How the Internet is changing Denominations
When the printing press emerged churches changed, some argue even that there would have been no reformation without it. Whatever, the Internet is bound to make similar changes to churches and denominations, maybe more. I think it is already changing the way denominations operate. Here’s how:
1. Everyone expects to participate.
Before the Internet the church operated pretty much as an oligarchy, with power and decision-making concentrated into the hand of the few on behalf of the many. Boards, church staffs, along with district and denominational leaders met and made decisions on behalf of the proletariat. “The people” were supposed to trust their leaders to make these decisions for them. The Internet has altered this arrangement. People now expect to participate in decision-making (or at least the discussion before the decision). It is harder now for boards and leaders to make decisions and just expect people to fall into line and “just say amen.”
This came to a head in my own denomination (The Wesleyan Church) at our 2004 General Conference. Before then a few hundred elected “delegates” (our “oligarchy”) got in the mail a printed collection of “memorials” or resolutions for denominational action. This group then came together to discuss and decide on each action, mostly considering only those already “recommended” by the General Board of my denomination. In 2004 a group of young pastors got a copy of all the resolutions, typed them into a discussion forum and invited everyone debate the merits of them all. When the elected delegates arrived at the actual General Conference most all the important debating points had already been raised by the proletariat—those who were not even elected to make the decisions. The final actions were still “decided” by the same smaller group of (mostly older) “delegates” but the discussion had already taken place and the results were affected by the thoughtful discussion of the not-yet-empowered people posting on the Internet.
The Internet has made us all think we have a right to participate in the discussion, even if a smaller group actually makes the final decision. The day is passing where the Politburo holds the power. Elected representatives have to at least listen to “the people” before deciding. The “Wiki principle” has prevailed: people think there is safety in numbers and they should have a chance to say their piece before the empowered decide something. Smoke-filled rooms are disappearing. Or, at least those in the final room must have at least listened to the masses before making their final decision.
2. People expect instant and complete information.
Before the Internet those in power could control the release of information. A long time ago denominational leaders actually published the names of newly elected District Superintendents in the monthly denominational periodical and that was when most people found out the news. Or, a paper letter was prepared with this information to send to 50 or so DSs and General Board members—“insiders”—who would release this information at their discretion during the month before it got into print. This gave leaders considerable power in the sense that “information is power,”
That day is gone. When a new DS is elected in my denomination today someone in that district text messages the results right from the floor of the conference to one of a hundred retired ministers who live in Brooksville, Florida who within ten minutes forwards the results to dozens of others and before the session is dismissed a thousand people could already know about it—assuming they care. Even when my denomination releases the “news” the next day it is merely official confirmation of what many already know. Likewise for removals, resignations and leave-with-pay. If a college or seminary President is put on leave and a cryptic email is sent reporting only part of the story the Internet buzzes until people get the rest of the story—and they always do. It is nearly impossible to “manage news” in the church in the Internet age. People are so connected and “news travels fast.” Leaders now longer control news. Leaders in the Internet age no longer are the proprietary source of news—they have to distribute it fast and openly report the story or the people will beat them to it.
3. People expect access to leaders.
Before the Internet leaders could somewhat insulate themselves from the common people. Indeed most of the “appurtances” of leadership were arranged to put some distance between the leader and the average Joe. To complain about your son who had been unfairly dismissed by a church in another district required typing a letter, several days in the mail, and who knows how long before the leader might get around to dictating a reply and sending it through several more days of “snail mail.” In an emergency one might use the telephone, but that may only turn into a pink slip message that could be deferred for days or even weeks. Leaders today at every level get emails “directly from the bottom” and they are expected to reply. True, some leaders and pastors simply refuse this access and if they are over 60 they will survive ‘til they can collect their Social Security.” But those who stonewall access are increasingly cut out of the process and gradually become pretend leaders who the real influence flows around.
Parents dissatisfied with the heat level in their daughter’s dorm room believe they have a right to send an email directly to the President of my University and they’ll do the same to a DS about the youth camp skit that “went too far.” And they expect a reply. This is a daily migraine for leaders and makes them want to toss their computer in the trash can and do away with their email address. We are not returning to more simple days. These leaders must (usually) respect the “chain of command” so they are obligated to forward the email to the proper person, but even then the parent (or member, or pastor or whomever) knows that the forwarded email will get better attention.
The Internet has “flattened” almost all organizations including the church. People have their U.S. Senator’s email address and they don’t expect their church leaders to keep their address private. Those who do simply get cut off from the flow of influence and eventually are dismissed as out of touch. Their life is nicer, but they do not wield much influence.
4. Human interchange has taken on a more savage flavor.
While Television may be the original culprit, the Internet has provided a forum for individuals to lash out with angry tirades at others (and leaders) which sometimes reduces the level of discussions to something more reminiscent of Lord of the Flies than considered thoughtful debate. People will say things in an email or as a response to a blog they would never say face to face. This has caused some leaders to simply refuse to wrestle with the under class. These leaders say, “Never get down in the mud to wrestle with a pig—you both get dirty but the pig like it.”
I can’t blame them. I’ve gotten plenty of [what used to be called] “flames” myself and they always hurt—even if they are posted anonymously. But simply avoiding the mud is not really an option in the future. Leaders have to be vulnerable enough to allow some mud to fly. Besides, when a leader responds to mud-tossing they get an opportunity to disciple their people in how to “turn away wrath.” And, of course, on most blogs we even have a chance to delete the worst mud.
