The internet revolution impacts about everything we do as church. Daily I find in my inbox emails which boast that they can help me fund raise better, communicate better, and retain members better; all by utilizing technology and big data. Big data is the shorthand term for the trends, patterns, and preferences revealed by our electronic life. Amazon uses big data to suggest books you might like to read, based on your past preferences and purchases. Google uses big data to determine which ads you might be most receptive to as you surf the web. The seeming advantage of big data is its micro-targeting; what you prefer is different from what I prefer. Therefore, Google will put up different ads for me than you–even if we use the same search engine terms!
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently made headlines when he suggested at a speech in Chicago that, with the help of Big Data, Facebook could provide some of the community and social capital that the United States has lost in the last 40 or so years.
While I think there’s no question that Big Data will be with us and with the American church for a long time, I’m wondering about what this says about Sunday morning worship or Bible Study or Vacation Bible School; any of our face to face community meetings. Is there a future for community in the flesh or are we all going toward Big Data?
As early as 1989 (and before the internet revolution), Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon identified problems with maintaining and strengthening Christian communities in their book Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony. Their thesis, that the mainline church needs to invest more in communal practices, ritual, and disciple making if we are to survive into the future, has now had an influence on a generation of pastors and theologians. In quite different circumstances, similar conclusions have been echoed by Dorothy C. Bass in Practicing Our Faith (1997) and, most recently, by Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017). Big data, as you might imagine, doesn’t come up much in any of these works. Emphasis is on local, grassroots, community and disciple-making.
For some first adopters in the Christian church, Big Data has the potential to resuscitate community, while radically changing its shape. Others, influenced by Hauerwas, Willimon, Bass and Dreher, are moving in another direction, seeking to build community through low tech, personal means. Where does that leave a small church pastor on Monday morning? Surfing Facebook? Writing blog posts like this one? Eschewing technology altogether and seeking best practices for discipleship? Are Big Data and communal practice in opposition? Or is there another way?
I think there may be an approach that allows us to live with one foot in both communal worlds; online and face to face. I would suggest that the best model for our interaction with technology and community is ‘double-listening.’ Double-listening is a phrase formulated by English pastor/theologian John Stott : “The phrase “double listening” has always been significant for me. And it means that we’re called to listen both to the Word of God, and to today’s world, in order to relate the one to the other.” Rev. Stott, using the model of modern missionaries, noticed that Christians often listen either to their faith OR their cultural context, not both. Because of this, Christians are sometimes contemporary without discipleship or retreat into answering questions with faith that the culture is no longer asking any longer.
My hope is that pastors, teachers, and church leaders take double-listening to heart regarding community. Big data can be useful, but it is not a solution to the weakness of our communities. Big data can be part of our community, but it does not, by itself, constitute the whole of Christian discipleship/community. On the other hand, the Christian faith needs to wrestle with technological questions that did not exist a generation ago. How do we minister to people we have not met in person? Should we? How can we ‘translate’ Christian practices in an online world? What would it look like to pray, regularly, every day at the same time, with someone online?
It’s a brave new world and it is an exciting time to engage our online and in person friends with the Good News of Jesus Christ!
Rev. Joseph Hedden is Pastor of Emmanuel Reformed (Hill’s) United Church of Christ in Export, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh. He serves as Dean of the Penn West Conference Academy for Ministry and also chairs the Global Missions Team for the Conference.