Two years after last attending the christian new media conference and having skipped last year’s, I returned this year, after buying an early bird ticket. Also, with the advantage of having moved to London, it took little more than half an hour to get to the venue and at no additional cost. Last time I went I had the intention of trying to meet various people who I had spoken to online before, though it was all rather a stressful and draining experience. This time, I decided to stick to my more natural disposition by observing others and hiding in plain sense.
On arrival I grabbed a coffee, a welcome pack and sat down to plan what sessions I would attend. I spotted a few people I recognised come in, though such recognition was not mutual. One piece of information omitted from the agenda was to say what room the introduction was in. Thankfully, this year there was a wifi available to all (a vast improvement on 2 years ago) and my query was soon answered by someone else who was monitoring the #CNMAC14 hashtag.
So I found the main room and sat in my usual position; that is, as a way of reflecting my political views I tend to sit on the far left. I must say I thought the main room was very nice. It was far more spacious than the lecture hall we were in last time, with nice wooden beams augmented by some tasteful blue lighting.
The first session was given by Rachel Jordan, who is the national advisor for Mission and Evangelism in the CofE. The theme that it was her job to introduce was that of “Transformers” which has nothing to do with toys from the 80s or big budget terrible films of the last few years. Rather, it was linked to Romans 12 and the theme of transformation that one may find there.
Her key point was that transformation takes place when we meet God face to face. She used a few examples of people meeting Jesus as he was passing by and having their lives transformed as a result of those encounters. Secondary to a direct encounter is an introduction. So bringing in the aspect of the digital, she noted that the accessibility facilitated by the internet allows for more opportunities for people to meet and this then includes possibilities to meet or be introduced to Jesus. From here, the emphasis shifted to one of the busyness of modern life and how such busyness can get in the way of such encounters. Therefore, we need to get good at appropriate filtering and making the time and space to allow ourselves to be transformed.
It was a good introductory presentation, which was evidently well-rehearsed. The general impression was one of agreement, with the Twitter feed buzzing with soundbites from the talk. Though here and in most of the talks I heard during the day, there seemed to be less of a strain on the part of the speakers to generate soundbites. That had been a bit of a plague 2 years ago that detracted from well-constructed arguments. That’s not to say that there weren’t plenty of quotes used and generated this time round, but they didn’t feel quite so forced.
After this, I headed down to a talk on crowdsourced theology. It was done in two parts, the first given by Danny Webster, the second by Marika Rose. It was a very different kind of talk, not least because the two speakers didn’t exactly agree on all points, though it wasn’t framed as a debate between the two. Danny began by noting that dissent is often the oxygen of social media. The upshot of this is that the priesthood of all believers can be abused and becomes the priesthood of the loudest voices. There can also be a temptation to think that if we garner a strong, negative or otherwise hostile response that we can convince ourselves we must be on the right track. It’s a symptom of “[if you go looking for it on the internet, you will be able to find something]” – which can lead to confirmation bias if we’re not careful.
It seems that frequently, attempts to engage on more serious issues quickly go off the rails with every Thomas, Richard and Harry jumping in with an opinion; often an opinion that hides where people come from, hiding their background theology and their agenda. So if, on the one hand, social media prioritises polarisation and isn’t very good at patience, while on the other hand, working out matters of doctrine require patience and less polarisation, then the natural conclusion is that social media isn’t the best place for discussing church doctrine. In this I would largely agree with him.
Marika’s response was characteristically robust. She began with the proposition that “Patience isn’t always a virtue.” She continued by pointing out, correctly in my view, that theology is always political. Unfortunately, she didn’t expand much on this point as that assertion could be taken in a number of different ways. Instead, she used the example of the civil rights movement to illustrate changing attitudes in that Martin Luther King was considered an extremist until Malcolm X appeared on the scene. With a caveat that analogies between civil rights and other issues including egalitarian leadership in churches and the accepting of LGB people are fragile; parallels can’t be drawn without invoking false reasoning. It’s worth noting that this caveat was later questioned by one of the members of the audience, to which there was no convincing backup of the assertion.
