This paper will sketch or depict six ways churches can relate to modern electronic media. The article will use very broad commonsense understandings of what church and media are, assuming that any understanding of the domain and roles of church and media, and their relationship, are changing and in transition. The church and media have the exciting potential to be changed by each other. In view of the emerging opportunities for renewed media based mission, it is good to overview general existing modes of church/media relations.
1) Mutually exclusivity. For positive and negative reasons churches can exclude media material from sacred spaces and activities. In media terminology, churches can gate-keep material, for many reasons: the media is seen as part of secular popular culture; it is commercial; its entertainment style is not relevant or spiritual enough for church practices. Exclusion can result from the judgment that popular media, including film, are exploitative and create false values and illusions. Some sects have banned television from all aspects of their believers’ lives – at home and at church. For whatever reason, a fundamental difference can be sensed between the traditional environment of a church service, and the fictionalised and glamorous world of broadcast television. The latter is not an essential or core constituent of rituals such as communion and baptism, or preaching of the word, that have endured long before the advent of media technology in the early twentieth century. There was after all no modern media at the time of Jesus.
2) In Dialogue. Churches can actively engage, usually on a selective basis, with examples of popular media. Sometimes film has explicit religious content, but equally the ethical basis of a narrative can be the subject of study from the specialised perspectives of church sermons or meetings. Film reviews in the Insights magazine are good examples of reviews of film works from a religious perspective. The domain of the media is still separate to that of the church, but forms of selective interchange and dialogue take place. As part of this interchange religious content has long been scheduled on broadcasting, usually produced by church bodies. Such niche programming can be regarded as specialised in its content and audience. By no means need religious programming be seen to sanction or resemble the content of television programming overall.
3) Media as a tool. Selective use and production of media in church activities may be unavoidable. The weekly printed newsletter is a long standing tradition, and PowerPoint displays and websites can sit beside notice and chalk boards. Projected texts of hymns can find their place next to the printed hymn book. A ministerial blog can extend discussion about a sermon or the lectionary readings. The web can becomes a source of devotional study and biblical material, acting as an online church library. The use of media as a tool or supplement to main church activities varies widely, and depends on the disposition and experience of a minister and key congregational members. Such selective creative use of media tools is best assessed on an individual church or case basis. Often conservative attitudes about what is appropriate in a sacred space or activity limit the use of electronic tools. On the whole the selective use of tools can remain conservative, and does not need to disrupt traditional practices of church communities.
4) The immersive media. The presence of media within a church environment can be of a scale and use to transform the nature of the space and its practice. Multiple projection screens, high fidelity audio, live camera capture – fundamentals of the design and use of sacred space can be transformed in the digital age. A church interior can be almost emptied, sometime black, with relatively plain decoration except for the colour of edited screened material. There is no doubt immersion is one way of competing with the appeal of popular culture that has arguably emptied pews in many churches. Yet the import of technology is not an unambiguous virtue. Wide differences in media practices, theology and Christian mission can exist between churches which share an initial commitment to the transformative use of modern media. Objective evaluation of the style of mission informing centres such as Hillsong at Waterloo needs to be made: but the opportunity to transform and reconfigure the church interior space, to resemble a media studio, is a challenging possibility.
5) The virtual church. Beginning with the occasional religious programs of broadcast television, including churches services for housebound believers, the practices of a church can in part or mainly become a media event in their own right. This event can be on line, broadcast, recorded or published in a variety of media platforms. What can be a supplementary facility for those unable to attend the main actual service, can become the main contact with the church activities. The Chapel by the Sea at Bondi has a good proportion of travellers attending its functions. A weekly email distribution and website become the means for maintaining contact to a worldwide virtual congregation of friends of the chapel. The question arises – can a person who does not attend actual physical events still be an adherent of a church? Do virtual community numbers count as statistics in the same way as regular attendees? Do we need to fundamentally rethink the nature of adherence and church membership, to allow all kinds of affiliations in near and distant localities?
6) Media as service. The South Sydney Herald, produced and distributed in print and on web, by the South Sydney UCA, is an example of how a church can provide a media based service for the wider community. The internal life of the church takes its place alongside news and views of a wider pluralist society. For decades churches have hosted community media service – in the 1970’s, Narwee Baptist Church ran a licensed radio station from its premises.
Specialised communication services for disadvantaged groups, for example for mental illness or housebound caring, are other possibilities.
I suggest broadband media offers new forms of televisual practices that redefine the identity of churches in relation to their surrounding communities. The opportunity exists for churches to become adaptors of new media, and not just passive or late reactors and imitators of past forms. There is the need for pilot projects to establish benchmark practices. Yet for change to occur, quality reflection and theology about the nature of the relationship of church and media needs to develop. Media technology creates opportunity, but it also requires inspired understanding for its effective use. Old distinctions between natural and spiritual experience, and the constructed realism of media programs, needs to be rethought. The task of a new theology for new media is encompassing and exciting. It is possible to discover new forms of sociality and spirituality within media processes. At a time when old rituals are less popular, or even dying, the opportunity for new and transformed mission should be taken up with discernment, but also unabated enthusiasm.
by Geoffrey Sykes