The Gospel According to Electronic Culture: What if the medium really is the message?

Before entering ministry, Shane Hipps had a career in advertising developing multimillion dollar communication plans for brands like Porsche. It was during his time in advertising that Hipps gained expertise in understanding the power of media, technology, and culture. He left his lucrative career abruptly when he saw it as promoting a counterfeit gospel. Today, Shane Hipps serves as the Lead Pastor of Trinity Mennonite Church in Phoenix, Arizona. His new book, The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, The Gospel, And Church (Zondervan, 2006) is the confluence of his two professions.

Whenever we in the church debate new methods of communicating the gospel, or alternative ways of doing church it ends in a predictable turn. There is a point in these conversations when a person, hoping to end the debate once and for all, says "The methods must change as long as the message stays the same." So it would seem as long as we preserve the unchanging message, any method is fair game. This serves as a kind of evangelical rally cry for methodological innovation.

If they are feeling particularly sophisticated, they may go on to explain that, "Our methods, in and of themselves, are neither good nor evil, it is how we use them that determines their value."

Meaning, if we pipe pornography through the Internet it's bad, but if we post the Four Spiritual Laws there the Internet is good. We assume that any medium is simply a neutral conduit for information, like the plumbing in our house. The tubes are of little consequence unless they spring a leak. So as long as we are communicating the unchanging message of the gospel, every technology or method can be good. This tends to be our most nuanced conclusion.

Unfortunately, it fails to account for what our media and methods truly have the capacity to do and undo. And so we encounter them with the proverbial slip on the banana peel. We remain quite oblivious to the ways our message and our minds are being shaped by our methods and media.

The reality is, our methods are in no way "neutral," they have a staggering, yet hidden power to shape us regardless of their content. This is what Marshall McLuhan meant when he observed "The medium is the message." And it stands in direct contradiction to our evangelical rally cry. In other words, our media and methods have an inherent bias and a message of their own that has little or nothing to do with their content.

Consider the medium of the printed word. It is not coincidental that modernity and the "Age of Reason," (i.e. A celebration of linear thinking and rational argument) came about just after the printing revolution. The relentlessly linear, sequential, uniform medium of print inevitably gave rise to the same patterns in our thinking– we become what we behold. Thus modernity celebrated syllogism, systematization, and reason above all else. And the modern church followed suit by unconsciously offering an "unchanging" gospel pressed into a linear, sequential, and reasonable formula:

May 30, 2006

Displaying 1–10 of 16 comments

George

July 02, 2006  10:41pm

To the author: for those of us who are ready to take the red pill, how deep does the rabbit hole go? While I agree that the Internet can create certain emtional tie with people and twist our perception, even to the point of deforming us, it doesn't mean we can't use it to declare the message of the Kingdom?

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Tony Whittaker

June 04, 2006  5:25pm

Some very interesting thoughts - and feedback here! Thanks. I have to declare an interest - I'm committed to persuading people that the web is a valid tool to share the gospel, through InternetEvangelismDay.com and in other ways. Every new medium, from print onwards, through radio, tv, video, has inevitably added its own gloss, strengths, and weaknesses, to the portrayal of the unchanging gospel it was used to present. And of course, society itself was undergoing parallel changes as it was influenced by each of those mediums. One of the strengths of the web, for the gospel, is its interactive nature. Tracts are one way. Radio is one way. The web allows the user to choose where to go, what to read, and the opportunity to interact with real people if they wish. In the context of countries were there are few Christians, and possibly lack of freedom to share the gospel, this is proving strategic and quite unique. Blessings to you Tony

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chris

June 01, 2006  11:31pm

This is a very interesting article. I'm an observer of "emergent" and how the church "does" church. Marva J. Dawn has some interesting things to say on technology in her book Unfettered Hope. If the medium truly is the message and our message can be corrupted by the medium we use - that's scary. Thinking about Jesus being the Word made flesh - God sending His message through a man - that is - God is understood through humanity - perhaps that's really how the message is to be communicated. The message is best understood through each one of us and our relationship to Him - as Peter says we are God's letters to humanity. The best way to communicate the gospel is to live it. Technology is consumerist in it's intent, our stories are not.

