The Church in an Emerging Digital Culture
M. Rex Miller (goes by Rex) had a successful 25-year career in sales and executive management. A self-described futurist and the creator of the SWARM (Smart Work and Referral Marketing) Network, a business development approach based on the strategies of tightly aligned corporate coalitions, he consults for business and nonprofit organizations and is on the board of Lamar Boschman Ministries. Rex graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in theology and communications. Since college he has remained active in church leadership.
He’s not just a business geek. He’s a tennis teaching pro and a member of the United States Professional Tennis Association. Rex has been a youth leader, tennis coach, Boy Scout master and lay pastor. His interests include camping, tennis, music, photography and researching future trends. His lifelong focus has been on mentoring relationships while his professional focus has been on developing healthy organizational cultures.
Rex Miller is married and the father of three children. They make their home in Dallas, Texas. The Millennium Matrix, published in July 2004, by Jossey-Bass, is his first book.
HOMILETICS: So how did a furniture guy like you get interested in church history and cultural paradigms?
MILLER: My major is theology and communications, and what I discovered is that communications have a strong tie to change and culture.
When I was in college I saw how Gutenberg’s printing press was a major revolution in Western culture and helped birth the Reformation and Renaissance, changing governments, paradigms. And when I was in college we were going through another major revolution, and that was that the generation that was raised on television was coming of age in the ‘60s and ’70s. Things were changing again. Broadcast was a major force. So I started to look at how that force was changing things, especially the church. I was coming out of a very traditional church environment and encountering things like dispensational churches, evangelical churches. They had all been around, but they were new to me. And when I came down to Texas, I came down to help a church get started in lay ministry. I just happened to get a job at Southwestern Bell in the real estate group in facilities. At the time they were going through divestiture, and they were changing their technology from analog switching to digital switching. So they were going through a major paradigm shift as well.
As I got more interested in the furniture side, I found that what was actually taking place was that companies were going through a major transition in structure, culture, and that was all being expressed in the way they were designing space and handling the way the work flows through space. So it became an interesting lab to see the ideas I had seen in college work themselves out in the business environment.
HOMILETICS: Do you feel that you’re an outsider peering through the window at the church, or that you’re positioned within the church context and thus able to critique it?
MILLER: A little bit of both. My degree is in theology. The reason why I didn’t go into full- time ministry is that I found that the people who were going into ministry had a subculture that really wasn’t connected to the outer culture. And I was more interested in finding practical bridges between the two, because I found a lot more truth in the business world, and a lot more of the principles of change being expressed in the business world than in the church world. So I could almost go from one world to the other with the values I had as a believer and still be able to distill the essential elements of change and truth in the business world and then import them back into the church in practical ways.
HOMILETICS: So are we looking at a church in crisis?
MILLER: Major crisis. The decline of some segments of the church is well documented. Now even the Willow Creeks, Saddlebacks and other event-driven churches are starting to feel the stress fractures of their model.
HOMILETICS: Assuming that is the case, what are the problems facing even a church ‘that looks successful from the outside?’
MILLER: You will find that these churches have an essential core of individuals and a sense of community at the start, but as they grow and get to a certain size, the tail begins to wag the dog. They have budgets to handle. They start get-ting outside talent in.
So the DNA mix is different. Instead of the initial cultural core, they get these talented spiritual professionals to come in. They become a business. There is no real sense of community. They have great programs to offer. It’s a spiritual mall. So like anything else, you don’t have a real attachment to a mall. It’s a convenient place to go, there may be some stores you like, but there’s really no sense of connection there.
The church has created the same kind of venue, a huge spiritual mall, where your needs can be taken care of, but you don’t have any other interface, or any other real substantial connection besides the brief time you’re there that Sunday, and then you go through the week without having much contact with those people, if any at all.
HOMILETICS: Your book, which has just been published, is called The Millennium Matrix. You don’t look like Keanu Reeves at all. What is The Millennium Matrix?
