This is something I wrote decades ago. I find it interesting that many of the longings expressed below can find their fulfillment in the Christian Churches that retain the sacramental life view today... with notable exceptions of course... however at the heart of it... hmmmm...
I Had a Dream (Synopsis)
The Apparent Language Barrier
What Went Wrong? (An artist tries his hand at a history lesson!)
Right & Left--East & West
Judaism and the Infant Church (Swing from the Center to the Left)
The Fall of Rome and Literacy (Swing back to the Right)
Icons and Idols--Windows and Walls
The Reformation / Enlightenment (Swing back to the Left and STAY THERE!!)
From the Age of Reason to Postmodern and Post-Literate (Swing to the extreme right?)
A Picture Says a Thousand Words, However... (The freedom of text based learning)
Keeping in Step With the Spirit (Highly scripted versus loosely structured)
On a Personal Note (How God has taught me)
Most of my thinking about communication comes out of growing up in the Christian Church. After all, its primary focus is to communicate the life changing message of Jesus Christ, otherwise known as the Gospel.
What follows is sort of a thought journal of the last twenty years...sometimes silly, rarely brilliant and mostly average. I try not to take myself too seriously, but looking back on the paths my mind has traveled, I have to laugh at just how intense I got. Not that intense is bad, it's just annoying and funny sometimes!
So...don't take anything I say here personal. It's here more for my reference so I can say, "Hey, look, I used to think that!! Wow!!"...or maybe, "Whoa...I was actually close to the mark on that one"...
If you do stumble through it, you've got courage, stamina, and a warped sense of fun...and you shall be rewarded with 3 orangutans, 6 parsnips, and 600 lbs. of the breakfast cereal of your choice!!
As always, your feedback is welcome.
So here goes....
...not so long ago
...in a strange west Michigan city
Simply put, that dream was to help restore engaging communication forms to the church.
Allow me to explain how this dream came into focus. Since much of my thinking was prompted by what the church has failed to do in the past few centuries, I will start with something positive.
The last 300-400 years of church history have produced many good and beneficial things. Never before has God's word been in as many hands of as many people in their native tongues as today. Never before have Bible study tools proliferated to the levels they are now. Great strides have been made to ensure that people can have (often instantaneously) the information they need to learn about God in written and sometimes even digital form. In addition, much of the world has been touched by the work of thousands of missionaries. One has only to ponder the explosive growth of the Korean and Chinese Church to know their efforts have not been in vain. These are only a few of the good things God's people have accomplished by His grace. For these we are all grateful, I am sure.
However, when it comes to telling the old gospel story in a compelling, engaging and artful way the church has lost ground. We haven't kept up with current story telling methods, especially in the Western Church culture. In times when paradigm shifts can occur so rapidly, this is not at all surprising:
"Biblical scholar/media expert Thomas E. Boomershine Sr. makes an intriguing analogy of the church and the Polish army in September 1939 when Hitler's blitzkrieg was hurled against it.
"Hitler sent 14 armored divisions across the Polish border. The Polish army was committed to the traditions of the cavalry and sent 12 cavalry brigades against the German tanks. In the tradition of the great cavalry divisions of the Prussian army, the Polish cavalry was molded for warfare as it had been fought in the 18th and 19th century. When the divisions of German armor came streaming across the border, therefore, the Polish general sent wave after wave of cavalry, men mounted on horses, against the tanks. The battle lasted about three weeks. The fields of Poland were choked with the bodies of horses and brave men who had gone into battle with a strategy formed for warfare in a previous period.
"Today the Church goes into spiritual battle in an electronic culture, seeking to communicate the gospel in a new cultural environment. In a culture dominated by television, films, CDs, and computers, the Church continues to pursue its strategies that were developed for a culture in which books, journals, and rhetorical addresses were the most powerful means of mass communication.
"Like the Polish cavalry, [mainline Protestant churches] are dying in this culture…empty and abandoned Protestant churches [strewn across] America's landscape like the horses and men of the Polish cavalry on the fields of Poland."
Boomershine captures the current atmosphere surrounding communications in the church well. It was into this atmosphere that most of us were born (there were most likely a few churches that used more current methodologies). Growing up with a personal longing to experience, know and love God in such an atmosphere was frustrating and confusing for me. I knew God was amazing, but Sunday gatherings were quite less than amazing. I began to long for worship and learning experiences that were at least as interesting and engaging as my limited understanding of God. It may be a great oversimplification, but I think many of us have longed for Church worship and teaching to be at least as interesting as a dull movie, and maybe even as moving and thought provoking as a good one.
As I pondered this, I began to realize that worship wasn't always so non-engaging throughout the history of God fearing people (both Jewish and Christian). In fact as I began to study the facts, I found that both Christian and Jewish histories were loaded with examples of rich, engaging and multi-sensory worship / learning experiences. Even more amazingly it appeared that our current non-engaging communication tendencies were not at all the most common over the past 4000 years. The greater cross-section of humanity seemed to be wired to learn and worship with methods that engaged both their minds AND their senses. Down through the ages, those that have wished to truly engage their hearts and minds (especially God Himself) knew this and catered to this fact. A cursory look at worship and learning in Jewish temples and ornate Christian cathedrals could prove this. Everything was designed to stimulate the mind through as many senses as possible, thus improving how well they engaged common folks in pondering eternal truths.
