again, why should we all have to gather at preacher-ville? The pulpit's lost power is partly geographic.

For better and worse, then, I predict that technology's pace will continue to shrink church attendance. The silver lining could appear if it turns out the more valuable gatherings are the ones that remain viable, and it would certainly be nice to see fewer auditoriums of passivity, and more productive group functioning. The dark cloud, of course, is the increasing power of 'rock star preachers'.

The divergence continues.

What Christian gatherings, if any, do YOU find to be worth getting out for, these days?

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