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Relevance is Dead. Long Live Relevance.

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Future church isn’t like present church: connect four dots

here comes what’s next

We’re relating differently these days. I’m not talking just about Facebook and Twitter and/or any other rising social media. We’re relating differently because our expectations are changing—partly due to our experience of being heard (which does relate to social media). This post is aimed at the church, but much of it could apply to any organization. Some parts are unique to the church.

Here are four points to consider as you think about how organizations may connect in the future. Apply yourself to three bits of reading and one bit of listening. It’s all interesting/amusing/amazing. Then tell me: how do you see the church changing?

Dot 1: Jeff Jarvis & the Death of Content

Jeff Jarvis was invited to speak to a group of professional speakers. He spoke about how content is dead and how the speakers should really be hearing from the audience and piecing together brand new things.

I suggested — and demonstrated — that speakers would do well to have conversations with the people in the room and not just lecture them. I said I’ve learned as a speaker that there is an opportunity to become both a catalyst and a platform for sharing.

His talk did not go over well with the professional speakers and there was plenty of harrumphing. Read his article here. But the take-away was the opportunity for speakers (and leaders) to be both “catalyst and platform for sharing” versus pouring content from a podium.

Dot 2: Jonathan Martin & the Decline of the Church Industry

Over at Big Picture Leadership there is a lengthy quote from Jonathan Martin who has suddenly seen that he is not at the center of things. He laments that the Spirit has passed him and Piper and Driscoll and CT and all the other usual suspects in favor of the rush of new Jesus-followers in developing nations. Read the excerpt here. Read the whole thing here.

I like this guy’s approach. I think he nailed it. But I disagree that the Spirit has moved on to other countries and peoples. I think the Spirit is alive and well and deeply embedded in God’s people—wherever they are—just where the Spirit will always be as long as people profess faith in Jesus the Christ. But what Mr. Martin observed is simply the decline of church as an industry in the U.S.

To that I would add: and not a moment too soon.

It was never sustainable, anyway: all the inward-focused authority generated by books and CDs and conferences and leadership gurus and models and formulas. Why did we think that God worked through all that? Oh. That’s right. Because the authors and conference leaders told us so. Here’s my favorite take-away from Mr. Martin:

We enjoyed our time in the mainstream well enough to forget that the move of God always comes from the margins . . .

But what if Mr. Martin is even more accurate than he knew or believed? What if the locus of authority is shifting from controlling authorities to the people in the pew who refuse to spectate? What if people really started taking seriously the notion that they should bring their gifts and voices directly into the ritual gatherings and far beyond—sort of like that inveterate scribbler Paul wrote?

Dot 3: Apophenia and Participatory Culture

At Apophenia they are asking questions (fitting!) in preparation for a book on participatory culture. What is participatory culture? I’m new to the phrase too, but danah boyd cites several characteristics of such a culture:

  1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement
  2. With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others
  3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices
  4. Where members believe that their contributions matter
  5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created)

I very much like this notion and phrase because that is the culture I most want to belong to. I spend my days thinking about communication in industry. I think the church holds the key to the most invigorating participatory culture possible. I believe the future of the church will be a participatory culture speaking directly to all culture rather than focusing inward to build a religion industry.

Dot 4: Reggie Watts: Sing the Milieu

Watch this guy produce his own content (sounds)—even as he grabs content (sounds and ideas) from the environment—to make something new. It reminds of Jeff Jarvis’ note that content is not king, and how he challenged a group of professional speakers to listen to their audience. It also hints at a jazz-like participation with the audience and the larger environment.

Perhaps one way to connect the dots is to say that the top-down approach to relevance is dead or dying. The top-down approach has long been a battle cry of the church-industry: let’s give the people what they ask for, but we’ll mix in the stuff we think they need, like giving a pill to a dog by mixing it in her food. Maybe what we’re seeing now is a new mix: content relevant from the bottom up because people are listening in a new way. More precisely, they are listening for the good stuff planted there by the Spirit of God.

And please hear: this is not either-or. It is both-and.

The church can lead the way in this. Not the church as an industry, but the church made of people. But will leaders have courage to listen to individuals? Or will leaders circle the wagons?

How do you connect the dots?

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Image credit: Howard Penton via OBI Scrapbook Blog

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