Equally engaging communication forms are available today. Strangely, however, churches seem reluctant to use them. It seems we have relegated excellence in storytelling to Hollywood, and excellence in teaching / presentation to the business and educational worlds. (Part of my ramblings here delve into possible reasons for this.) I believe the Church should do everything within reason to restore tried and true communication methods like drama, dance, and visual/olfactory/tactile props. I also believe we need to learn from the entertainment, business and education realms to harness all the means they are using to tell the story of God's sacrificial love. As Leonard Sweet put it:
"The best way to diffuse the principalities and powers of postmodern culture is not to escape from it, but to learn its language, master its media, and engage it on a higher level."
Pondering all of these things, I was finally motivated to do something about it. In the fall of 1997, I kick started Talking Donkey Productions. The vision was simple: Help the church restore more engaging and multi-sensory communication methods to their worship and teaching.
Since then I've changed the name to "Photon Farms" and made Jenny the Talking Donkey one of several jolly critters on the farm. More importantly I have broadened the focus to include other worthy organizations, both for-profit and nonprofit. While my heart will always delight most in telling the gospel story, I have found that other organizations also have good stories to tell.
That's really how my dream came about in a nutshell. If you are very daring, you can read on to dig a bit deeper. I'll start by examining the apparent wall that has gone up between the church and most of us everyday folk.
How do we really learn and communicate today? For example, when you want to know more about elephants, do you immediately buy a book or check out the animal lecture series at the local college?
Some people do.
Neither do an increasingly large number of people. We usually turn on The Discovery Channel or rent a video on the subject. If we're fortunate enough to have them, we might slip in our multimedia encyclopedia disc or surf the web.
Why is that? Why do we not stampede towards books and lectures anymore? Are we too lazy? Do we lack the intelligence, comprehension or attention levels necessary to take them in?
I don't think so.
I think it's because TV, the web, and multimedia discs are inherently multi-sensory and thereby more balanced in the way they communicate. They can easily combine abstract/cerebral content with engaging visuals, voice, text and music.
Multi-sensory communication is far from a new idea. It is simply and essentially human. We have 5 known senses, and the more of them we use to learn, the better the lesson sticks with us. This is ancient knowledge, now being reemphasized by modern teaching method experts. Using multiple sensory input is simply the best way to communicate any message to the largest cross-section of humanity. (Obvious exceptions would be those with disorders such as autism and other special stimulus input needs.)
God knew this. He was the one who instilled it into our being. So it's no small wonder that He consistently and meticulously bathed humans in multi-sensory lessons throughout history.
Often, when we think of how Jews have taught and been taught, our minds bring up imagery of Rabbis expounding the intellectual intricacies of the Torah and all of the ancient traditions. But step back and look at the big picture if you can. Combined with rigorous abstract/cerebral training was an intricately woven tapestry of multi-sensory experiences to aid that teaching. This happened before the time of Christ, during, and after. Consider a few examples from each time period:
Before Christ's time:
The sights, smells and sounds inside the temple...
People singing and chanting
Smell/taste of burnt offerings, incense, people...
Intricately detailed visual aids
The story/historical narrative of their relationship with God being spoken
During Christ's time:
His very graphic story telling often using the surroundings / people
around him in his stories.
His attendance to physical details such as...
Healing sick people
Feeding hungry people
After Christ's time:
The Spirit descending in fire
The signs and wonders
The continuing practice of baptism and the Lord's supper
The early church's use of visuals, drama, song, dance, incense, etc.
So, as you can see, throughout history God made sure to use as many of our senses as possible to teach us abstract/cerebral lessons. To put it differently, in His practical wisdom He gets to our left brain (the abstract, analytical, organized side) through our right brain (the creative, experience oriented, big picture side). But repeatedly throughout history, western teaching methods have veered toward a more or less purely abstract, cerebral approach to teaching.
Perhaps we have thought that the straightforward abstract/cerebral approach (reading and lectures) is more sophisticated and intelligent, and less open to errors. Or perhaps multi-sensory experiences just seem too earthy to our very left-brained, western minds. One thing is certain, it takes a lot more work to be intentionally multi-sensory.
As referred to earlier, in the world at large there is an ongoing shift to using the more balanced, multi-sensory approach in commerce, education and entertainment. They simply know by experience that it communicates to people now and thereby sells more product or teaches more effectively.
Yet the Church for the most part refuses to adopt this more ancient and holistically balanced methodology. It is not unlike the Church in Martin Luther's day insisting on using Latin when speaking to German people. They were insisting on a language barrier then. We seem to be insisting on a methodology/language barrier today.