I think it’s a theological-political matter. If a leader trusts “the people” over all they believe that the majority will usually correct the aberrations. Indeed, the worst mud-tossers are often corrected by others in rowdy online discussions. This is exactly what happened all along on insider boards and committees—the high and low scores are tossed out and the large middle is all we really take seriously. I don’t like the savage interchange that Christian radio, political debate and Television has brought us. And I don’t like the confrontational debate that sometimes emerges in Internet discussions. But I like even less the notion of leaders—pastors, college administrators or denominational officials—cutting themselves off from the discussions. Leaders who dismiss Internet discussions eventually will find themselves leading themselves alone while others co-opt influencing of the masses.
5. People expect things for free.
I know it seems totally unrealistic to anyone with a business sense, but the Internet has trained the masses to expect to get for free what they used to pay for. What is the most useful Internet service we get? Google. Do we pay for it? We expect it for free and if they start a subscription fee for using their search engine we’ll just move over and use another service. We don’t mind advertising, but we expect services for free that we use to pay for. Who has recently purchased an encyclopedia?
Few Internet users expect to pay to watch videos or news clips online. And few expect to be charged for “content” provided by a church either. A denominational church simply expects to be able to download membership materials absolutely free to adapt and print locally. If church membership is so important why charge for this material? If a denomination has some specialty doctrine it promotes why charge for using that material? This is how most folk think.
It will give a massive headache to publishers in the future. We can already download enough “curriculum” to serve a local church’s needs for ten years—why pay for what we can get elsewhere for free? This it the thinking the Internet has brought us. People can still make money producing church resources but the business plan of the future will have to be totally different from one based on “old media” assumptions. Bright, creative, and generous people all across the world are quite willing to post resources they wrote and give them away for free. Selling resources people can get for free elsewhere is a dying business.
What is coming is dual publishing: on paper and given away free electronically simultaneously. Paper copies will have to be sold for not much more than the cost of photocopying that same information. As a writer I hate to see the good old days pass, but it is already passing. Books, and membership materials, and doctrinal curriculum will continue to be published on paper, but increasingly leaders will have to give it away free at the same time. We’ll have to find another way to make money. The day of “open source curriculum” is rapidly approaching.
6. The “Long Tail” is here.
But there will still be sales in the Internet age. Before the Internet denominational leaders (like everyone else) shot for the average trying to reach the “fat middle” of the people in their denomination with resources and leadership that met everybody’s needs fairly well (and nobody’s perfectly)—this is the big hump in a normal distribution where most of the members lay. Thus most denominations produce “denominational-generic” leadership, materials and programming. We had to—this was where the greatest “market” was. This is why denominational programs and materials weren’t that much different than generic resources and leadership from other sources.
The Internet is changing all that—the “long tail” is here. The tail is the huge demand for things that are not “blockbusters” that the average crowd wants. The Long Tail (by Chris Anderson) argues that there are huge sales in “selling less of more” in the future since the Internet has brought down distribution costs connecting producers and users at lower prices. A denomination would not think of producing a resource for Wesleyan single female urban professionals pondering a call into ministry—there just wouldn’t be enough sales in it to put up the money to produce 50 copies. The long tail is the market for the accumulated special needs of the thousands of people like this and together the market may be bigger even than the total of the blockbusters like Purpose Driven Life that Wal-Mart sells.
The Internet has brought us “The Long Tail” and it is here to stay. Before the Internet we had the “top 40” songs and three news broadcasts. Now the Internet caters to individualized specialized tastes so we have hundreds of news sources and channels, and Rhapsody offers subscribers more than 2 million songs and in any given month with 40% of their sales being music you can’t even get in stores. A full one third of Amazon.com’s sales consist of books you can’t buy in even the largest physical bookstores. The average readership of a blog is seven. Sure, there are blockbuster blogs with readerships in the millions, but the vast majority of readership on the web is in the long tail.
The Internet has taught us that someone somewhere has exactly what we want—all we have to do is find them. EBay and Google intend to help us connect. Of course generic materials—even blockbusters—can still be produced, but the really big market is in specialization—small runs of very specific resources (including seminars, leadership programs and books) designed for tiny market niches.
This Internet effect is actually good news for smaller denominations. The day of look-alike me-too programs and materials will give way to more very specific “narrowcasting” in the future. Conferences and roundtables will emerge for youth pastors of middle school kids in middle size towns. These will increasingly compete with the large generic youth conferences Group and Youth Specialties sponsor. Conferences and materials for churches under 50 will emerge just like we (already) have such roundtables for churches over 1000. There will be meetings for Wesleyans opposed to war or conservative Wesleyans committed to instantaneous entire Sanctification. Indeed, some of these have already emerged and are operating underground right now. Sprawling programs where denominations try to fit every pastor and church into a single mold might continue for a time but in the future there will be more programs, and more books, and more materials, and more conference not less of them. The generic “blockbuster generic” will give way to “the long tail” of resources and leadership specifically designed for specific narrow needs.
Why I think this can be good news for denominations is many denominations (including my own) are actually long tails themselves… they are a tiny fraction of the whole with very specific values and beliefs—at least those who haven’t caved into the generic. The Internet is not creating more generic evangelical Christians but actually is creating thousands of mini-denominations within the larger denominations. The leaders who see this coming will capitalize on their “convening” powers to gather like-minded people together and they will figure out how to connect producers of narrow resources with those who need them—a denomination eBay of sorts.
The Internet is not a “temporary fad” as one of my denomination’s General Superintendents quipped in 1995. It has already changed the way denominations do their work. The Freshmen students I will teach this week in class have never known a world without the Internet. They already consider it “old media” and IPodcasts and text messaging and several other means are their ways of connecting and communicating. It is time to finish catching up to the changes already in effect from the Internet age. Some of the changes the Internet has fostered are fearsome and troublesome, but over all denominations are adept at adapting and I believe they’ll figure out how a denomination works in the Internet age.
So, what do you think?
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Keith Drury September 4, 2006