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When small print is still small print

We are often told that everything is so much clearer and easier to understand now that we have integrated text and graphics online rather than boring old static print. Not only that, but the young are the ‘digital natives’, brought up in this graphics-rich and clickable environment. All of that is true, to an extent – although a 7 year old boy in England might query it this weekend.

Earlier this week he was left (some might say ill advisedly) by his father to amuse himself by browsing through e-bay.  On his travels he spotted what he thought to be a model harrier plane, and clicked the “buy it now” button.  Unfortunately the jump jet in question was the real thing – decommissioned but otherwise intact and full size, at a price of over £70,000!

His father then had to resort to the rather more old-fashioned means of pleading on the phone to the seller – who then graciously accepted the mistake and put the plane back on sale.

Digital media, with their integrated graphics, clickability and connectivity are wonderful – but just like days of yore – you still have to read the small print!


Beyond the podcast

When writing my chapter on ‘preaching in the digital future’ for The Future of Preaching last year, I joked that the day may come when you stay at home with a holographic preacher for company instead of going to church. For many, myself included, that would be a nightmare rather than a blessing. As expressed in yesterday’s post, Christian fellowship is intended to be messy and gritty, and to shape us all by colliding with each other’s personalities.

However, it would seem that this technological possibility has moved a step closer this week. Yesterday Manchester airport revealed their holographic representations of staff members John Walsh and Julie Capper. These holographic staff will welcome people to the security check in area and explain the procedures to them. Trials so far have been extremely succesful.


Here’s the really scary thing, though. Apparently some passengers have been so convinced by the holograms that they have tried to hand in passports to them. I don’t know about you, but I would be ever so slightly depressed if a holographic representation of me preaching was mistaken for the real thing. Not only that, but I have sneaking suspicion that some people might be looking for the ‘off’ switch!

Digital input & 360 degree preaching

Some of you may feel that you are all too familiar with circular preaching – it goes round and round like an angry bee trapped under a jam jar, until at last it wears itself out. Thankfully, that it not what I am describing here. Rather, following on from a highly creative conversation with@kimtownsend and @watfordgap, I want to develop my ideas of digital fellowship a little further. It might run something like this:

  • Tuesday – the preacher lets people know via social media what she or he is working on for the coming Sunday’s sermon. Insights on the particular topic are welcomed, and also suggestions for the music and worship.
  • Thursday – as a result of all this, a sermon shape is beginning to emerge, and a related prayer request goes out, together with a request for clarification on an elusive illustration or two.
  • Saturday – an outline of the sermon is posted online, accessible to those who prayed and contributed at a distance, as well as those who will hear it the following day
  • Sunday – the sermon is preached, and the podcast is made available online, as outlined before.
  • Monday – a blog post outlining the sermon and questions raised by it is posted by someone who heard the sermon, rather than the person who preached it.
  • Wednesday – questions arising from the sermon, and from Monday’s post, are fed into the church’s homegroups for further discussion

For preachers who are prima donnas, and who enjoy the mystique surrounding the pulpit, this is all profoundly threatening – since there are stages of this process over which they may have little control. Furthermore, it disenfranchises those members of the church who have neither the facility nor the inclination to engage in social media. Not only that, but we must guard against exchanging the messy business of real fellowship for its cleaner digital alternative. In real fellowship I must sit alongside people whose views offend me and whose problems make demands on me. Through the abrasion of our different personalities the likeness of Christ is fashioned in both of us. In digital fellowship I always have the ‘off’ switch which enables me to opt out.

Consider, though, the benefits. I am a great believer in the place of the sermon as traditionally understood. God has hard-wired us so that we are captivated and moved by human speech. That said, every pedagogical expert from Twickenham to Timbuktu  will tell you that we retain things better when we engage with them. When we handle theological truths rather than simply being shown them from a distant pulpit, we begin to internalise them and graft them onto our very souls. Discussion of a sermon before and after in the way described above can only be good for preacher and people, surely?

There are risks associated with the approach outlined above, and we should not embark upon it lightly. However, the benefits might just outweigh them.

What do you think?