(An artist tries his hand at a history lesson!)
So what did go wrong? Why did the Western Church veer into scholasticism and an abstract/cerebral approach? I think there are many reasons and some of them quite understandable. We will examine them briefly in following sections. But first a short note on my approach to history.
What you are about to experience is an artist's "big picture" rendering of the last two millennia of church history. I don't even pretend to do it justice. But that does not negate the truth that may be found in the yarn I spin.
My sources are varied and accumulated over the last 20 years. They include authors as diverse as C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L'Engle, Stephen Lawhead, Malcolm Muggeridge, Will Durant, F.F. Bruce, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.I. Packer, Phillip Yancy, Norman Geisler, Francis Schaefer, Albert Einstein, Confucius, Blaise Pascal, Fyodor Dostoevsky, etc.
What I'm trying to say is I haven't intentionally read authors who call themselves experts on church history. Rather I've absorbed a lot of information from authors I believe to be trustworthy. I believe I have a decent understanding of how the communication pendulum has swung over the last 2000 years. That's what I'm going to try to present to you in following sections.
Yet before we launch into that, it is important to understand what I mean when I speak of a communication pendulum.
You may have already noticed how I've associated Eastern thought with right-brain and Western thought with left-brain. This notion runs deep throughout all of my thinking thanks to a good friend pointing it out repeatedly. Let's make some more general associations to help you see more clearly what I'm thinking.
[Please note that these are generalizations and as such will most likely offend many. This isn't intentional and does not negate their general veracity. I'm merely trying to show how our national/continental heritage does indeed affect how we see, teach, learn and communicate.]
Eastern People Groups I associate with:
(Eastern meaning East of Israel)
More comfortable with right-brained thinking.
More image/icon oriented (think of eastern language characters)
More visually oriented.
Comfortable with paradoxical, circular and nonlinear thinking.
Dominated by the Chinese/Indian philosophical heritage.
Western People Groups I associate with:
(Western meaning West of Israel)
More comfortable with left-brained thinking.
More outline oriented / strict in their organization.
More abstract / cerebral and text oriented.
Comfortable with linear, "A to Z", logical thinking.
Dominated by the Greek philosophical heritage.
Something that confirmed some of these notions (at least the visual aspects) was looking at the "Top 10 of Everything Book" by Russell Ash. It lays out some movie going statistics which I found shocking but confirming to my thesis.
Check these out:
India produced an average 851 movies per year to the US average of
The US is sixth in the list of movie goers (annual attendance per inhabitant), beat out by Lebanon, China, Georgia, India and Iceland in that order!)
Isn't it interesting that less wealthy nations than the US drive production of a multi-sensory medium to such high levels? Is this because of their philosophical heritage which prizes right-brain thinking? Hmmmm...
Now both the Eastern and Western approaches have their strengths to be sure! My contention is that the best approach is a mix of both. And surprise, surprise!! Look what nation has done just that and sits right between East and West! Hmm...need a hint? How about Israel!
Coincidence? I think not. God's plan includes all of this.
So when I speak of the pendulum swinging, I'm referencing all of the above. And I'm talking more specifically about how the Western Church of Jesus Christ has swung from the balanced Israeli approach, to the left-brained Western approach, to the right-brained Eastern approach and back again. (I'm not going to examine the Eastern Church in detail at this time.)
Now I think we're ready for our history lesson.
(Swing from the Center to the Left)
We must begin with Judaism, Christianity's rich roots. The disciples of Christ, very Jewish indeed, had been steeped in multi-sensory learning from childhood. As we've noted above, that's just the way Judaism worked.
The Jewish heritage coupled intense memorization of scripture and law with multi-sensory tools such as storytelling and the very graphic physical presence of the temple to help them remember. It was actually quite balanced in its overall approach to teaching and passing on truth from generation to generation.
Jesus only reinforced this with his own brand of very popular and graphic storytelling. He also taught them through the very earthy lessons of life as he lived with them for three years. I guess you can't get a much better mix of multi-sensory and cerebral learning than He in His wisdom imparted to them.
But after Jesus rose from the dead and went to be with the Father, the good news about him spread very quickly into a Greek/Roman culture which prized left-brained, abstract/ cerebral thinking. So it's really no great wonder that God chose someone like Paul of Tarsus, a man steeped both in Jewish training and Greek/Roman philosophical training, to take this message to a world of "philosophers".
And so it was.
The church from its infancy veered into a more abstract/cerebral/philosophical vein. It's just what was needed at the time to communicate truth to western/Greek minds.
The Gospel did spread. Letters and books were written and we have them safe in the New Testament writings. Now this was very good stuff for Jewish converts and Gentile proselytes alike. Most of them could read or have it read to them. Paper (papyri) was quite expensive but not impossible to get. So, with the Greek / Roman keenness to get everything into an abstract format, the written word spread almost as quickly as the spoken.
(Swing back to the Right)
Rome's dominance wanes.
Plunge now into the dark ages.
