by Dr. Chuck Fromm
About twenty years ago, I was invited to a meeting convened by a prominent televangelist whose weekly hour-long program, broadcast on one of the largest religious television networks, had made him a powerful figure in the American church. This man sensed that a sea of change was underway in global media, and that the old power centers of publishing and broadcasting were waning in influence.
The dot-com frenzy was approaching its peak and companies were proposing IPOs with absurdly high valuations and no plan for revenue creation. It seemed as if invitations were being handed out to the party of the century, and by deploying a few of the proper buzzwords one could participate in the thrill of knowledge creation and the “creative destruction” of late capitalist society at the End of History.
After all, we had won the Cold War! The Soviet Union was gone and could no longer be taken seriously as an international rival. Capitalism was the only game in town, and we had invented the Internet, the Network of Networks, which was going to change society, change the world, destroy whole economies and industries and create new ones, as tyrannical governments crumbled and democracies flourished and we all made friends and found new partners on social-media websites.
Like many of us, my televangelist friend found this rhetoric attractive. He proposed to create what he called a “network”, an organization that would accomplish some great social purpose that would not be possible for those acting in isolation. To create this network, he had invited the pastors/leaders of some two dozen churches with prominent media-centered ministries. He asked the leaders present to commit themselves to his network, and offered them a choice of expertly designed media graphics which he would allow them to place on their front lawn to declare their affiliation with the new organization.
The members of the group reacted with enthusiasm, chose their favorite graphic from among those submitted for their consideration, and left the group well pleased in the good day’s work they had done. But all this enthusiasm, all the resources of graphic talent, fundraising, and time spent unfortunately came to nothing. If the group ever met again, I never heard about it; it certainly failed to accomplish any great social goods of the sort that the leader imagined. Did this leader’s network fail? It failed to become a network at all, in any meaningful sense of that word.
Here at Worship Leader, we are, in effect, helping to complete the church’s transformation into a new identity: the “networked church” of the future. However, this is not really anything new. From its origin, the church was often linked to many characteristics which later came to be identified with computer networks in general—the leveling of hierarchies, the distribution of information, the wisdom of crowds. But the church was historically always understood as a prefiguring, an early incarnation and an image that pointed to, the Kingdom of God—or what was also called the of Communion of the Saints. In other words, the kingdom of Heaven was from the beginning seen and conceived of as a kingdom of communication—an eternal world in which God’s Word was perfectly understood by His servants, who were in perfect, harmonious agreement.
The seeming newness of the technology of networking can imply the actual communication and connection it brings is new as well. What is new is the ability to aggregate and curate. Now these particular skills take on spiritual meaning but in fact their role has always been a missional task of the church. The church has been specializing in networks for centuries. In some ways denominations are a manifestation of networking.
The “networked church,” then, is the original social network. It is the goal toward which we work that has been implicit in our efforts from the beginning.