|It's no myth. Rock stars did look like this in the 1980s.|
He had the dot matrix printer and his new PC on the kitchen table. "What are you doing?" I asked. "I'm going to hook this printer up to this computer." "You can't do that," I said. He looked up, seemingly offended. "Why not?" he asked indignantly. "Because you can't." I held up the cable for the printer. "This is the end you plug into the computer," I said. "Now look at where you plug it into the computer." They were differently configured SCSI connections. They physically could not connect to one another, any more than you could connect a firehose to a stethoscope. He looked absolutely befuddled, and I half expected him to reach for rubber hands and a hammer. "You mean there's nothing we can do?" he asked. "Well, you could buy a new printer," I said. "Why would I do that, this one works perfectly fine!" he half-shouted in frustration.
|Some hot male on male SCSI action, circa 1989.|
Let me give a different example. Crusty, along with a whole host of research on the millennial generation and Gen Z (the ones after the millennials; what we name the next generation will be interesting now that we've reached Z, Crusty is pushing for Generation Captain Hammer) is convinced that social media has already profoundly transformed key elements and aspects of our interactions. How do we understand community? Or friendship? Friends are no longer just people you accidentally stumble across; I met one of my best friends of the past twenty-five years by the sheer random chance that he was assigned the room next to me in college. Years later, I was at a party in the 1990s and was standing in line for the bathroom -- this was a house party, with 100 people crammed into a 1000 sq foot house with one bathroom, so yeah, there was a line. I'm a closet music geek, and my roommate at the time was the same guy I had become friends with mainly because we were randomly assigned room next to one another and found we liked a lot of the same things. At that time, he and I were into obscure girl groups from the 1950s and early 1960s -- the Poni-Tails, Bob B. Sox and the Blue Jeans, and so on. In a pre-Spotify world, we scoured old records stores in the African American parts of the city to buy vintage R&B 45s, since a lot of this stuff was out of print, and when we found them, we would then put on cassette tapes. There were songs we knew were out there from reading old Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, and Robert Christgau articles but just hadn't found yet. Anyway I was humming something while waiting for the bathroom and the guy behind me asked, "Are you humming 'Angel Baby' by Rosie and the Originals?'" As we started talking, he thought he was the only person into obscure girl groups from 1955-1964. I dashed out of line, even though I had to pee, grabbed my roommate, and said, quoting Yoda from Return of the Jedi (before we called it Episode VI), "There is another Skywalker." I dragged him into the other room, but by the time we fought our way back through the crowd, the guy was gone. I began to wonder if he had even existed, and my roommate and I were back to being the only people who knew Darlene Love first sang in The Blossoms.
On almost every level, that story simply doesn't make sense anymore, from the 45s to cassette tapes to me not being able to text my friend to come over and meet this new guy to reading about music in print newsletters to not being able to find people into the same stuff as you to being able to afford to live in that section of town anymore. Really, the only part still true is having to wait in lie to pee at house parties. Relationships are now based perhaps as much on common interests as sheer accident, and we able to connect and form relationships through means inconceivable even five years ago.
What does it mean for us who got our first computer at age 50? Or age 30? Or 5? And to be clear, again, this isn't like grandma and her digital clock: this is not about proficiency or facility with technology. People will always have these differences, there will be young Luddites and older people who are tech savvy. I regularly get emails from an 84 year old alumnus of the seminary where I teach, and when I was a college chaplain I knew young adults who refused to be on Facebook or get a smartphone (granted, not many, but they exist). Crusty is talking on a macro scale: what does it mean to have no experience of anything but a post-9/11 world shaped by the internet and social media? Just as in pre-Civil Rights movement days people were shaped by and lived within the boundaries of as segregated world, whether they were black or white, racist or not; just like geopolitics was shaped by the USA-Soviet dualistic Cold War whether you lived in Poland, Peoria, or Papua New Guinea, we are all shaped by this new world.
What's important for us in the church is that these changes have staggering implications for so many things: how we understand institutions being one of them. Crusty's a historian by trade, and a simple fact is this: when society changes, the church changes. When Constantine converted to Christianity, and it eventually became the only legal established religion, the church ended up looking different in the year 400 than it did in 300. The North American context of the USA and Canada has profoundly altered the transplanted traditions from European contexts; one of the pre-eminent works in American religious history is 'Old Religion in a New World,' and breaks down in detail those dynamics. The world has been transformed again in the past 30 years with a confluence of changes -- personal computers, the internet, globalization, social media, among others. Thus the church is going to change, because the society has already changed.