Fewer and fewer people can read.
The Scriptures (because they are very expensive to reproduce) are kept sacred and well away from common folks. When they are read in churches, it is often not even in the native language of those listening.
The church however does something beautiful in these dark and ignorant times. It responds by putting the eternal truths of the scripture into very graphic forms so illiterate folks can grasp it.
Think of the rich visuals in any European cathedral built during these times for example. You had carvings galore, stained glass (PowerPoint's debut), paintings, tapestries, and the very lofty architecture.
There is also evidence that drama was used during this time period along with storytelling/preaching that was coupled with large body and hand gestures to make it more engaging.
They were on the right track with all this, actually. They were moving towards including more right-brained creative stuff to help people engage in communication.
However, without having access to the scriptures themselves, the people tragically started taking the icons and turning them into idols. It's the same thing that was repeated throughout Israel's history. People fell into idol worship then, why should we think the church would avoid it completely?
This is the point where it is critical to clarify a few things:
ICONS ARE WINDOWS TO GOD.
IDOLS ARE WALLS BETWEEN GOD AND PEOPLE.
THEY CAN BE THE SAME EXACT OBJECT.
Icons can be wonderful visual tools. They can become windows in our minds that we can look through to see God or a truth about Him. All the visuals of ancient Israel and the medieval church are icons of one sort or another.
The obvious danger is that it is so easy for us to take an icon and instead of looking through it to see and understand God better, we start looking at it as something worthy of worship. It then transforms from a window into a wall--something that gets in the way of seeing and worshipping God.
Tragically, it happens all the time, even today. Why, even the Bible can become an idol to some (and quite often has in the last 400 years)!
The trouble comes when we start blaming the icons for our own failure to make this distinction. We somehow think that banishing the dreadful icons will secure us from ever turning one into an idol again. Of course, this is futile. Firstly, we will always find something to turn into an idol. Secondly, banishing all icons doesn't allow for basic human communication needs. We need visuals. We are visual beings. Furthermore...
Humans need movement. We are moving beings.
Humans need sound. We are hearing beings.
Humans need touch. We are feeling beings.
Humans need taste and smell. We are smelling/tasting beings.
But looking back through western history, isn't it strange how so many of these elements were axed from the typical Church worship / teaching experience? Consider the following occurrences:
The extreme reformers smash the icons we so badly need to help us see God.
A symptom of one of the plagues (a sort of spastic, twitching dance) gives
dancing an association with bad/evil.
Contemporary musical forms are continually condemned because of supposed "worldliness" (sample argument from distant past: 4 part harmony is worldly and evil but our simple Gregorian chants are holy and pure).
We fear things that we can touch and hold to help us learn and remember (it
could lead to idol worship), or sometimes it's just not practical or cost
Incense is new age isn't it? Or some people are allergic, so we shouldn't ever
try to use smells or tastes...right?
Uncanny isn't it? It's almost like some kind of Satanic plot (d'oh!). What's going on? Too many Churches today are impoverished when it comes to the use of visuals, movement, music, touch, taste and smell. Far from being distracting, when tastefully done any or all of these elements can greatly improve how well people engage in learning critical life-changing truth. Oddly enough, it was our own reformation leaders that ushered non-engaging communication methodologies into the Church.
(Swing back to the Left and STAY THERE!!)
Enter our heroes: Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, etc. These men did the hard work (by God's grace) of lifting the church out of a nebulous, mystical faith to solid rational thinking based on historical fact. Praise God for these men who paved the way for personal growth and study of God through his word at an unprecedented level. "Sola Scriptura!" was their cry during a time that was thirsty for absolutes and common sense.
The work of these men and other reformers of the church combined powerfully with innovation in mass produced and distributed text. In a relatively short time, the Bible and the thoughts of these men were delivered to the world not on expensive scrolls and papyri, but on relatively inexpensive paper in codex form. It was a revolution. At just the time when people were doctrinally ready to receive the Word of God in their language and when literacy was climbing to all time highs, the means to deliver it to them came about.
The result was both sweet and bitter.
The "sweet" was that people could finally study God's word for themselves, instead of having to rely on an often corrupt and indifferent clergy. Every household would eventually afford their own Bible in their own language. In addition, Bible study tools and general education of the historical-grammatical context in which the original documents were written greatly increased their understanding of the good book, and sometimes even drew them closer to God.
The "bitter" is often overlooked, mostly because we are still tasting the bitter fruit and thinking it is normal. As history will testify, the reformers didn't stop at restoring the church to a solid theological framework. They also had a nasty tendency to overreact against what they perceived (and probably rightly so) as the idols of their time period. Thousand upon thousands of multi-sensory instructional props and icons were lost during this period because of their zealousness to help people shed their vain superstitions and grasp onto true faith. This left people bereft of the rich visual, tactile, and olfactory devices that could have actually helped them learn and retain what they learned much faster. But who knows? Maybe it was for the best at that time.