MILLER: Well, actually I had used the word prior to The Matrix coming out —
HOMILETICS: Yeah, right.
MILLER: I wish I could say that there’s something mystical about it, but it’s essentially a historical matrix that looks at four periods of history in terms of the dominant means of communication.
HOMILETICS: And they are?
MILLER: The Oral culture, Print culture, Broadcast (driven by television), and now the emerging dominant medium of interactive Digital communication. Within those four periods I develop categories and show how the categories have shifted.
HOMILETICS: So let’s look at two categories: the church and the preacher. Describe these as they existed in the Oral culture.
MILLER: The church then was a tightly knit community of faith and the leadership held a symbolic role. The leaders were not necessarily people you went to because of their accreditation or their skill set, but it was the role that they played. The leader was called, “Father.” It was a symbolic hierarchy where you had access to heaven and spiritual benefits through the relational connection with this symbolic role.
HOMILETICS: Very liturgical in worship forms.
MILLER: Very liturgical, in fact the ceremony is a spiritual re-enactment. If you go to indigenous cultures that would be considered primarily oral cultures you would see the same phenomenon, where they are re-enacting a historical event that has a transcendent value or transcendent nature to it, and they’re transitioning historical time to liturgical time or ritual time, and they’re recreating the moment again and going through the re-enactment as though it were happening here and now. So it’s not a linear history, it’s a liturgical or ritualistic kind of history.
HOMILETICS: Then Gutenberg published the Bible and we see a shift to a “written culture” which lasts, in your view, until around 1950. Describe the church and its leadership during this period.
MILLER: The biggest shift is that the content of the word is separated from the messenger. In an oral culture the message and the messenger were one and the same, and the credibility of the message was tied up with the credibility of the messenger.
Now you separate the message from the messenger for the first time and the message gets evaluated on its own merits — the structure, the reasoning, the linear progression of thought — you have a completely different way of taking the word. The word goes from being flesh to being abstract. And so it’s a different way of processing it, and you can take that word — separated from the messenger — and you evaluate it on your own.
So you’ve separated your connection so that you’re now self-contained. You take in that message and the church now changes from a re-enactment of the gospel story to a retelling of the gospel story, and the architecture changes from being part of the story itself to being a “container” that facilitates the preaching of the word. The pulpit becomes the center, not the altar, so the pulpit or the word is the holy place and the word itself is pre-eminent not only in the message, but in the content of the music, so it shifts very much to a content-driven environment.
HOMILETICS: Then, from the print culture we move to a broadcast era.
MILLER: The pastor in the print era was an expert on the word. His credentials and his ability to dissect, analyze and communicate the word in a logical form was the primary skill.
When broadcast comes, we experience the world differently. When we watch television we don’t need any training or background to absorb the message. The nature of the message comes to us in a way that is not easily processed through the logical side of the brain. Because of the speed of the information and the amount of the content coming, the images are processed more on the right side of the brain. So it’s a different way of absorbing content.
So you’ve got a generation now raised looking at the world as though you were there, but you are still separated from it. The experience of watching television is a visceral experience. It’s gut level. It’s not linearly processed. The way television works is that it uses special effects to keep your attention because it’s a very dull medium by itself. So you’re being continually stimulated, but not with content. You’re being stimulated by volume, and so forth.
So you’re putting this together almost like a cubist piece of art. I never understood cubism until I understood television. Cubism is meant to be a visceral encounter. It’s not a logical process. You’re putting the meaning together in your own context. So like the end of the movie Being There, “life becomes a state of mind.” In television there’s no continuity from show to show to show, commercial to commercial, to commercial. Things are edited into little vignettes that are bite-sized. So you’ve got this kaleidoscope that you’re looking at where there is no black and white. You’ve got contradictory things.
You watch the news, for example, you will see an image of unspeakable tragedy and then within 15 seconds the chirpy newsperson moves on to a story about a puppy. There’s no sense to it at all. There’s no way you can create meaning out of it. So now experience is the driving factor. You gravitate to what feels good.
