Do you go to church to consume or participate?

I recently read the fantastic book ‘Cognitive Surplus – creativity and generosity in a Connected Age’ by Clay Shirky. This TED talk that he gave gives a good overview of some of his ideas which are expanded upon in the book.

Shirky writes about the impact of new technological change on society and human behaviour. I’m fascinated by this. I’m also really interested in how cultural change affects the church. The church is not in a vacuum: in the past, it perhaps shaped culture, now, however, it is more likely that the wider culture in which we live shapes the church.

The first thing that Shirky points out is that the 20th century was all about making consumers of all of us. It is what we’ve been trained to do. I know this is true. When I feel a bit down, often my first thought is, ‘where can I get some chocolate’, or ‘what can I buy to cheer myself up?’ We’ve been trained to consume.

Now, however, because of new media and the fact that we can all create really easily and also connect to everyone in the world really easily, people’s behaviour is changing. We are still consumers but we are also able to create and to share. So, for example, 10 years ago, to read a film review you would read a film critic in a newspaper. Now, I can still read a film review in a newspaper but I can also read reviews of lots of other people (both critics and amateurs) and then after seeing a film I can write my own review and share it with the world. My experience of the film has changed from simply consuming it to also commenting on it and sharing that with others.

Shirky writes that for the first time in the last 50 years, young people are now watching less television than their parents. This is because, he argues, the tools are now available to them to exercise their deep seated need to create and share with others. For example, children can create their own animations using free software really easily at home and then post these on a social network for their friends to see – all in one evening. When I was 9 years old, all I could do was watch ‘Rolf’s cartoon club’ and dream of the opportunity of going on the programme and using the expensive animation equipment!

So if we all are made to do more than consume – ie also create and share (which I think is true), how might that affect the way we view church?

The model for a lot of churches for many years (particularly at the evangelical end of the church spectrum) has been to attend church to consume. We go along ready for some ‘input’ usually in the form of a long sermon. Then we go home again. Many of us have become so dependent on this model that ministers and church leaders are tearing their hair out trying to work out how to ‘get more people involved’.

In my professional life I am interested in the impact of technology on education. In a world where there are no longer so many experts (considering my film critic analogy again) we are all creators together – students and teachers. Teachers are having to find ways to engage students in a world where they can teach themselves anything they like by watching a few videos on YouTube! The old ‘chalk and talk’ model (implying ‘teacher knows best’) is dying and something altogether new is emerging.

I think this is reflected in the church in what we have seen in the emerging church and Fresh Expressions movements. Everyone is experimenting with what this new world is now offering us.

Fascinatingly, many of these newer expressions of church are actually returning to the ancient forms of church – particularly monasticism. This is because in the 20th century we were all anaesthetised (as Shirky describes it) by television and consumerism. We have almost forgotten what it means to be community. Now, with the power of the internet, we are rediscovering that need for community and connecting with each other on a scale never before known.

Clay Shirky recounts a tale from his musician father of how he hated playing to groups of ‘looky-loos’ – people who attended concerts and then simply watched them as if they were watching them on TV. Musicians would much rather be with a crowd who joins in, provides feedback and helps to create the musical event. One band who does this brilliantly are Hope & Social:

Another example of participatory gig going was a group of Radiohead fans in Prague who made their own fan film of a concert they attended.

Church leaders have been putting up with congregations who attend merely to consume for a long time now. What I’m excited about, however, is the next generation who have known nothing other than a media rich landscape in which their voice can be heard and in which they expect to be able to participate. I wonder: will this mean we need to change the way our services work?

  • How can we participate together in worship?
  • How can our services be better and different because we are all there together than they would be if we were just watching them on TV?
  • How do we stop people being ‘looky-loos’?

I’ve already mentioned that new expressions of church are often rediscoveries of the old expressions of the church. I feel that if one looks at the traditional Eucharist service, that it is designed to be participatory, the call and response is there and of course communion itself is an act of sharing. The idea that the traditional elements of the church such as liturgy aren’t relevant today couldn’t be further from the truth. Maybe we will see a resurgence of interest in older forms of worship?

  • What does this mean for us?
  • How do you view going to church – do you see it as a place to go to consume or to participate?
  • What are you used to?
  • How do you feel about your answers to these questions?


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