Less than 10 years ago, there was no YouTube, no FaceBook, no Skype and no Twitter. The internet was around, but for most of us it was just an extension of our local library – a collection of mostly text-based information we could look up using keywords, but not something that affected our social interactions, our daily lives, and our participation in global conversations.
Since then, the concept that some refer to as “Web 2.0” has changed the way we do virtually everything. The internet allows us to interact and participate locally and globally. We can check in with our friends through social networking sites, make decisions about new purchases based on reviews by real people, guide our own learning on any topic in our own time and our own preferred learning modality, and network with like-minded people in any area of specialisation and interest.
There hasn’t been a culture-shifting communication tool this powerful since the printing press was created by Gutenberg. The capacity to produce multiple copies of written information saw a rise in literacy and a wave of social change sweeping across Europe, as we gradually moved from an oral culture to a literate culture. The ability to pass on information through written text became the basis for our modern culture, with more information available to us than ever before in human history. Categorizing this bulky and ever-expanding array of information became complex, and universities primarily focussed on training up “experts” who know how to navigate their way through the bewildering amount of information, assess its credibility, and interpret it wisely. When I was at University 20 years ago, I spent many hours scouring the 7 storey library to find peer reviewed journal articles and recently published books to use as references in my assignments – there was no such thing as Google Scholar back then!
Our classrooms and churches are still operating from a teaching model where information can only be passed on through one-directional literate text; taught by an “expert” who has been trained in how to access information and interpret it. This used to make sense. In a time when the only way to access information was to get it directly from the “experts”, it made sense to sit in rows and listen to a presentation without interacting with the speaker or the other students. It was an efficient way to learn, because we didn’t have any other viable methods available to us. Unless we became “experts” ourselves (involving years of training), we found it much faster and simpler submitting to someone else’s knowledge and conclusions.
The internet today has changed all of that. We now all have easy access to information in a way we never have had before. More significant is the way we now perceive ourselves and our relationships with others. Given the choice, we would all prefer to be a part of the conversation than merely a passive listener. We would all like to be respected, valued and heard by others. There are now more than 800 million active FaceBook accounts, just 8 years after it began. People want to be seen, want to be known, want to be connected and valued in their own communities. The online culture of “Web 2.0” invites us to an interactive, experiential, multi-directional, multi sensory blend of oral and literate cultures, and moves us beyond the limitations of only learning through books and lectures (which is effective for a small percentage of the population anyway).
Sitting in rows in church doesn’t make sense any more. It used to. I have grown up in the church and love it dearly. I appreciate the many wonderful sermons I have sat through and learned from. But I now believe there is a more powerful way to learn and grow and connect with others, and it can’t happen when we sit silently in rows. My life has been more deeply impacted by the times I have met in circles with other people and we have shared, discussed, debated and connected with each other. I believe that now is a good time for the church to empower their congregations to have a voice and a value, to become active learning communities rather than passive listeners, and to expand their impact beyond the church walls and into the community.