She further contended, contrary to Danny, that asking for patience is equivalent to taking sides with the status quo. Harking back to Martin Luther King again, the response to the demand for change that is worded as “not yet” is really just a “no” put a little more politely. She also queried whether polarisation was necessarily a bad thing or something to be avoided. A very interesting point that resonated with me, though I’d never quite enunciated as such, was that the prophetic speaks with a harsh voice, while the pastoral speaks with a softer voice. This was backed up by noting that Paul could be firm with those he addressed his letters to and that the Old Testament prophets hardly adopted a softly-softly approach to dealing with the sin of a nation.
The second breakout session was on the subject of church websites. And who better to present this than Sara Batts? The session didn’t get off to a great start as we were invited to turn to our near neighbours and discuss two questions with them. Those who know me know that I find such things to be really quite tortuous and in my own church it is the one thing I dread more than any other.
The two questions were: 1) What sort of thing might a visitor to your church website be looking for? and 2) What information does your church website have on it?
It was put to us that these two lists of information may not coincide. We were shown a few examples of good church websites though Sara stayed away from showing a bad church website (possibly because there was a risk that the creator of such a website might be in the audience). The key warnings were to avoid the mentality that information should be there “in case someone might want to know”. There was also a warning against the essence of traditionalism: we do it this way because that’s the way we’ve always done it.
One of the responses from the audience to the first question was “to find out what sort of church it is” which I think was a much better answer than the person who posited that the most important information is about weddings, funerals and baptisms (which indicates that they probably came from one particular denomination!). One of the other topics that cropped up was the question over membership logins. I am very firmly against these, as they seem exclusive and divisive. The church where I grew up (but haven’t been a part of for many years) hides the recordings of its sermons behind a login, so anyone who wants to sample the teaching of the church are prevented from doing so online, as a conscious act of the church, which I find a bizarre way of sharing the gospel.
Speaking to someone afterwards, they shared my impression that this was overall a bit of a ‘beginner level’ talk; that this was all fairly basic things that constitute competent website design, not necessarily exceptional design. So it might be an improvement to have the agenda labelled a bit more clearly (ironically enough) to say who the target audience is. I’m sure it will have helped quite a few people there, though the impression given was that the digital surgeries were more designed for beginner level.
Probably the most pertinent point was that 16% of all adults in the UK have some level of difficulty with reading and that if our websites are too text-heavy then we run the risk of excluding them.
So with that we headed off for lunch. I must say it was quite disappointing. There was nowhere on site and we weren’t permitted to bring food in from the outside so we all piled into an eatery next door. Unfortunately, I’d developed quite a headache so nipped to get some paracetemol first, which put me rather far back in the queue. So we were late in being served and they ran out of various dishes so I had to wait for them to do another batch of mine; even then they added mushrooms which I had to pick out. I mean, why ruin perfectly good food by adding a fungus to it?
Coming back from lunch, we had 3 short talks entitled ‘Transforming Technology’, ‘Transforming Mobility’ and ‘Transforming Humanity’ given by Alastair Somerville (Acuity Design), Paul Johnston (Padajo) and Pete Philips (CODEC) respectively.
The first of these focused on the ‘sensory web’ which was essentially technology that we wear and beacons that detect when a suitable device is nearby and automatically send messages to it. The purpose of these is mainly advertising, so you would be bombarded with shoe ads any time you get near a shoe shop, which I find to be an extremely annoying prospect. The idea here, though, was that they could be used to augment a space you are travelling through (say, within a building) and to then create an alternative experience of pilgrimage. It was an interesting idea, but it struck me as a case of IT-itis. i.e. what *can* we do instead of what *should* we do. I’ll touch on this theme again below.
The second was on mobility, but this was nothing to do with accessibility for the disabled. The only point I really picked up on was that if messages become free to send, then they can lose their value. Our tendency to regard anything as slow if it is not instant creates impatience that has subsequently shortened our attention spans. This results in the idea that messages that are created quickly also fade quickly. In my head, the contrast that was conjured up was the difference between a Snapchat message and a stone engraving.