Nevertheless, simple textual study (what they were left with) had its shortcomings. It was all too easy for people to slide into purely abstract / cerebral comprehension of God. Theologians and teachers in the church only reinforced this as text-based learning was the most readily attainable and acceptable means of communication. Of course, text-based learning alone is far less than completely human. As we have discussed before, the more senses we use to learn, the longer we retain our lesson, and text-based learning is weak in that department.
The Church at large hasn't really progressed much since that time. To be sure we are beginning to see rays of hope in our meetings (perhaps 3-5% are beginning to embrace current communication technologies), in Christian productions like Veggietales, and multimedia Bibles and study tools. But these are just isolated instances. While the rest of the world swings back to the right again, we still have this deep rooted fear that visual / tactile / olfactory aids in the church worship / teaching setting will somehow force us to be idol worshippers. It is understandable, but sad that we are crippled by this fear.
POSTMODERN AND POST-LITERATE
(A potential swing to the extreme right)
While the Church has been largely crippled by its fear and stubbornness, the world has developed communication technologies at an ever quickening pace. At each juncture the Church has not only been hesitant to embrace the latest technology, but often outright condemned the communication form itself as evil.
To be sure, the Church has been known to come around and begin using a communication form once it has aged a bit. But never has the body of Christ as a majority grabbed their surf boards and gleefully surfed the current communication technology wave. It hasn't been a simple matter of cost. The fear factor has simply been too great.
In this section we will take the time to consider major communication technology developments over the last century. With each development we will consider how it influenced everyday people and how the Church responded over time.
Keep in mind that we are focussing on mass communication methodologies in the following subsections. For example, the ongoing development of theater, orchestra and opera were certainly methods of communicating ideas to large numbers of people, but they didn't penetrate a large enough cross-section of humanity to be considered (in my opinion) "mass" communication. The telegraph and later the telephone systems were great developments and "shrank the world" smaller than ever before. The phone even penetrated into a critical mass of homes throughout the world in a relatively short time. However, neither the phone nor the telegraph allowed ideas to be shared instantaneously with massive numbers of people. In fact, nothing surpassed the old mass produced text method until...
The first major advance in mass communication technology came with invention of the Victrola (that's a really old record player) and the Radio. These media actually traded text for aural communication, so it's hard to say if we actually gained any ground. While it did open the door to great music, literature and programing for folks who couldn't read or afford books and opera tickets, it really didn't move us any closer to a more multi-sensory, human means of engaging people.
I am ignorant of the Church's initial response to either of these media. We can see that currently the Church embraces radio and recording technology to a certain degree, however, so much more could be done. Current "Christian" radio stations proudly display for the most part dry syndicated studies and sickening, sappy music. Even the so-called "Christian Rock" stations are rarely allowed to play anything truly artistic or cutting edge.
Top this off with their insistence on speaking a language that too many Christians slip into.It is a language I call "Christianese" and it's most noticeable traits are the over-use of syrupy, romantic platitudes and cliches that anyone in their right mind would tire of almost instantly.Even as one who loves the people who love God, it is hard for me to enjoy this kind of talk.It has never communicated to me the bristling reality of a God who is there.
What is especially sad is that if artists and speakers don't use this language, they don't get into steady rotation on Christian radio.They are expected to be continually evangelistic and do so speaking Churchese (how ironic!).That is why most of the good art and programming that actually would have us use our imaginations to draw inferences never gets on the air. The Christian Music industry as well as syndicated programs have a long way to go before they are palatable to most thinking Christians, much less the curious non-Christian public.
Many of the current "Christian" recording labels fare no better than the radio stations, rather they tend to mirror their approach. Sometimes a recording artist who happens to love God is far better off just bypassing the whole "Christian" recording industry so as not to be restrained by their general misunderstanding of the artistic process.
I dream of running a radio station / recording label that models the best of what has been done so far and takes things a step further. One that an intelligent Christian or curious non-Christian could actually enjoy and be challenged by. One that wouldn't tolerate mediocre, sappy, religious programming or music.
2 Cor. 2:14-16"...Wherever we go, God uses us to make clear what it means to know Christ. It's like a fragrance that fills the air.To God we are the aroma of Christ among those who are saved and among those who are dying.To some people we are a deadly fragrance, while to others we are a life-giving fragrance. Who is qualified to tell about Christ?"
It can certainly be argued that no amount of cleverness could make the gospel of Christ palatable to some folks.The Bible speaks of the fact that the story of Christ will be a stench to those who don't believe.The good news is often disturbing.In no way am I suggesting that we should soften either the desperateness of the human condition or the brutally bloody tale of Christ's sacrificial death.
I simply wish we had enough empathy to imagine what we must sound like to those who have no relationship to Christians or the Church. Syrupy romantic cliches are still syrupy, romantic and cliche even when spoken from a sincere heart.Far from sugar coating or watering down the gospel,I suggest we quit speaking Churchese and speak in a language everyone can understand.Instead of trying to teach new converts to speak like we do, we need to encourage them to say it in their own words, from their heart.