Christians abroad in a digital landscape

Much has been written elsewhere about Pope Benedict XVI’s message for World Day of Social Communications on January 24th, and I won’t repeat it here. Suffice it to say that his call to embrace the possibilities and recognise the dangers of the digital landscape is timely for those of us who spend much our time living in it. As he points out, we must find a way to be authentically Christian and wonderfully human in this new territory. Mind you, as a forty-comething I’m not too sure about his  call to ‘young people to make good use of their presence in the digital world’ . Am I too late?

Over the past few days I have been gleaning insights from a number of friends online about their ‘3 golden rules’ for communicating on social media. Responses have been limited so far, but even from those I have received, an interesting pattern is emerging, as you can see from the wordle below.

Some of the things which strike me are:

  • be– we are defined by our being more than our doing in virtual life as in real life
  • engage – we must truly engage with these media if we are to have an impact – which means time and effort
  • you – communication on these platforms needs personality, or it is dull and insipid

What strikes you? Your insights on this, or your further contributions to the list of “3 golden rules” would be hugely appreciated.

Rediscovering connection

In 1929 Hungarian playwright and journalist Frigyes Karinthy published a volume of short stories entitled Everything is different. One of the stories, Chains, speculated about how the world was shrinking. In it Karinthy described a parlour game whereby any one of the world’s population (much smaller then) could be shown to be linked through a chain to any other. Karinthy suggested that it would be possible to find a connection between that person and one of those playing the game via no more than five connections of the ‘friend of a friend’ variety. Thus ‘six degrees of separation’ was born.

In the era of the mighty Google, with games like five clicks to Jesus no more than a few mouse clicks away, Karinthy’s game has lost its appeal. The connections he described are as easy as searching for your groceries on the shelf of a virtual supermarket. Does this actually mean that we are more connected, though?

Physically and literally it might, but we may not understand those connections any better than Karinthy and his fictitious friends.  When I teach about preaching on the news, one of the points I raise is that we may know more about what is happening the other side of the world than our forebears did, but we do not necessarily know what it means. In an era of greater connectivity, it is up to us to demonstrate biblically what that connection implies about our humanity. If a man the other side of the world can connect with me instantly and tell me that his life is in danger because of flood, famine, or religious persecution – how am I responsible for that knowledge? What am I obliged to do with it? In an age of connectivity, ignorance is no longer bliss.

There is a whole extra dimension here, too. The fact that we can connect easily does not necessarily mean that we connect well.  Do we need to start thinking about digital ethics, and not just digital etiquette?  There is surely more to Christian behaviour online than how you should go about “unfriending” someone? The kind of things we have been saying for years about honesty, integrity, openness and Christian virtue in physical congregations need to be translated into the virtual world.

Challenge: can we devise a set of social media beatitudes?

…or productive silence?

As I sit here at my desk preparing sermons and writing for a publication on worship, the church is a noisy place.  Downstairs a children’s singing group is belting out the raucous strains of ‘here we go round the mulberry bush‘. Elsewhere the phones are ringing, and there is the clatter of chairs as the church is prepared for a funeral later on.  Meanwhile, there is the occasional soft bleep from my computer as an email arrives, or a friend contributes to the daily commentary on life,the universe and everything which is Twitter.

This is all a far cry from the monastic silence in which sermons were first prepared when I began in ministry. Back then I would shut myself away where no noise of any kind could penetrate and wait for inspiration to dawn. So, have I sold out to the demons of distraction, or is this a deliberate ploy? Certainly I have been challenged by Mike Graves in his book The Fully Alive Preacher about the appropriateness or preparing for an audible act in an environment of silence.

There is something more to it than that, though.  These sounds – both human and digital, are part of the world where I live. Whatever I produce from this desk must bear scrutiny and find relevancy in that noisy world. If it does not, then it might as well stay in the silence of my head where it can’t do any harm! This is not to say that there is not a time for silence – my quarterly retreats to plan and pray are part of my spiritual survival strategy. However, I have grown to love this noisy place in which my sermons are born. It is full of the clutter, joy, noise and conversation which makes the world our home.

Is noise (either digital or physical) your enemy or your friend when you are preparing to preach?

Richard Littledale

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