Pete’s talk on transhumanism rather passed me by as I was scribbling notes from the previous talks. Also the live Twitter stream on screen had been hijacked by a load of spammers, so quite a few were trying to alert the tech team that their filters had failed. The most seized upon soundbite was that “we are all cyborgs” though the follow up to this appeared to verge on bullying one of Pete’s colleagues on the CODEC team. [Late edit: To clarify, this last reference is to the follow up to the talk, not the content of it. This should not be taken as any statement or hint of anything untoward from any member of the CODEC team]
Between the three talks, they all had their interesting points, but I couldn’t see much that was very applicable here. It was more a session of tentative prophecies, some of which may look quite out of date in just a few years; only time will tell.
I had a change of mind about the 3rd breakout session. Having seen a session that posed a question of “How should Christians react to militant atheists and people of other faiths who challenge their beliefs?” I was rather turned off by the use of the phrase ‘militant atheists’ so I had planned instead to go to Chris Juby‘s session on digital engagement with the scriptures. At the last minute, though, I changed my mind and decided to give the apologetics talk a go. As it turned out, it was very popular and was in one of the smallest rooms, so we were rather squeezed and one or two latecomers turned back or else had to stand by the exit.
The talk was given by Ruth Jackson of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics and who also runs the social media for Ravi Zacharias Ministries. As might be predicted for a talk on apologetics, there was a strong focus on 1 Peter 3:15, though I wasn’t familiar with the version used. I suspect it was The Message, the New Living or some other paraphrase. This particular version began with the phrase “If any asks you…” with the emphasis put on the ‘if’. i.e. we shouldn’t go looking for a fight, but we ought to be willing to answer anyone who asks.
Ruth did put a qualifier near the start of the talk which was to define what she had meant by the term ‘militant atheist’. She confessed that she hated the term but that it was a shorthand for the kind of person who instead of having their atheism as a default position or apathy, it’s the kind of person who frequents social media and where the majority of their output is concentrated on their atheism and who sometimes take a hostile or otherwise highly negative view of anything vaguely religious.
Ruth advocated the idea that “I don’t know” is a powerfully honest and highly respectable answer. While I would like to agree with her, my experience of discussing christianity online is vastly different. It’s taken as a fob off whereby one goes away to find a clever christian apologist to rabbit back at the atheist. Though in fairness, any atheist who says that God is our imaginary friend or is a sky fairy is themselves merely rabbiting a line that is far from original.
It’s important to remember that behind every profile is a person (or people, I might add). This is the antidote to dehumanisation. She gave an example using The Wee Flea blog, where some hostile commentators had found their way to the site, but where the host was far more interested in them as people rather than in trying to satisfy his own ego by winning an argument. [n.b. a quick search of the site didn't yield anything resembling the conversation Ruth describes and I would not endorse some of the content of that blog]
A recommendation that was put to us was that online discussions should avoid denominational or controversial issues. This wasn’t really expanded on, so it was open to (mis) interpretation. Harking back to the 1st breakout session, I wonder what Marika Rose would’ve thought of Ruth’s advice.
There were some fairly fundamental points that anyone wishing to engage in online apologetics should take as lesson 1. These included listening to objections and trying to understand someone else’s point of view, so as to avoid constructing a strawman argument. She pointed out some atheist memes (oh the irony of the origin of the term ‘meme‘!) and how they demonstrate a lack of understanding of christian issues, but rather than use the same kind of mockery that is sometimes encouraged of atheists to use against christians, she encouraged us to be more serious-minded and engage with the issues at hand in a mature manner. In trying to understand someone else’s views, that includes being able to spot the clichéd fallacies that get churned out from time to time including assertions that faith is blind belief or misleading notions of the nature of God.
However, Ruth went a little bit further than this. She advocated that we christians should try to make sure that “the ball is in the other court” and we do this by enquiring of atheists what their views are. Now, any time I’ve tried this, I’ve found not only evasion on the part of the person who I’m talking to but also an accusation that I am the one avoiding the issue. For example, if someone asks a question of me, I think it is at least courteous to attempt a response. Sometimes people will try to ask 6 part questions where several conflate various issues. This is what should be regarded as “trolling” though that term has somewhat morphed away the meaning it used to have online (meaning a time waster or someone who was simply trying to get a rise out of you) into a term to describe abuse – which ought to be known as “flaming”. Yet I do think that avoiding answering a question by asking them back is no less an element of trolling than the original question (or series thereof) might have been.
