Wednesday, June 17, 2015

[All] [Are] [Welcome]: New Media and Ministry

[All] [Are] [Welcome]: New Media and Ministry
June 17

Shared life in a new media era includes "getting to know" people before you "meet" them, and in this case there are many of you I was thrilled to finally meet face-to-face after years of mutual mission together in the ambient, virtual context of digital social media. Others of us have already "met" in "meat-body," but then maintained durable diachronic connection via social media. I'm sure some of us would have stayed in touch the way Melanchthon and Erasmus did, via hand-written letters, and perhaps even published them... but in the meantime, we have what we have by way of the media between us, and archivists of the future, if they are going to study the correspondence of theologians and church leaders of this era, will have to sift through Facebook groups and Twitter feeds to get a sense of what we all thought and taught.

Since I'll be talking today especially about new media and and ministry, it's worth remembering how new some digital social media is, for all of us. We're only about a decade into this. Facebook was offered to the public for the first time in 2006. Twitter also. But most users didn't start using social media until much later. 

By comparison, when I was on internship fifteen distant years ago, everyone in my parish contacted me by phone or in person, and not everyone on council had e-mail. I still wrote lots of letters by hand.  Nobody knew what I was up to on a Thursday afternoon because I wasn't posting status updates on Facebook or photos to Instagram. And I could neither receive nor send texts. 

I still don't Snapchat.

So, most of the changes we are considering with the advent of social media are, honestly, still simply the effects of the transition to new media rather than descriptive of a "new world." We're all catching up with a swiftly changing media landscape. We have by no means "arrived," if we will ever actually arrive.

This is a reminder for us to be patient with ourselves, and with one another, at least in the sense that we recognize we are all constantly playing catch up. On the other hand, because of how embedded digital social media has become in the world and our lives, we are required to also be impatient with each other also. If we don't raise awareness of the effects of new media for ministry and the life of the church, we will allow those systems (like the market, advertisers, and the like) who are aware, to dictate the terms of our transition to new media.

As Catherine Malabou writes, "We are still foreign to ourselves, at the threshold of this 'new world,' which we fail to realize makes up our very intimacy itself." (3) It is a new world. We're invited to engage it not in fear or by withdrawal, but eyes wide open, ready, aware, awake.

[All] [Are] [Welcome]

So today I ask a simple question, which, although at first blush is not directly related to new media, is, I believe, intrinsically bound up with media and ministry. 

Here's the question: What do we have in mind when we declare, "All Are Welcome!" 

What dominant metaphors/concepts attend this liturgical and ecclesial assertion?

This past Sunday, I participated in a meeting in our own congregation with a group of folks helping craft a welcome statement. I'm very committed to the process, because I know statements of welcome matter. It's hard work, developing a theologically rich statement of welcome that says what the community wants to say, in the way it needs to be said, so that it communicates real mutuality and welcome. It's an art. Here's an example, one of my favorites, from The Refuge in Denver:

Invitation to Community  
the refuge is a mission center and christian community dedicated to helping hurting and hungry people find faith, hope, and dignity alongside each other. we love to throw parties, tell stories, find hope, and practice the ways of Jesus as best we can. we're all hurt or hungry in our own ways. we are old, young, poor, rich, conservative, liberals, single, married, gay, straight, evangelicals, progressives, book-smart, street-smart, certain, doubting, hurting, thriving. yet Christ's love binds our differences together in unity. at the refuge, everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable. we're at different places on our journey but we share a guiding story, a sweeping epic drama called the bible. we find faith as we follow Jesus and share a willingness to honestly wrestle with God and our questions and doubts. we find dignity as God's image-bearers and strive to call out that dignity in one another. we all receive, we all give.

Welcome statements are an art, at least partially, because we are constantly disabusing ourselves of prior assumptions about welcome. We may have in mind somewhat antiquated hierarchical models of welcome. The pastor as head of the church is welcoming. The church has an official statement of welcome. Our denomination is welcoming.

At least partially, we may have in mind more contemporary models, like distributed networks. We are welcoming because of how we act. We are autarchic, each individual rules, and most individuals here in this place are welcoming.

