A Transgenerational Church in the Digital Age

by Lisa Fischbeck

Tanzina Vega reported for the New York Times on January 16, that the television show “Scandal” is making “friends and history”.

The article cited that the show, now in its second season, had 3.52 million viewers aged 18 to 49 and 8.4 million total viewers the previous week.

A large part of Scandal’s success is due to the skill of Kerry Washington, a rare African-American female lead who plays a complex and gifted character. But the success of the show is also due to the way in which its producers have chosen to promote it – with social media.

Week by week, cast members live tweet about each episode before it is broadcast. Fans respond, and not just on Twitter, but also on Facebook, commenting back and forth as one scene leads to another. Friends and family, in effect, “watch” the show together.

According to the New York Times report, “The network’s efforts seem to have paid off. The show has a healthy number of people tweeting during the broadcast, and virtual ‘Scandal’ parties have sprung up on Facebook so friends can watch and comment together. The last episode of the show before its hiatus in December generated 2,838 tweets per minute and a total of 157,601 tweets.”

It’s easy for church people to read such an account and wonder if we should figure out a way to do something similar in the church. And we should.

Last week, I celebrated the 20th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. When I was ordained in January 1993, the church did not have Facebook or twitter. Clergy did not have cell phones. We did not have the Internet – which means no websites or email either.

In the study of history, 20 years is a generation. And the generation that has come of age since 1993 communicates naturally and adroitly, and almost exclusively, via the media that has sprung up in those years.

As church, we are doing a pretty good job of keeping up. Most congregations and ministries now have websites. Most clergy have email accounts. Many use Facebook. Using the analogy of the production of Scandal, we have about gotten so far as to put the TV Guide online, with show times and channels and a little commentary.

But unlike the producers of Scandal, the church cannot focus its attention on one generation only. That would not be faithful. The church is, and always has been, called to be transgenerational – to span the generations, “womb to tomb”. Indeed, in the 21st century, the church is one of the few places that still holds such a calling.

So in these years when our elders are still very much living in a print media world and our youngers increasingly go paperless, when our older generations want to gaze at word or image while our younger generations are most comfortable with split-second images on a screen and abbreviated sentences, when one generation looks for news in their mailbox and another on their smart phones, the church needs to be able to communicate with and for both at once.

We can debate about the content of that communication. We can debate about how we worship and what needs to change and what needs to stay the same. We can debate about formality of attire and the theology of hymnody. But what is not debatable is that if we want to communicate with people age 15 to 95, we are going to need to communicate via a variety of media at once, at least for the next generation or two. And we are going to need to make that a priority.

To do this, we are going to need translators and interpreters. Those of us ordained before the media transformation, are for now dependent on those who have come of age with it. And the elders are not beyond learning. The reward of a 20-something coaching a septuagenarian in the ways of sending e-prayers is great — for both of them.

This is not to say that we will inevitably replace the goodly fellowship and sacramental worship with texts and tweets. As people of the Incarnation, the physical presence of one another as we worship God together is essential, at least on some regular basis. But youngers are already texting and tweeting as they go — even in church (if they are there). Without compromising the mystery and solemnity, the joy and reverence that our liturgy evokes, the church needs intentionally to find ways to supplement, not replace, the physical with the digital — cultivating inquiry, curiosity, quick quips, and dialogue (breezy and abbreviated though it may be).

These communications can indeed foster a sense of community, of being known and delighted in, part of the Body. They can remind people that God is present, they can call people to prayer, to mindfulness of God and others, (not unlike the way that the ringing of the Angelus has called the scattered to prayer for more than 700 years). They can help people to know that the church, and therefore God, desires to engage and communicate with them as they are accustomed to engaging and communicating (Wycliffe would be pleased). And they can foster humor and creative brevity (something the church often lacks).

With gadgets, wifi, and 4G, people can compare sermons based on common lectionaries across denominational and geographic boundaries, can spin religious satire on everything from sporting events to political punditry, can ask for prayer and offer it, can locate each other and the church building. Gadgets, wifi, and 4G can, and often do, create a desire to spend time with one another in person, perhaps on a Sunday, perhaps with others who aren’t on gadgets but from whom they can learn about a custom or a practice that requires taste or touch or sight, like keeping the incense lit, tending the fair linen, or singing that a cappella shape note harmony.

r u 4 that?

The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck is Vicar of the Episcopal Church of the Advocate, a 21st century mission in Chapel Hill/Carrboro, NC.

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