One of the little things that caught my eye was that Ruth put up a screenshot of various resources she recommended and I noticed a reference to the book that so riled me that it prompted me to write a review of it, which gave birth to the current incarnation of this very blog: Who Made God by Edgar Andrews.
The final point was that in all online apologetics we mustn’t forget to pray. It can be easy to get drawn into debates and there’s a great temptation to forget graciousness and idolise the idea of being right. But if the lesson of the Wee Flea above is heeded, it is better to lose an argument if you win the person – though on reflection I wonder if that soundbite actually makes sense!
The final breakout session I went to was on the topic of creating community. I was surprised to not see many of the faces I thought would be there, as I know quite a few people treat the online world as a community in its own right and would want to listen to this talk. It was given by Jason Ham who was simply described on the agenda as “Church Online Leader”. In fact, he’s a facilitator for the online dealings of a particular church in Exeter as well as being responsible for the social media output of God TV.
The opening gambit was to look at what sort of communities can be created by social media. He used the example of the American megachurch, Saddleback to demonstrate an example of people posting prayer requests on Facebook. However, using that example didn’t make it seem very close to home. If, in a church of that size and fame, a prayer request could generate about a dozen responses of people saying that they were praying, how would that translate to a church of more modest size and of no great fame? Then there’s also the question of privacy which wasn’t addressed at all.
Again, we had demonstrations of IT-itis, whereby lots of possibilities were shown but there didn’t seem to any kind of coherence to it, or really a questioning of what the needs were of the potential audience (see breakout 2) of the church and then trying to address them. We were shown a bookclub that consisted of members in the UK, USA, Australia and another couple of countries I missed as I was writing notes. The impression that we were given was that just because you can connect with people from across the globe, that is an inherently good thing and therefore is to be embraced.
But as I sat listening, I couldn’t help but think that this was an indirect indictment of the local churches. After all, I had agreed with Danny Webster earlier when he said that if you hold opinion X, it is easy to go online in search of someone who agrees with you and who will back you up. If someone is relying on a community that is so disparate, does it not imply that either there is a failing in their local community to adequately look out for the needs of someone who is potentially isolated in plain sight?
One of the other examples used was that the church in Exeter which Jason is a part of rebroadcasts its services 67 times per week. While having the availability of an online service can be valuable to those who are elderly, disabled or otherwise have difficulty getting to a meeting, this was not clear at all from the talk. Instead, what seemed to be advocated was a wholly new, and rather haphazard, way of doing church. i.e. it was more of a substitute than a supplement.
I think the root of my issue was the question of isolation. It’s possible to be physically isolated but digitally connected, in which case some of the ideas of open forums, Skype, etc. are valuable tools which can be used to address the need of these kinds of isolations. But instead, what was advocated was the provision of online services because they can be provided. It certainly wasn’t clear that there was a need to which these were a solution. Instead, there was more of a mentality of ‘if you build it, they will come’. There was a muted acknowledgement of the limitations of online community, but there was no solution proposed. There was a Q&A at the end, where the tone seemed to be mildly hostile, as was the question I wanted to ask but which ran out of time. So somebody asked about safeguarding vulnerable people online, particularly as one of the forums demonstrated allowed posting without any kind of sign-up process to it. So people could just come and go. In a church where the congregation is so transient, can there really be adequate pastoral care given to someone who hasn’t been around for the last month? How would such people be noticed?
My question was going to along these lines: For anyone who regularly visits an online church, what efforts are made by that church to put them in touch with an offline, local church who can provide what the online community cannot?
I’m not suggesting that there aren’t answers to these questions, but the relentless optimism generated by IT-itis seems short-sighted. If anything, it is an issue that pervades the whole christian new media conference, in that while there are some fantastic tools to enhance our spiritual lives and help to connect those who might otherwise be isolated, the increasing reliance on the digital realm creates its own form of isolation: digital isolation.
