Speaker: The Revd Tom Stuckey, Past President of the Methodist Conference (2005)
Theme: The Power of the Cross
Dates: Friday 3 to Sunday 5 November,
The Medium is the Message
A prodigy was born in the 1940’s. This man was born ahead of his time. Marshall McLuhan was a man who saw the world differently from most. He saw the impact that mediums had on the message. He challenged the age-old adage that the message always stays neutral and only the content of the message is imperative - an age-old adage that has stood strong for many years. Even today we witness it, for instance, Rick Warren in his bestselling book The Purpose Driven Church’ stated, “The message must never change, but the methods must change with each new generation.” In this statement we recognise that as Christians we too frequently uncritically acclimatize ourselves to new technology to accomplish the missio dei while overlooking the capability of the consequences of the medium on our message.
Marshall McLuhan, a Christian who spent his life examining the effects of media, declared in his book ‘The Medium Is the Massage’, “Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of media by which men [sic] communicate than by the content of the communication.” To highlight this concept, McLuhan coined the illustrious maxim “the medium is the message.” If this is true and the Internet continues to expand exponentially in usage, the church cannot afford to hide from it any longer. Without a doubt the Internet as a medium symbolizes both dangers and possibilities for the church. But without consideration of both we will fall into the trap that McLuhan has clearly warned us of. If the church is to faithfully accomplish her mission in the digital age, she must develop a method to her use of media that reflects a considered, thoughtful approach.
If we look at the impact of the print media on human kind, we see that it causes humans to become more fragmented and more logical, and the electrical media caused us to become involved and participatory in the whole of human kind. We see that with every new medium people have adapted and been transformed in line with the impact of that medium. Technology is not neutral. The invention of the Internet has turned our world upside down. Our behavioural patterns and way of life have distorted according to the new technology that has been created and utilized; new media creates new kinds of people.
Returning to the age-old debate of nature versus nurture: which one shapes us the most? The answer for me is that in cooperation both shape us. Despite the fact that people tend to believe this maxim, many times they are blinded by it when it comes to the debate of medium versus message. The church must shape up to the power of the medium by wrestling with opportunities that present themselves by the explosion of the Internet and developments.
The paradigm shift from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 has radically changed our interaction with Web 1.0 was a static one with little interaction between websites itself. In the words of Wikipedia ‘Web 2.0 refers to a second generation of services on the World Wide Web that let people collaborate and share information online. In contrast to the first generation, Web 2.0 gives users an experience closer to desktop applications.’ In the light of this shift we have see the meteoric rise of Facebook in the past five years. The rise points us to the fact that humans crave authentic communities and connections. They crave a place where they feel loved and accepted. The rapid expansion of Facebook, the likes of which has never been seen before on a social networking front, gives us a glimpse into the future of our world. It is this social networking platform, and others like it, that raises the most questions in regard to the church’s response to the medium. It is crucial for the church to consider its fundamental concerns in light of new technology.
One of the crucial concerns of the church is cultivating an authentic community, a community that is centred around the fundamental calling of the church to be engaged flesh and blood community. The medium of the Internet is without doubt a powerful medium to equip connections. If we examine our entire use of the Internet, then we will see that at times we can become over reliant on it to define and control our relationships and connections. We now make conscious decisions to electronically communicate when we could do it over the phone or in person. As a church we communicate a lot about the type of community we are by the decisions we make. If we truly believe we are devoted to our communities, then we need to begin to consider both the opportunities that the vastness of the Internet presents us with, but also the massive pit falls that it lays out in front of us. The church needs no longer to be scared of the hidden power of this medium because it is clear light in the way we now interact with each other daily. Since one of the creeds in Christianity is the incarnation, the church should be careful to keep flesh and blood community at the centre, and virtual community at the margins.
Humans create technology but in return technology recreates humans. We see the full extent that our world is being reshaped by new technology daily. The church’s approach to medium, the Internet, is going to be important because it will have a big impact on the message. We need to be aware of the imprint that the medium has on the message. We need hold both things in tension, the impact the church can have on the world but also the impact that the Internet can have on the church. The church needs to not be scared of the hidden power of the medium. It can move forward to enhance the power of medium, with wisdom, to communicate the message.