You have the music, “If you’re not with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” If it feels good, do it. The ethic that you’re the judge. And you’re the person who validates what you’re experiencing. And your experience is maybe different from mine, and you’re the only one who can tell whether it works for you or not.
So that’s the new ethos. It’s completely subjective. It’s an emotional response. What happens to a generation that was raised in a very rigid, black-and-white, “color within the lines” environment is that you’ve now awakened the right brain side that was suppressed for so long, and it exploded in the ’60s.
HOMILETICS: So what kind of church emerges in this new cultural ethos?
MILLER: Well, the kind of church that emerges is the kind of church that uses the medium and the strength of the medium to its advantage.
If you look at the architecture of the churches that are growing in this broadcast era, they are theaters, like TV sets. If you look at the leadership, these are personalities that are very dynamic and connect with the audience. If you look at the pace of the service, you’ll find it’s very fast-paced — a vignette format. There’s not necessarily high continuity that puts them together. Look at the way they start. It’s almost like The Tonight Show, where the audience is warmed up and then the announcer says “Now here’s the pastor!” And the churches that are growing know how to use this. This is not to judge the validity of what they are using; it’s just to show how they use the media to attract the people who have been raised in the media.
HOMILETICS: You call this kind of church a “celebration” church. What do you mean?
MILLER: It’s in contrast to the reformation and liturgical church because of the atmosphere. When I grew up in a local Presbyterian church, it was a formal experience, like going to a civic meeting. You went there to do business. For a kid, it was boring. And you got through it, and that is just the way it was. It was part of your civic duty.
When you go to a celebration service, it’s an event, like going to a Mavs games or to a baseball game. Something’s going to happen. You don’t know what. It’s going to be exciting, fun, something that connects. You’re going to get some value. There’s anticipation. There’s music that’s typically up-tempo.
HOMILETICS: What’s the preaching like in an event-driven, celebration church?
MILLER: Anecdotal, storytelling, personal references. Very practical. How-to. Easy take-aways. What this means to you. Kind of a sales message.
In sales, you’re trained to lead people in the benefits. Make sure they know not only the features of it — which is doctrine — but the benefits, often clichéd. The attention span is a factor. You’ve got 20 minutes maybe with these people, so you pack it in, distill it down, brand it, give it an easy take-away so that they can go home.
HOMILETICS: But now this is changing because of the emerging digital technology.
MILLER: First, the venue is very different. It’s interactive. It’s not a celebrity or some person you’re attracted to, or that you’re going to sit through a very polished, pre-packaged presentation. It’s raw, it’s interactive, it’s peer-based, it’s like going to an improv theater where there may be a certain context that is set but the direction and where it goes once the context is set has a lot to do with the particular audience that is there; you build up what the audience brings, instead of being the one driving the bus.
The skill set completely different, and the scale and size have to be smaller to be interactive, so if you make the music analogy, the Protestant and Reformation churches were like an orchestra, the celebration churches were like a band — a combo or rock band. Now we’re moving more into like a jazz motif where the interaction between the musicians is the real power and dynamic. It’s not the content. It’s what they create on the spot, and the other nice thing is that you don’t have to separate the ages — the youth here, the seniors there, the kids there, singles here. The broadcast era is all about pitching the message and content to certain demographics. In the digital era, you can have the kids there, the grandparents there because they’re all creating the experience together; it’s a collaborative experience.
HOMILETICS: You refer to the digital era as existing in “future perfect time.” What do you mean?
MILLER: There’s a Greek verb tense that talks about a future reality as though it were happening today. So instead of having a reference point in the past where you set a marker there and everything builds forward, as in the broadcast era where you’re always pushing “what’s next.” It’s the novelty, novelty, novelty. By the time you’ve experienced “Now,” it’s already forgotten and you’re pushing for the next best thing.
In the digital environment you have this capability of simulation. It’s almost like a rebuilt oral experience where you’re simulating the possibilities of the future today, and based on that you’re able to bring that into reality. So it’s very much like a simulator type of environment. The reference point is computer simulators or an airplane simulators. Pilots in training are able to simulate future possible experiences.