Jesus didn't speak religious jargon to his listeners.He used simple stories that anyone could infer meaning from.He smuggled all kinds of profound theological messages into these stories.Many of Christ's followers have conformed to His model of communication.Think of C.S. Lewis and his Narnia Chronicles for example.Lewis and others like him enjoyed smuggling truth into thier simple stories about familiar things.
The question is simply this:Why can't we follow suit as well?Were these people just so much more talented than most of us or were they simply focussed on using a communication form which they knew would be more effective during thier time.If they weren't so much more clever than us, then what is stopping us from grabbing current communication tools (radio, TV, film, Internet, etc.) and using them in the same powerful way that they used their mediums?
Enough of beating that dead horse.Let's keep examining the communication developments.
I believe this was the first true step toward a more human form of mass communication. Even the old silent movies, with their slow plots and cheesy music are more engaging than 9 out of 10 sermons on any given Sunday. I remember growing up in the Chicago area and how much I loved going to Shakey's Pizza where they would have those old movies rolling. Even growing up on Speed Racer and Sesame Street didn't dampen my interest in them.
Of course "talkies" and "Technicolor" soon swept the scene as well as better sound systems. People loved the movies. Though the church denounced them as evil, God fearing folk and heathen alike swarmed to them because they struck chords in their souls that just didn't seem to get played elsewhere. Humanity had finally created a form of story telling that could be just as powerful as the best Broadway show. They also created at the same time a method for distributing them cheaply to common folks who would never have stepped foot in a dramatic theater or opera house. Story telling had come of age.
I believe the movies were so intensely popular because they told stories in such a human way, engaging multiple senses through audio and visual (and if you include the popcorn--smell, taste and touch!). They engaged people's minds and souls and the world will never be the same.
Over the years, great stories have been told through this medium. It is sad how little the Church has seen fit to engage in using this medium in a competitively professional manner. Most of the "Christian" movies I grew up with were nauseatingly simplistic, cliché and poorly produced and acted. (Our youth group used to go down to Silver Lake in the summer to catch some of those cheesy flicks. I usually went for the girls.)
Granted, it has been almost prohibitively expensive for all but the richest of Christians to even think of producing a movie that would rival current standards. The blessings of a diverse body of Christ with all its flavors and denominations has snapped back and bit us in the past because it lends to disunity and a lack of pooling resources. There have been some Parachurch organizations that have tried to pull off quality productions, but again, since the whole church just doesn't see the value or necessity of communicating in the language of the people around them they have ultimately failed to produce any works on a large enough scale to get any notice.
Technology is about to break through and make cost less of a factor, however. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. After movies raised the mass communication standard forever...
Did I say movies changed the world forever? Well that was nothing compared to the change wrought by the advent of reliable television sets and networks to provide nonstop programming for them. In less than 10 years time, the movies and relevant programming came home to a huge number of families. It became reasonably inexpensive to have the movie box at home and it paid for itself quickly by saving many family trips to the theater. While radio held its ground as the preferred mobile means of mass communication (and still does), the television replaced it at home and became central to the living area of most family dwellings in the developed world.
The legacy of Christianity's mix with the broadcast television world is another sad page of Church History marred by scandal after scandal.When those who actually speak the truth get on the networks (few and far between), it is usually just a boring transferal of crusty methodologies to a different medium.No attempt is made to incorporate current storytelling methods to help everyday people become more engaged in the learning or worship.
Christians usually shift their communication paradigm about 50-100 years after the developed world.TV hit in the 1950's so I suppose it's par that we figure out how to use it by 2050.
Don't simply bring the movies home, make it so we can play them over and over. Also make it so we can interact with our favorite movies (enhanced DVD's) and collect our favorite sitcoms.
Did VCR's and DVD's really make a difference?I believe so, though certainly not as profound a shift as the coming of television to every home.Have Christian's welcomed this and taken advantage of it in any way?In small ways, yes.You see, it's much easier to break into the VHS and DVD markets than the whole Hollywood Scene.That explains the relative success of Veggietales and the Odyssey series.Christian's can bypass the vigilant and terribly secularized film critic watchdogs and get their wares directly to other Christian's via the Christian bookstore network.Is it impacting society as a whole?No, but it's a start, and I know this artist has been encouraged by the relative success of the VeggieTales series more than could possibly be put into words.
The whole VHS/DVD medium delivery method came far enough down the road after the film/cinema system that Christian's were I believe more ready for it.They actually welcomed it's convenience and appreciated the level of control it offered over what was viewed in the home.We simply haven't had the knee jerk reaction to this as we have to other media developments, mostly because it wasn't that drastic of a development.
But I still believe it was significant enough to mention.So I did.
For some reason the Church hasn't reacted to the Internet nearly as strongly as I would have expected it to.Here we have a world-wide pervasive, continual, interactive network for everyone and the church has for the most part took it in stride.I find this refreshing for a change.