These assumptions raise who-questions. Who is doing the welcoming? In more recent discussions of hospitality, even the guest/host binary has come under scrutiny, and rightly so. Gregory Walter, in his recent book on promise, makes the point clearly in a Christological meditation on the Eucharist:
Meals, ancient and modern, are kinds of hospitality where a host welcomes guests. Taking into account that Jesus is a strange host — in fact, no host at all, in the conventional sense — it would be no repetition of the promise to consider Christians in their communities as hosts who welcome guests. Instead, Christians are neither host nor guest, because they have no place to stand in the promise, no clear territory marked out for them by the host. If the promise were an ordinary gift, it would need that host to rule over the table and guests to be welcomed to the meal as lesser participants. Instead, the promise shared in the cup and paten opens any community up for trouble — especially trouble in the form of strangers and interlopers — because Jesus’ doubled promise is given entirely for the sake of another... God’s promise is trouble because it calls those of us who participate in it to give freely of ourselves to our neighbors — just as the promise-maker has already done for us (
There are other questions, including, To what are we welcoming? When we welcome visitors/guests/first-timers into our ecclesial spaces, are these spaces imagined as homes/clubs/tribes/brains/tables? What picture do we have in mind? If we take Walter's point, that Christians have no place to stand, no clear territory, is there nevertheless some mental map that might most helpfully organize our way forward?

Many churchgoing Christians, if asked, state that their church is like a "family." It's an attractive way to think about church, and probably illustrates how many of us, fairly comfortable in our church homes, feel about "our" church. But hang the "All are welcome" sign in front of an actual house, where families live, and the juxtaposition is stark. Most of us certainly wouldn't erect a sign in our front yard declaring, "All are welcome!" 

So if not a family, then what? A network? A hive? A group? Church is always going to be described by some metaphor or another. 

There is a third question, the how of welcoming. The how of welcome presents as its own kind of problem, because apparently the dominant concept for the how of welcome in our faith communities is predicated on "grace," with an operative definition of grace resonating at quite a semantic remove from its historic and theological origins. This is grace as acceptance, grace as tolerance.

Here's a recent example from social media. A member of the ELCA Facebook group (not the clergy group, but the larger Facebook group for all ELCA members) asked not long ago if his friend, a Methodist, could join the group. A significant number of people immediately chimed in by repeating the phrase, "All are welcome! This is a grace place!" 

Well, okay, maybe that's true. After all, we are in full communion with the Methodists. And in terms of Facebook architecture, every member of that Facebook group has the power to add anyone they themselves are friends with, so it really is the case that pretty much anyone is welcome (as an aside: the fact that a member of the group felt a need to ask permission illustrates the degree to which we still operate on dated hierarchical concepts of welcome). 

However, imagine a scenario where suddenly, in a group of 10,000 people, 20,000 were added who were of another denomination. So now you have a group called "ELCA" 2/3rds of whom are Methodists. A welcome that wide can change the "who" of the community into which the welcome occurs. Should the communal reaction to the original question moderate somewhat? Perhaps, perhaps not. But in such cases the consequences of certain types of welcome become apparent.

Additionally, what if somebody joins the group and then fails to follow acceptable communal norms? Grace is misunderstood if it doesn't allow empathy and firm-ness to live in tension with one another. Certain types of bigotry, abuse, certain types of disordered behavior, may necessitate a more nuanced response than the overly simple, if attractive, "All are welcome!"

There is quite a bit to work with here, much to consider. But at root, much of any confusion or clarity we have concerning inclusion and welcome does boil down to our mental imagery, the concepts we carry around which underly our commitment to inclusion.

Models and Mental Images

In what follows, let's play a bit with the Deleuzian understanding of virtuality, wherein we can inscribe what we "really see" into the network of our anticipations and memories. The virtual is an aspect of the real, ideal but nonetheless real. In a sense, all our concepts are like this. Virtuality is the event of reality. 
Rabbit hole #1: Virtualizing the Word: Expanding Walter Ong's Theory of Orality and Literacy Through a Culture of Virtuality by Jennifer Camille Dempsey
So let's consider a few models as virtual objects. Catherine Malabou, in her fantastic, essential book, What Should We Do with Our Brain? (Perspectives in Continental Philosophy)
illustrates convincingly that our brains haven't caught up with their own self-understanding. We may still be stuck thinking of the brain as a hierarchical, centralized processor--a motherboard, if you will. In fact the comparison between computers and the brain are common. "The brain has always been described by means of technological metaphors," says Marc Jeannerod.