This matters for the church, because we organize ourselves in institutions (denominations, physical churches) and try to create community. Well, social media has transformed notions of community and institution. Think on it. A certain kind of person would join certain kind of institutions -- Catholic men of a certain age and social class would join Knights of Columbus, Protestants the Masons or Elks, women of a certain age or social class would join the Junior League or DAR or whatever. Churches, more often that not, functioned in a not dissimilar way: they were at times as much markers of class and social identity; as Niebuhr pointed out in his "Social Sources of American Denominationalism," American denominationalism reproduced the caste systems of American society. It was over FIFTY YEARS ago that Gibson's seminal work "Suburban Captivity of the Churches" was published. Paradigms based on churches as membership-based organizations are untenable in the age of social media. We can roll our eyes and say, "C'mon, the DAR and Elks are not us." Will people in 50 years look at a congregation in a building with a congregation across the street that believes 90% of the same stuff and roll their eyes and say, "Can you believe people filled out pledged cards and sat on endless committees?" Who are we to presume our current incarnation of the church in its externals is normative? Will institutions become extensions of people, and shape them as much as being shaped by them?
Let me give another example: Crusty was giving a talk to an organization which he will not name, trying to get across the need for institutional change and transformation: you can't simply lament young people are not joining your committees, I told them. You've got to find out what they want to do, and let them reshape this organization with you. Otherwise you'll simply die out when this generation dies out; shaking your fist and wondering why people don't just join one of your organization's committees and wait five years before any of their ideas will be considered is not a growth model. I then shared the story about two young people who fell into a drain (I heard it on Wait Wait Don't Tell Me). The first thing they did? Update their Facebook status. This elicited howls of laughter when I told it; it did when it was discussed on Wait Wait. Scattered comments in that room about those whacky kids and their Facebook. Once the laughter subsided I then asked this group, straightfaced (I had not been laughing, I think this is an important example). Why did they do it? Silence, a stray comment about how kids aren't connected to reality, more silence. I then said, "No, they did it so their friends would know where they were and not be worried. It was the quickest, easiest, most efficient way to do so. Then they called 9-1-1."
Where are we? Like my Dad with the dot matrix printer and the slightly less ancient new computer?
I sometimes see disconnects in the church, centered around the realization that social media is here, but not an understanding of how best to use it, or an inkling of how profoundly it has already reshaped understandings of institutions and community. To give but one example, the odd attempts to ban tweeting at public meetings in the Episcopal Church. At the House of Bishops last summer, for instance, the bishops were forbidden to tweet. Now I could understand this in private, closed session, and would certainly expect people to understand and respect the need for confidentiality, and then end up leaking things the old fashioned way after the meeting is over. But in public session? At one point the PB solemnly intoned into the microphone, with several hundred people including media present, "I believe the Bishop of X is tweeting, and ask him to stop." Crusty thought this was amusing because, of course, to notice this, one had to be on social media. COD thought it would have been more appropriate for someone to tweet the bishop to stop tweeting. At one point, an usher was walking around, trying to stop people in the gallery, in a public meeting, from tweeting. COD honestly can't comprehend the absurdity of forbidding people from tweeting from open and public meetings.
And besides, wouldn't you want people to know more about your organization and what it does?
This week, there has been a gathering of the Committees, Commissions, Agencies, and Boards of the Episcopal Church (CCABs). Following it on Twitter, it seemed like General Convention, Part 2: an uneasy coexistence of old communication and new communication (which isn't that new anymore). Lots of buzz about a tweet-up, as if this was something new and extraordinary -- one tweet actually asked, "It would be nice to have tweets about what is happening rather than a tweet up is happening." Crusty nearly dropped his phone he laughed so hard reading that one, since in many ways it perfectly encapsulating this dynamic. Have we really considered how it reflects the ends of our transformed reality, or is social media still a means to something we haven't figured out?
To give another example, Crusty was struck by a posting on Episcopal Cafe. The cafe posted a long list of tweets from the CCAB gathering. It looked so odd to scroll through this long list of tweets, because tweets flow from one another and immediately from the events that they are responding to. The reason you live tweet a sermon is because you are there communicating it to people who are not; otherwise, after the fact, you might as well ask the person who preached it to post their text somewhere. Tweets are inherently occasional and contextualized. I don't mean this in any way as a criticism of the Cafe folks; they are some of the most media savvy people I've come across. Rather, this is just what struck me scrolling through this seemingly endless list of tweets: the way you participate in a tweet up by participating in a tweet up, not reading about it. I can't imagine anyone being able to understand what Twitter is from the Cafe posting who doesn't know what Twitter is already. To be presented in this format struck Crusty almost like someone so excited about learning Spanish they travel to Montreal to speak it. Or once you find out how a computer works you throw up the binary code onto your blog for others to see. Spanish is a language but the context is important, only people who speak Spanish understand it. Computers do work on code, but the code presented to people who don't understand how computers work doesn't do much.
