Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Church and Collaboration

Jan reflects on a book she's reading and comes up with a few observations about technology and church life:

For emerging generations collaboration is the norm a la Facebook, Flickr, and Wikipedia. When The Professional Clergyperson is a lone ranger, creating a sermon in solitude, and preaching doctrine from a high pulpit, it feels foreign and fake to many members of the Net Generation.

I have been asked some disconcerting questions by one of my high school friends in church recently:
  • Why do you stand up in that high pulpit and look down on us and tell us what to believe?
  • Why do you wear that robe and collar as if you are the only educated one?
  • Why are you the only one who gets to talk during worship?


Ouch indeed.

The typical answer may sound something like this: you go to a doctor for medical advice, a mechanic for car advice, and a pastor for theological advice. That's the Pastor as Religious Professional answer, and it's one that I and many of my ordained colleagues may give to such a question. Maybe it will be worded a little better or with the caveat that we simply have a special role in the priesthood of all believers.

There's also an assumption about what preaching is and what robes signify. Both are also not beyond such criticism as contained in the questions above. Even those who choose the alb over the Geneva robe need to justify why they robe at all. Why are you special? Why don't you just wear the stuff that the rest of us wear?

In a new age where so much information is available at people's fingertips and people, especially in younger generations, are used to more of an egalitarian approach to giving and receiving that information, the Religious Professional does have some questions to answer.

I do wonder, of course, if educators are or will be called to task on these same grounds. Will, for instance, a physics professor ever be met with questions similar to those above? "Why do you stand at the front of the classroom and tell us what to think about atomic weight? Why do you get to wear your doctoral hood at graduation as if you're the only educated one? Why are you the only one who gets to talk during class?"

These questions in this setting seem a little more absurd. But in the setting of the church, more and more people are asking them. Maybe it's the nature of the subject. Maybe it's from seeing the results of what too much top-down doctrine can do. Maybe it's the experience of too many unanswered questions cut off before they can be asked. Maybe it's simply that the communicating of such a subject needs to be appropriated to a new generation in ways that it will engage. Maybe, just maybe, it's also a new culture arising that thinks it knows better than the "experts" (consider Tom Cruise spouting off about psychology or the ID/evolution debates). I bet it's a little bit of everything.

At any rate, they're worthwhile questions and possibilities for the church to ask and consider. How do we communicate matters of faith in a collaborative age? What is the pastor's role?

I resist the notion that pastors need to be simply phased out. After all, Facebook and Wikipedia have servers, editors, and moderators. It's not a free-for-all on these sites. Someone is still providing a starting point and a structure to the conversation even while encouraging as much collaboration as possible.

Perhaps the appropriate manner in which to frame ourselves has to do with being guides rather than Keepers of the Sacred Lore. Perhaps when we take on the mantle of priest, prophet, or pastor, we should be more about mediating and helping to name God's presence for others and as others describe their experience rather than tell people what they should be experiencing. This is more difficult and perhaps not even appropriate for a prophetic role, but at least in a priestly or pastoral role it makes much more sense. We may help to name something, but we are not the only ones able to speak. We can collaborate with those we serve, even provide a necessary structure, but not dominate the conversation. We are given permission to express doubt even as we are charged with helping others with theirs.

It's not really a novel idea. We can trace this sort of thing back to the Reformation, when Luther published Bibles in German for the people to read on their own. Granted, there's still been plenty of heretic-burning since then, but collaboration has existed in some form since at least that long. And now as it comes into full bloom, the church must ask itself again about its new role.