However, contemporary advances in neuroscience have moved scientists and philosophers beyond this view of the brain and towards an understanding of it as a decentralized interaction processor. This more "plastic" brain already has implications for the design of newer super-computers. Whether we are aware enough of the plasticity of our own brains is the larger concern for Malabou. "Not to replicate the caricature of the world: This is what we should do with our brains" (78). To be conscious of the plasticity of one's own brain is to give oneself the means to say no. Here we are only just raising consciousness. No positive proposals are at hand. We are currently at work on simple awareness.

Rabbit hole #2: In a recent, terrifying novel, Dave Egger's plays with this plasticity as it relates to capitalism and social media. 

In our churches, do we still operate with the motherboard mentality? Do we plug new members into slots, assuming that the basic components of the board are fixed, and people or groups are already adequately performing the functions of the board? Can the new only plug in if they fit existing slots?

If we were to shift to a more plastic view of the communities into which we are welcoming newcomers, what would our map look like? At least in part it would be a plastic network of mutable, mutual resiliency.

Here's one example, the story of a colleague, Eric Bodenstab: Eric invited me to play games while in Chicago. The thing is, we've never met in person. Our first meeting will be this evening, at the hotel. In the old world prior to digital media, networking for this conference would have been somewhat different. We'd meet up with people we already knew in Chicago (we are doing some of that also). But in the era in which we find ourselves, there is a new kind of networking, the ambient intimacy of social media, with new kinds of exclusion and embrace of subcultures. Facebook facilitated a connection, one #boardgamegeek to another. For better or worse, we all find ourselves adapting to these new and more fluid networks. The weak link by affinity has as much or possibly more pull on my actual time at this conference, because I have scheduled a Wednesday evening event with Eric, but not with any of you. That's intriguing. And it seems to be more like a plastic neural network than a motherboard... for better or worse.

This new kind of networking is catching us by surprise. In some instances, we are simply giving into it. In other instances, we are self-differentiating and defining in the midst of it. Malabou hopes we will do more of the latter and less of the former.

The intriguing thing about these new forms of social interaction are their modification of traditional models of welcome. Boardgamers can now connect like never before, but only "geeks" (of whatever flavor) are welcome or even connected in this way. Assortativity is at work. If you aren't into board games, you'd never have known. For all I know, the other keynoters at this conference have connected with their own peculiar subcultures while in town, but I won't know all of them unless they mention them in their presentations.

Subgroups and networks of all types are now sorting themselves out in our parishes and faith communities in a manner similar to this. Networks are multiplying, overlapping, organizing, shifting in ways they never have prior. Getting an adequate picture in mind of these networks is increasingly difficult, and increasingly essential.

[of course, now that you've heard me name the gaming meet up in the keynote, you're welcome to come play with us tonight, 8 p.m. in the hotel lobby]

Links, Nodes, Networks, Structural Holes, and Centrality

The statement, "All are welcome!" makes complex assumptions about the existence/presence of social links, along with our opportunity and ability to connect. Implicit in "all are welcome" is a soft and insidious assumption, "'They' will show up, somehow, because we're here, and we're interesting, and worth joining. And when they arrive, they will be or become like us."

In a social network like a Christian faith community, the number of links that are heterophilic are typically small. Those of us deeply embedded in faith communities have increasingly less open links outside the communities in which we reside. 

This is why often new Christians are the best evangelists. Their links to non-Christians are more numerous.

Many of our faith communities are propinquitous (linked by place and geography) and homophilic (linked to people who are like them), with high levels of transitivity (linked to the multiple others they are also linked to) and reciprocity (mutually linked one to another, rather than unidirectional).

There's nothing unhealthy about this per se. All networks rely for their stability and self-definition on links and networks characterized by these types of close connections. However, when a community proclaims, "All are welcome!" they are often less aware of their limits, the structural holes and limited number of bridges that could actually connect those currently at some considerable distance (in network perspective) from those already in the network.

They may also be less aware than they could be of the primary type of network their community hosts. It's worth evaluating whether our communities are primarily, as in the chart above, centralized, decentralized, or distributed, and then what this means for their shared mission.

Finally, I am thinking here, although I will not go into extensive detail, about Alan Hirsch and his concept of cultural distance. Hirsch argues rather convincingly that most of Christian mission is designed to reach people who are, at most, just one level of cultural distance from those already in Christian community, which means that roughly 60% of people in North America fall outside the level of cultural distance the average Christian is willing to travel to meet and welcome the "other."