What would it truly mean to let our committee and organization structure be shaped by social media? As it now stands, our denominational governance is, in essence, an oligarchy. I don't mean that pejoratively, it's literally true: a small group of people govern the church. A small group of people who have the luxury to take two weeks off in the middle of the summer make up General Convention deputies. In between Conventions, legislative and program work is channeled through a smaller group of people, the aforemenionted CCABs, which have enormous influence in shaping the agenda for the next General Convention. These CCAB members are, in turn, appointed (with some exceptions, like the Executive Council -- read your canons!) by precisely two people, the President of the House of Deputies (who, in turn, is only elected by clergy and lay deputies from the floor and from among their number) and the Presiding Bishop (who, in turn, is only elected by bishops, but at least confirmed by deputies and nominated by a committee which includes clergy, bishops, and lay persons).
Let's take a specific example of what it might mean actually to let ourselves be shaped by these understandings of networks and community. The Nominating Committee for the next Presiding Bishop is one of these CCABs. This is a committee which is elected at each General Convention, even when there is no election planned in the upcoming triennium, in order to act in case of vacancy (remember since it became an elected position, more than one died in office and one resigned before a term was up). This obviously takes more importance in a year like 2012. Since an election of Presiding Bishop will be held in 2015, considerably more attention gets paid to this group. Questions abound. What are they looking for in a Presiding Bishop? What do we think the church needs in a Presiding Bishop? What's the timeline for their work? Do any of us know this? Will there be any communication, or will the nominees just appear, as they have in the past?
What if they crowdsourced some of these questions -- what do people think we need in a PB for the church at this place and time? What would it mean to utilize social media not just as a tool, to throw up a Facebook page, but to engage constituencies, offer transparency, create buy-in and consensus, maybe even learn something or show the world who we are and how we operate?
Odder still when many in the Episcopal Church can't see the way in which we are a pyramidical, hierarchical structure, yet consistently paint ourselves as one of the purest models of democratic governance. If I hear one more time the General Convention is perhaps the largest democratically elected governing body in the world, I'll puke; it's not true (the ELCA Churchwide Assembly and United Methodist General Conference are bigger), it's not representative (it does not reflect the society as a whole, let alone the church as whole, since it is overwhelmingly old and white), and at times it is as much hierarchical and centralized as democratic (aforementioned oligarchy).
Crusty noted this in a lot of recent discussion about the appointment of the new Archbishop of Canterbury. For instance, while at diocesan convention last weekend, at the bar, several people asked Crusty how an Archbishop of Canterbury gets chosen. For the full details, go here; Crusty broke it down for this group of 8-10 clergy and lay people. It was kind of like telling that story about the kids who fell down the drain: lots of rolling of eyes and finally one of the clergypersons said, "Thank God we don't have that secretive, closed process." To which I said, "How much do you know about how the Presiding Bishop is nominated, and how much of a say do you have in that process?"
So what does it all mean? It means in part we're in a profound generational shift in the church. I don't mean that one generation is better than another or one needs to get out and let others take over, though Crusty is sure that's how some people will read all of this. Boomers, Xers, Millennials, Gen Z and Gen Captain Hammer need to co-create something together, not presume there is one, single, paradigm that is normative anymore -- because guess what, there's another generation coming along that we haven't named yet after Generation Captain Hammer! No generation is the "future" or the "past": we all ARE the church, right here, right now. CODW (Crusty Old Dean's Wife) is passionate, committed, and articulate about youth and young adult ministry and Christian Formation. She is often told, more or less, "That's great, children are the future of the church." CODW always find a way to correct that to "No, children and young adults are the church, and, further, all of us, no matter our age, needs formation and discipleship."
|Crusty at Thanksgiving dinner (warning: not actual photo).|
And I say, God help us. Will we leave rubble, or will we leave a foundation? The next decade, and the way we can embrace these transformations, will determine much of that. We don't have five years to figure out if the Twitbook is the CB radio of the 2010s.