If there were any topic I’d like to see addressed in the next conference as a burning issue, it is this one. Looking around my church, nearly all the over 15s have a mobile phone and access to the internet, about half have a Facebook account, maybe about a dozen are on Twitter, but for the most part there isn’t as much focus on what can be done as there is at the conference. It is my fear that if we pile more and more resources into creating the best digital spaces that we can, then all we do is create a great space for a few people who are very interested in it at the expense of ignoring a great many people. One obvious comeback is to become evangelists for what can be done digitally and try to get as many people interested in our particular way of doing things as we can. Yet this runs into two problems: 1) Not everyone will be interested and it is arrogant to suppose that because we see good in a given tool that someone else will; and 2) if we are to evangelise, then should that not be evangelism to the wider world about gospel of crucified and resurrected Messiah? These two could be summarised by the phrase: misdirected effort.
The final session was billed as a cross between Songs of Praise and the Graham Norton show. To an extent this true. It consisted of 3 guests having short interviews by the host (Vicky Walker) and each guest was then to showcase their work. As with guests on Graham Norton, they only seemed to have gone there to plug their products. We had a rapper called Faith Child who performed his forthcoming single, a subversive artist (think a christian version of Banksy) called Micah Purnell who was launching a new website and a singer called Tabitha Webb who was launching a new musical. By the end of the day, and having been less than impressed at the previous session, it’s fair to say I was in a cynical mood. This final session just came across as a series of commercial plugs. OK, rap music isn’t my thing so I can’t say whether, given that particular artistic medium, it was very good or not. The subversive art was quite good as was Tabitha’s singing, though I couldn’t help but think of Danny Webster’s piece on the christian reviews of her musical as I watched.
It seemed that the whole concept of transformations which began the day and had been key to the mini sessions just after lunch was by now out of the window and forgotten about. I noted this on the Twitter stream and had a couple of responses which advocated the idea that the purpose of the session was to show how digital means had been used to transform creativity particularly in how these 3 people marketed their material. I could kind of see that, but it was heavily buried under the immediate promotion that they were making here, in person, to the audience of around 500 people.
As we ended fairly promptly, I stuck around for 5 minutes in case there was anyone who wanted to quickly chat, but I just stood around looking like a lemon so I shot off and headed back for home.
So with all that observed, what were the impressions I left with and which I have dwelt on in the 30 hours since leaving?
My strongest thought on leaving was on the issue of digital isolation mentioned above. It may have been addressed in other sessions which I didn’t attend, though it wasn’t plain from the agenda summaries. Unless that issue is addressed then new media will fail to live up to the prophetic hopes which surround it and become a clique for the initiated and those who have grown up with it. Yet there remain a generation of people who form an integral and loved part of the church for whom this generates little excitement and we must not leave them behind or exclude them in any way.
Looking back, trying to draw the threads together, I think the theme of confirmation bias, of looking for things that back up your views, that came out in the first breakout session can be seen in several of the other talks. We might project onto others our ‘ideal’ visitor to a church website and miss the real people who find us in their searchings. In the Transforming Technology session, it came across as all too easy to think that because something is new that it is inherently good. This was also true of the final breakout session. Of course, one could react the other way and think that anything new is inherently bad. In the third session one could see this idea of bias in seeking out argumentation, where we may have a presumption of how someone arrived at their expressions of atheism and to argue to those presumptions rather than love the person who may hold a very different and more nuanced view.
Of course, this theme isn’t really linked to transformations. Maybe that’s indicative of how loosely that theme permeated the day. Yes, it was strong in the introduction and after lunch, but it was tenuous at best elsewhere. Perhaps it was a case that the theme was decided independently of the proposals for each session. I can only speculate at that.
Only time will tell what ultimately sticks. One of the noticeable things was at how little emphasis there was on personal blogging. It’s been noted by many that some have given up their blogs while others have merged or stepped back. Is it possible that the day of the blog is over? I can’t say there was much there that seemed of imminent practical use. Of course, there were useful reminders of basic issues that could be immensely useful to the newcomer to new media.
So those are my thoughts. Over to you now:
- Were you there?
- Did you go to any of the same sessions?
- What was your overall impression?