If Johannes Gutenburg could have forseen the impact of the printing press when he invented it in 1440, he would have been astounded. The ability to transmit large amounts of information widely and over great distances transformed society, culture, education and institutions. Many historians believe the printing press gave birth to the scientific revolution of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, and has resulted in modern culture and lifestyle we enjoy today.
When scientists began to develop the internet last century, they couldn’t have forseen the revolutionary impact on culture, commerce and communication that is taking place today. The ability to connect and to access information at a global level is changing the world we grew up in. Everything we thought we knew is changing. Business models are crumbling. The way we shop, read, learn and interact has completely shifted – and we’re not going back.
The printing press was the start of “mass media” – for the first time in living history, information could be passed on to a large portion of the population, rather than contained to a small sub-group of society. The internet has given birth to “social media” – for the first time in history, people are able to connect and participate in a two-way interaction, rather than passively receiving a one-way broadcast. Take a quick look at the big success stories of the internet – Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, to name a few. The brilliance and attraction of these sites is that they give ordinary people a voice. Anybody can be a somebody. Contribution and participation are encouraged and valued.
People aren’t satisfied anymore with organisations who continue to broadcast at them, without allowing them the opportunity to interact, connect and contribute. If churches want to move away from performing for a passive audience, they can learn a few key lessons from the successful social media giants.
Lesson 1: Let people talk.
People like the sound of their own voice. They pay more attention and learn more from a conversation they have been part of than a monologue they have listened to. Instead of a sermon, set up discussion groups or conversation pairs to explore God’s Word together. Use questions to get them thinking, rather than feeding them the answers. Create learning opportunities which allow them to reflect and grow. Empower God’s people to think for themselves.
Lesson 2: Listen when they talk.
Giving people a voice in church empowers them to use it outside of church. Affirm people when they contribute and speak up – they have something of value to share with God’s family. If you stop speaking and start listening, you allow room for the Holy Spirit to talk through others. Pay close attention to those who appear to be “the least of these” – many times, it is the youngest, or most broken members of the church who have the most profound insights to share.
Lesson 3: Prioritise connection.
I’m not talking about that “one-way” connection, where the pastor smiles and shares personal stories and the audience members feel connected, even though he doesn’t know their names and probably can’t even see them through the bright stage lights. And I’m not talking about that “shallow” connection that occurs when morning tea is the only interaction time built into the regular meeting time – often in a different area from the sermon and worship and “spiritual stuff”. I’m talking about letting people really connect with each other – through shared experiences, shared stories and laughter. I’m talking about setting up our meeting times to build relationships with each other, not just stare at the back of each other’s heads.
Social media is not just a “fad”. It is a global shift in the way we communicate and interact. It is impacting businesses, governments and establishments worldwide, and it is already changing the way many people do church. It’s time to sit up and pay attention to the underlying message – people want to be heard, they want to contribute, and above all, they want to connect.