No doubt there have been plenty of critics in the Christian Community that point out the parasitic nature of pornographers and online casinos.But it really isn't much different than the way these same folks have already exploited humanity.
For the first time I believe the church has seen that while the potential for evil is great in this new medium, the network it allows us to build for the furthering of the Gospel far outweighs the negatives.Never before has it been so easy to get information about God if you know where and how to look.Never before has the potential for Creative Christians to build engaging communication tools been so great.These are exciting times!
It's almost like the time of Christ, when the Imperial Roman Road system just happened to be there to facilitate the traveling missionaries bearing the good news about Jesus.This is a marvel even greater than that and at a time when the church is finally not quite as reactionary against every new technological development!We actually have a chance to ride this wave and do it well before it has passed.Creative Christians grab your surf boards!!
It should be mentioned however, that those in the Christian community that are paranoid that about hate groups taking advantage of information we put on line are not without credibility.As we advance into this realm, designers need to be sure to use the latest encryption technologies to protect their member databases should they put them online.While it is true that if hate groups want the information about our congregations bad enough they will get it somehow (just watch enemy of the state), we don't need to just hand it to them.Precautions should be taken, but the threat of security breaches in our sharing of information should not scare us away from using this powerful tool to build community and share the life changing message of Jesus Christ.
Give Common Folks the Power to Create and Edit Their Own Movies and Multimedia
Now take all these great developments which have remained securely in the realm of the creative elite (and wealthy) and give them to the average middle class creative guy or gal.That is what has happened with the exponential growth in power of personal computers and key development softwares.Studios don't have to cost millions of dollars any more.In fact, a decent workstation fully outfitted for video, audio and web development can be had for less than the cost of a ski boat.Granted, that is entry level professional gear, but with the right skill a good artist can produce media that rivals much of what is seen in local tv and some of the national stuff as well.
Never before has the playing field been leveled in this manner.Never before have the tools been so obtainable and the learning curve so simple for the common technically inclined creative type.What an opportunity for creative Christian folks to actually produce quality work!
What is even more exciting is that for the first time, even smaller and less fortunate congregations can start incorporating media into their teaching and learning should they so choose.It is simply a matter of making it more important than new carpeting (and you can bet I'd say that it is).Weaving current storytelling methods into our worship and teaching is the only way we are going to be fishing with the right bait for the common man.We must face the fact that people are immersed in this language from birth today, and I would contend that they shouldn't have to learn old Churchese to understand the gospel story.We should take it to them in their native tongue, and for an increasingly larger cross section of humanity, that means using current multi-sensory communication tools.
Reflect on the situation in the Church currently.Has much changed?Have we learned from our past failures to understand that no matter what the experts say, the media is not the message?Have we learned to embrace and harness current media and technology to engage people in their native language?
I'm afraid the answer is both yes and no. Certainly the Church is beginning to understand that media and technology are not just a fad.Some are even incorporating multimedia and various storytelling forms into their teaching and worship gatherings.But by and large the Church is in the infant stages of using current storytelling methodologies.
While fear and mistrust of the various mediums are much to blame, there is also the misperception that in order to incorporate more current methodologies huge amounts of money must be spent.As alluded to above, multimedia can be incorporated into teaching and worship for much less than the cost of a new organ or piano.With the stakes so high, it would do struggling congregations good to consider that fact.It would also do them well to completely reconsider their relationship to the culture around them and get busy redeeming what they can instead of crying about how bad it is.If the earth is the Lord's and all in it, isn't it about time we start stealing back communication tools that Satan has proven are effective (remember it isn't the tool or media form itself that is evil!) and using them for God's glory?Sure we've started in the realm of contemporary music, but why stop there?Let's storm the gates of hell, because I heard that they won't withstand the Church's attack.
That's where Photon Farms and other digital priests can help.A new breed of preachers and priests are arising that have a passion to harness digital communication technologies to spread the gospel.They may not be gifted in the traditional sense of standing in front of a congregation and delivering rhetorical addresses.They may not even be that comfortable around people at all.Their gift lies in quietly arranging digital content in a way that will engage their target audiences in learning life changing truths about God.
Not only can we dispel some myths about current communication technologies, we can show just how easy and relatively inexpensive it is to incorporate them into teaching and worship.It is our passion to help God's people communicate the truth in a manner that engages the minds of real people in the real world.We don't just use the technology as a tool, we actually enjoy swimming in that medium, like fish in water.It brings us joy to help the church and Christian's in general become comfortable using these increasingly powerful and simple to use tools of communication.
At the same time, Photon Farms loves to promote the continuing integration of old tried and true storytelling tools such as drama, puppets, visual / tactile / olfactory props, dance/movement, and so on.It is especially powerful to combine old and new communication methods as the word is preached in various forms.Farmer Fred get's excited when he's asked to come up with visuals to back up a choir song or a movie clip to illustrate a sermon point.It's what he love's to do!