HOMILETICS: You call this new church the “convergent church.”
MILLER: Digital medium is the first medium that combines text, graphics, sound and data on one platform using a common language, X’s and 0’s. The metaphor is that if all of the things that we’ve perceived as being boiled down to the same common language, then the boundaries — our thought boundaries, practical boundaries — will dissolve and we’ll start to see convergences of disciplines and organizations and structures that used to be kept separate, because now we are experiencing things in a much more integrated format — multisensory, multimedia, and you’re already seeing the sciences begin to converge in ways — like nanotechnology, genetic engineering where disciplines that used to be separate are now coming together, because they’re sharing the same bits and bytes.
You’ve seen the financial industries converging — insurance, brokerage banking — all these industries that used to be separated, now they’re sharing the same information and format, so there is no reason to be separated. We saw the implosion of Enron, which was kind of an early version of blurring all the old boundaries — an energy company, a commodities firm, futures trading, a call center — they had all these capabilities because digital technology is allowing the boundaries to blur, to begin to converge, and you’re seeing that in churches —
HOMILETICS: In what way?
MILLER: You start seeing churches begin to network resources together. So they start in very practical ways. But as people start networking and interacting with each other they will find that their differences are fewer and their reasons for networking and meeting together are stronger, so the conceptual boundaries that separated them — the competitive or theological boundaries — will be less important because they are reformatting a new community of common interests, just like you find on the Web. You see these communities that cross all kinds of boundaries because people have common interests, whether it’s ecology, or a certain disease — like leukemia, for example, which bring people of different backgrounds together in a common interest.
HOMILETICS: What happens to theology and doctrine as the church moves through these different modalities? The typical churchgoer knows little about his or her particular confession. Sin is absent from the moral vocabulary, some say. What’s your take on where theology has gone or is going in the new digital age?
MILLER: I agree that on a practical level, street level, theology is not something people are spending a lot of time trying to work through. Outside of some core theological emphases, you’re going to find more emphasis on building communities — again recapturing communities of faith on a local level, on a neighborhood street-by-street level because that’s what people’s needs are. They don’t care about the distinctions between postmodernism and modernism. They don’t care about the differences between sacramental faith vs. reformation faith; those are really not the relevant issues they’re concerned about. And when you get down to what the basics of faith are outside of confessing that Jesus is Lord and loving your neighbor — outside of those basic elements, what we’ve built is this huge construct that’s created more separation in the church than Jesus’ admonition that the world see us as one, and when that happens they will see him. That’s more important than all the theological differences that we’ve got. The world can’t see Jesus because we’re so fragmented and we spend so much of our time dealing with nonessentials that we’re not a proper reflection of what his intention was before he left.
HOMILETICS: So do we redefine our mission, then, as we move from print to broadcast to digital?
MILLER: I fall back on Wendell Berry: “If you’re taking care of the little things, the big things get taken care of.” The Great Commission is too big for me to even comprehend when I can hardly handle the small stuff.
HOMILETICS: Well, let’s talk about making disciples. Was the church making disciples in the oral age, print age, broadcast age and will we be doing it in the digital age? How does that happen? How will the digital age help us to fulfill what is basic to the church’s mandate?
MILLER: In the oral culture, you have the strength of the master/disciple or apprentice relationship. The goal was that the apprentice would become a reflection of the master. So that if you look at art masters, or apprentices — and I learned this from a brick mason, who was a master mason — years ago when the Anatole Hotel was built when we were driving, he said he could tell who the master mason was on that because of the way the brick was laid.
The purpose in rabbinical Judaism when you were a rabbi — your whole purpose as a disciple was to do things out in public so that if anyone were to see your work they would seethe hands of the rabbi. It would have his signature on it.