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Paul

June 01, 2006  10:34am

My daughter talks to her friends for hours mainly on the computer...friends who are right down the hall in the same dormitory. How well does she really know them? Technology makes everything convenient, but Christianity requires just the opposite. This discussion reminds me of the concern thirty years ago over whether TV ministries were threatening to the church. It turned out to be irrelevant. Similarly, your local pastor may not preach like the guy in the podcast, but what does that have to do with living as a disciple? Real Christianity happens among people living in community. We should take advantage of all forms of technology to advance the gospel, but should be reminded that it is like indiscriminately casting seed over the ground...most of it won't take root. So we use technology without neglecting or substituting real gospel ministry, that is, dealing directly and sacrificially with the messes people make of their lives. Something tells me Nicodemus would not have been convinced if his discussion with Jesus had come via an online chat...

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Greg

May 31, 2006  9:03am

I read Shane's book and found it to be a thorough handling of the subject. For those who haven't studied Marshall Macluhan and others on this subject Shane's book is a great look at some of their work and how newer technologies have changed these ideas and illustrated them even further. Thanks Shane for your work and the challenging thoughts you offer about technologies effects on us all.

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Mark

May 31, 2006  2:44am

By all means use whatever technology is available to teach and evangelize. However I doubt technology can ever enhance worship. Our church board voted to go to a multimedia worship service some years ago. I deeply regret the decision. For a better explanation than I can give, read Marilyn Chandler McEntyre's piece in CT (Jan. '01) "Commodity, Not Community". Very prophetic. If your church is currently relying on multimedia technology for worship, there's a simple test that will help you determine if you are worshipping God or worship itself; remove the technology and see if your congregation can worship with the same level of enthusiasm. It's becoming a crutch my friends. Would you date your wife by cell phone? By video conference?

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Bill

May 30, 2006  8:12pm

This is thoughtful and well-written. When everything is said and done we still need to hear the sweet of Jesus say, "Come unto me. I am the way..." If our objective remains to communicate the message of Christ, using whatever medium is available to us, then people will be given the opportunity to decide to follow Jesus. Perhaps we would learn a great deal if we really knew what Paul meant when he reminded the Galatians that "Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified" before their eyes. Did he have an iconic presentation painted on the side of one of his tents? Did he make some sort of "flip charts" that he leafed through as he preached the gospel? There are so many possibilities. I believe he would have been thrilled about all the technology available today. IMO, he would have been eager to use it all, or not...as long as he could tell the story. That seems to be all that really mattered to him. Perhaps this is the most important thing to keep in mind.

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Rich

May 30, 2006  7:03pm

I see this as a "both and" where Kurt Bruner in his "Divine Drama" eloquently calls for the gospel in proposition AND in story. Also, while media may change how we relate, it does not change our hearts and human condition. People are people, whether in huts or SUVs.

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dt.haase

May 30, 2006  4:28pm

Here is a metaphor well worth considering...The following is taken from an essay written by Wendell Berry entitled, "People, Land, and Community." He is commenting on how the introduction of the tractor into agriculture has been a significant part of its destruction. The idea behind his thinking is true, I believe, within the context of this conversation as well. His point is whether we are thinking about these things or simply taking them as the next great thing that everyone needs, etc...listen in: "The tractor has been so destructive, I think, because it is unlike anything else in the agricultural order, and so it breaks the essential harmony. And with the tractor comes dependence on an energy supply that lies not only off the farm but outside agriculture and outside biological cycles and integrities. With the tractor, both farm and farmer become "resources" of the industrial economy, which always exploits its resources. We would be wrong, of course, to say that anyone who farms with a tractor is a bad farmer. That is not true. What we must say, however, is that once a tractor is introduced into the pattern of a farm, certain necessary retraints and practices, once implicit in technology, must now reside in the character and consciousness of the farmer–at the same time that the economic pressure to cast off restraint and good practice has been greatly increased."

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Tim Dunbar

May 30, 2006  9:50am

Hipps!!! Greetings from a fellow TCU and BYX alum. Thanks for the thought provoking article. I'll have to check out your book.

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