(The freedom of text based learning)
With all the preceding excitement over current storytelling methods it is only right to mention the downside of moving away from text based learning to a more visual based learning.It is almost scary how much current communication trends play down the abstract / cerebral text oriented method of learning that has been the mainstay of educational systems time out of mind.It is important to note that the multi-sensory media realm will never be as good as pure text-based communication in some ways.
How many times have you read a book and loved it and then found that the movie that sprang from it was horrid? I know I have often been disappointed. Recent exceptions have been the release of the first "Harry Potter" movie and the first installment of "The Lord of the Rings" both of which were excellent and true to the original text to a great degree.
More often than not, however, we find ourselves disappointed with such efforts (the BBC efforts at the Narnia Chronicles comes to mind). I believe this is because pure textual communication allows our minds to create their own sights, sounds, tastes, and smells. The only limit is our imagination.
It is inevitable that when communicators / producers / theme park designers etc., begin to choose what sights, tastes, smells, etc. we will experience, our imaginations are often focussed in a direction they never would have gone with pure textual communication. It is therefore good and highly recommended to use caution as we as a Church begin to implement more current communication methods that engage our minds through so many senses.
I believe that the more we use these new methods, the more we should re-affirm the value and goodness of reading good books and thereby exercising our minds and expanding our imaginations.Text-based learning still has it's place and is still at times the best learning tool to use in Church teaching and worship.
Tastefully done however, current communication methods will enhance, not thwart teaching and learning in any setting. It takes sensitivity to God's Spirit on a moment by moment basis to find a balanced approach that is neither too rigid nor too loose as we add these new methodologies.
(Highly scripted versus loosely structured)
This is where the rubber meets the road. This is where Churches like Ginghamsburg and Willow Creek have sometimes missed the mark. While they have embraced every conceivable postmodern communication tool with glee, they have failed to understand how to be organized enough to go with the flow of the Holy Spirit during any actual worship or teaching assembly. Yes, I said they are NOT ORGANIZED ENOUGH!!!!
Now anyone who has worshipped with either of these wonderful congregations would stop in amazement at that statement. Perhaps they would say, "But they come across so polished, well-rehearsed, and ORGANIZED in every aspect of every ministry they engage in...how could you say such a thing!?" Allow me to explain.
You see, Churches like that have submitted to the rigors and comfort of scripting a service to death. I am not saying there is no life or love there, I am simply saying that when a meeting becomes so scripted that there is little room to allow for the leading of the Spirit (perhaps dropping / adding songs, skits, visuals etc. on the fly) then they have missed what it takes to truly connect to people. No doubt many people will be amused, entertained and challenged. People will certainly come to the Lord and their love and understanding of God will grow. But does a highly scripted meeting really engage people as good as it could if it were organized enough to go another direction at a moments notice?
I'll never forget attending a seminar at Ginghamsburg in the late 90's. After all the excellent multimedia and film hype, after all the how-to's of running such a dynamic postmodern ministry were done, I ventured to wander up to Pastor Mike and ask him something that had been burning in my mind.
I said something like "Mike, how does your team pull up music or visuals quickly if you decide to change direction? My Church music director often does this if he senses the congregation just isn't with him."
His answer: ...a blank stare at first and then something like "We just don't do that."
He or his team had evidently never sensed that following the Spirit's lead at a moment's notice by actually switching directions in song or visual selection could be that important.
Now please notice I am not saying that such Churches and their media teams don't follow the direction of the Spirit. Not at all! They plan their meetings with much prayer and fasting. Prayer teams are organized to pray while any large meeting is occurring to beseech the Spirit to move among the people. They believe and trust in God's Spirit very much.
My point is that once the script has been established (with much prayer) and people have arrived (more prayer), there is little room for actually changing that script midstream should they notice it just isn't engaging people because of their mood or a current event or whatever reason. I believe this is because we have not yet become organized enough to draw in song-slides, text slides, media clips, or whatever it takes to follow the change in direction needed to follow God's Spirit at any given moment.
It will require much work on our part to be that organized. Databases and computers have the power to do things lighting fast nowadays, no doubt about that. However, organizing the data so that anything pertinent to a subject (be it video, picture, graphic, sound-bite, song, quote, skit, etc.) can be instantly pulled up and / or projected is a daunting task. Making this available to the Church at large is even more intimidating.
As daunting as it may be, this is one of the tasks that Technochicken Database Design has already began and plans to take to the web soon. At first it will only serve her Church, but the dream is to serve the Church at large by sharing the structure in some way that is legal. Pray for Tina as she pecks away at this project!
(One way God has taught me)
What really drives me to continue pursuing all of this is the fact that God has so powerfully touched my life through the arts. The person I call my spiritual father here on earth is Omer Young. He always made sure I had access to current Christian musicians that were hip enough for my picky tastes (If you haven't caught on from what is written above, I can smell phony, sappy music 10 miles away). He continually nudged me to use my musical and web arranging and composition skills. He argued with me to sharpen my understanding of the issues at hand (and because he loves to debate EVERYTHING!). God has used that powerfully and I am very grateful.