Rom. 10.14    But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 

Firewalls and Norming Norms

On Firewalls: I'm somewhat suspicious that barriers to our connecting to those outside our network is constructed rather than accidental. Our faith communities may not actually even be aware of the structures they have in place to ensure that new links don't form with outside networks. 
Rabbit hole #3: Read this post about packet switching,
Let me offer an example, and then feel free to compare it to the structure of firewalls. When faith communities serve meals at a soup kitchen, they often make sure that they are the servers and hosts of the meal, while the recipients of the meal receive the food at the other side of the table, and then sit down together while the servers remain in the kitchen. Of course, all of this is set up in ways that make it look kosher. It's good food handling practice, etc. However, in terms of networking, it ensures that the inside network (the faith community) has a very gated interaction with the outside network (those coming to eat the meal). There is a kind of middle space between the hosts and the guests where certain types of interaction can take place, but any actual crossover between the outside and inside networks is more difficult to navigate, and fraught with perceived or real perils.

So it's not surprising that the ELCA Ministry Among People in Poverty (MAPP) Report included this summary statement: "Although there are many notable exceptions, our experience is that frequently what people in our congregations see as their response to the poor is to see the poor as clients for their charity, rather than living in faith community among the poor or facilitating the fullness of community among the poor. As a result we have many examples of places where the poor will come to the Lutheran Church for food and clothing but go to church down the street at the Pentecostal church, because at the Lutheran Church they are poor people, but at the Pentecostal Church they are just people."

It would be worth evaluating current parish practices of welcome in comparison to the function of firewalls. What firewalls do we have up, intentional or sublimated? Are they appropriate? Are they actually working at cross-purposes to our goals of becoming a welcoming community?

There are also intranetwork norms to consider, the norming norms of the communities we curate. If we look at various media contexts, it is sometimes difficult to discern how committed we actually are to the "all" of welcome. Take, as a comparison example, the comments section of Youtube videos. Youtube is a fairly open community, and the communal norms established over time have allowed for a kind of culture and dialogue that is no-holds-barred. Youtube maintains its "center" as a source for video footage, but then plays fairly free with community participation and what behavior should look like in that community, through its soft-moderation of the comments section on individual videos.

Interestingly, Youtube has also, over time, been able to develop a fairly open community space and culture, while adhering carefully to finely crafted community guidelines:

Each social media site, over time, develops a set of norming norms. Because digital social communities have been at this work for the past decade or longer, and have discovered a few things along the way, it is worthwhile for faith communities to take time to learn from them how they are developing community norms as they make transitions to new media.

My friend Drew Curtis, who launched back in 1999 (in the early, early days of social media), writes: “I’ve never been any good at making Farkers do anything, however I’ve gotten really good at putting things in front of them that I know they’ll want to react to.  It’s a subtle distinction.  The lever you use is context – tell them why they should care.  If you can’t figure out why or they just plain don’t agree, they won’t move.  And that’s fine.  Sometimes though the right contextual twist makes all the difference between ignored and viral.”

Returning to Welcome

Lots of churches think they welcome all, but it just isn't true. We've illustrated above a variety of ways faith communities could learn from digital social media how they might do welcome better. Perhaps a better posture, overall, for faith communities to take, might be to offer this as their statement of welcome: "We would like to learn to be more welcoming, we confess our past failures. Teach us how to do it better."

Case studies, real life application 

All of that being said, I'm going to conclude with a kind of choose-your-own-adventure. Here's a list of examples we might discuss, making connections between these real-life situations and the social media pictures and metaphors offered above. Consider:

1) Recent robot movies, like Ex Machina and Transcendence, and the strangeness of needing to get distant in order to get close
2) This conference itself and some of the online conversations we all observed on Facebook and elsewhere in preparation for the event.
3) Every individual everywhere--why are we so focused on congregational media ministry when the social network now is "here comes everybody." Is it possible, again, that we have mistook plasticity for flexibility and passivity, and so the church is engaging new media in a capitalist mode rather than mutual plasticity to the point of explosion and/or resilience?
4) Economic case study: how are things going with accessibility for the poor?
5) The split in many churches of the ELCA over becoming "welcoming," and the plasticity of our recovery
6) The catechumenate as an example of ecclesio-plasticity
7) Ministry with those on the margins--digital media and liminal church. I don't go to church much, but I follow all your posts.
8) Why don't people share more? How can we go viral? Is viral good?
9) Failure and learning: Our first couple of time & talent surveys--from motherboard mentality to missional plasticity
10) The relationship between public, media presence and local, parish ministry

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