The greater parallel is that it is God’s signature throughout. So there was this understanding that there’s a connection, a spiritual authority, that you reflect the one who “masters” you. Paul says “Be imitators of me as I am of Christ.” In Philippians he talks about humbling ourselves, “Have this same mind in you that was in Christ.” So oral culture had this way of relating to passing down the faith. You look at Elijah and Elisha, “Give me a double portion.” So there was this spiritual inheritance of identity not just content, skill and capability, but of spirit as well.
In the print culture, we gained this strength of being able to disseminate the truth, the content of the truth to a broader audience, but now the relationship dynamic changes. Now you have a teacher and a student. You don’t have a master/apprentice relationship. You cover more, you can take in the thoughts of the greatest minds in the world and in some ways you have a greater capacity, greater understanding. It’s a change, a tradeoff.
In broadcast, you’re exchanging content for experience. You’re not mentoring; you’re not adding content, but laying the foundation for experience.
HOMILETICS: So we had a master, then a teacher and now a buddy?
MILLER: No, you have your gurus. You’ve got your management gurus, Tom Peters, Michael Hammer. In the spiritual realm you’ve got John Maxwell, Chuck Swindoll, and the television gurus and they have a particular kind of style. Rick Warren, the purpose-driven church. You’re a purpose-driven person now. You go through the 40-day course. You’ve been branded and stamped. If you’re a new-age self-helper, you’ve got Tony Robbins. There’s the Prayer of Jabez, probably the epitome of the broadcast era. A four-line obscure prayer that becomes the foundation for how people live their lives.
HOMILETICS: And in the digital culture?
MILLER: It will be very interesting. The digital culture will again form these highly aligned communities of interest, and they will be communities of dialogue. For example, in the church where we’ve got the emergent network, they’re basically a postmodern group, dealing with postmodernism and its implication. And it’s becoming its own little community and developing its own little following.
There are a couple of “fathers” who are fathering this movement along. In business you’ve got D. Hoak, the former president and founder of Visa. He’s got this caordic community, and it’s a churning community of lots of eclectic businesses, and intellectuals, looking at this methodology or way of forming organizations. It’s non-traditional. You’ve got a church movement growing up in Starbucks all over the country now. So the digital culture is far more eclectic; it’s far more encompassing, much more grass roots interaction as opposed to someone from the top bringing it down and disseminating it out, and we buy it prepackaged, and learn those four steps and go with it.
HOMILETICS: What is an impartational leader?
MILLER: An impartiational leader is like a coach, like John Wooden, the great basketball coach of UCLA. If you listen to interviews of his players, these players talk about the impact he had on their lives, the character, the qualities, the principles that he passed along. It wasn’t just the content; it was the character, the values, the principles that somehow through the medium of basketball got translated in these people’s lives that helped them become successful fathers, businessmen or whatever it was. Like Ron Anderson, President and CEO of Parkway Hospital; Max DePree; Herman Miller. The people who take the time to get involved in somebody else’s life, where it becomes a reciprocal give and take process. But time is the element. Time is the greatest part of this.
HOMILETICS: What is the Wal-Mart effect?
MILLER: Do you have a Wal-Mart nearby? [laughter] Wal-Mart is this tremendously efficient model that comes into a community and becomes the dominant retailer in that community because of size, scale and cost. With little understanding or feeling for the local fabric of the community the businesses that get displaced, Wal-Mart is more of a metaphor.
Churches now take on this “end justified the means approach, so instead of being embedded in their community for better or for worse, they stay as long as it serves their purpose. When they outgrow their facility or whatever, like a sports franchise, they will pick up and move 20 miles down the road to land that’s more affordable. It doesn’t matter who in their church can’t get there any more. It doesn’t matter what they leave behind as an open building, or all the relationships that were in that community. Because their end is “The more people we can pull in, the more we’re fulfilling God’s purpose.”
And again, it’s a “tail wags the dog.” “The means justifies the ends.” It’s a trap that broadcast thinking and paradigm continue to create. Bigger, better, efficient, scratch every itch we can scratch. Spiritual consumerism.