The Church and Electronic Culture

by Peter Horsfield

Dr. Peter Horsfield is an ordained minister in the Uniting Church in Australia. He is currently employed on the Electronic Culture Research Project, a special initiative of the Uniting Church’s Commission in Victoria to explore the impact of electronic media on global cultures and the implications of this cultural change on religious institutions and on the social experience and expression of religious faith. For ten years previously he was the Dean of the Uniting Church’s Theological Hall and Lecturer in Practical Theology in the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne. He has published extensively in the areas of mass communication and society and media, religion and culture. Among his publications are two books: Religious Television: The American Experience (Longmans 1984) and Taming the Television: A Parents’ Guide to Children and Television (Albatross 1986).

This appeared originally in Research, 1991, monograph on the genesis and ethos of public service campaigns; principles and case studies. In yet different form appeared as “Selling Consent,” Communication and Citizenship. Eds. P. Dahlgren and C. Sparks. London: Routledge, 1991. The sociological and public policy implications of establishment information compliance campaigns.


In the late 20th Century, churches face a situation unprecedented since the Church’s formation (comparable in magnitude to the era of the Christian apologists and the Reformation), in which most churches’ thought and practice – and by implication God’s revelation – are framed within and associated with communication and modes of thought of a past stage of cultural development. The author suggests implications for the church.


1. Background Perspectives

1. One of the most influential factors in cultural understanding and organisation is the communication patterns within that culture. The technological, social and power characteristics of the dominant media of communication in a society will have a strong influence on how the society organises, interacts & thinks about itself.

2. Different media of communication have different social and ideological characteristics and consequences. Major changes in means of communication within a society will have profound changes in how that society perceives and organises itself, and in its meaning and value systems.

3. Communication underlies and shapes the recognition and exercise of power within a society. Access to information and the means to communicate define who has power and who doesn’t and determine one’s "place" in social power structures.

4. The various media of social communication therefore are competitive (in the long term). Those means of communication which are competitive co-exist through a process of reordering and by carving out a competitive place and function within a social or economic market. Uncompetitive means of communication tend to atrophy.

2. Major Theses

1. We are currently in the midst of a major paradigm shift in world societies from primarily literate-based communication and social organisation to electronic-based communication. This shift is leading to major changes in cultural perception, thought and social organisation.

2. For the first time since the beginning of the Christian era, a communications system other than writing is the most powerful medium of non face-to-face communication. In this emergent electronic era, the most advanced and powerful communication now takes place through media which the church as the interpreter of the revelation of God has not mastered.

3. In this late 20th Century, churches face a situation unprecedented since the Church’s formation (comparable in magnitude to the era of the Christian apologists and the Reformation), in which most churches’ thought and practice - and by implication God’s revelation - are framed within and associated with communication and modes of thought of a past stage of cultural development.

The church throughout the history of its mission has frequently worked in oral cultures. But there the assumption of everyone - missionary and indigenous persons alike - was that the culture of literacy, the culture and communications system that the church had mastered and in which it held power, was superior._ Likewise, the church’s membership has often included a high level of illiterate people. But the leadership of the church for the past 1,500 years has generally been literate. The power of leadership has to large extent resided - reinforced by overt and covert reminders and strategies - in their perceived expertise in what has been seen as a superior culture, ie. the culture of books and book-based learning.

In our electronic age, however, the most advanced and powerful communications now takes place in media which the church as the interpreter of the revelation of God has not mastered. The challenge brought by these new media to the churches’ previous social and intellectual power is apparent. For that reason, the response of most Christian churches has consistently been one of active or passive resistance to electronic media, a position generally supported by most of the churches’ leaders and teachers (whose power is held by virtue of their expertise in the old literate. culture).

A change in the dominant media of mass communication in the culture creates a radically new situation for communication in general and, in particular, for the transmission and interpretation of the Bible and of God’s revelation. We now live in the period of greatest media change since the development and adaptation of writing. The development of global electronic media has transformed the communications systems of the world. But the world of biblical scholarship, theology and church practice is largely acting as if no change has taken place - our understanding and explanation of the meaning of revelation and the Bible is largely fixed in the old paradigm, putting most churches as institutions out of step and out of touch with the experience and culture of emerging generations.

In this posture of resistance the major Protestant churches which have been the most dominantly literate in their thought and practice and placed great emphasis on literate education(which includes the Uniting Church), are declining in numbers. They are facing a serious decline in finances (the economic displacement brought by changing media) and their membership is taking on the definite demographics of the specific sub-culture of older literacy, ie. older, educated, and middle class people.

Given that electronic culture produces in people quite different ways of perceiving reality and truth, Tom Boomershine, Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Ohio, suggests that what we need to do is undertake a radical re-examination of the "media system/culture" by which we understand and interpret revelation, in order to be able to transfer (communicate) the reality of that revelation into this radically different media/communication culture.

3. Major Eras in Cultural Communication

Thomas Kuhn’s work on paradigm shifts in the history of science presents the idea that changes or increases in our understanding not only fill out gaps in previous knowledge, but at times bring about a reorganisation of the structure of the theories or paradigms by which previous ideas were organised and understood. Such a shift occurs when it becomes apparent that the old paradigm is no longer adequate to solve problems raised or new information or experience no longer fits the old paradigms.

The result is a stage of transition, with apparent contradictions or anomalies in what had been formerly accepted and recognised, tensions in the dominant paradigm, and an increase in new theories and types of research with new achievements being produced within the new.

In this state of transition, various candidates for a new paradigm arise and are tested. Frequently several camps emerge, committed to preserving the old or developing the new, until the new paradigm emerges. When a new paradigm emerges, the old is not simply done away with, but rather is taken up in a new way.

This framework is helpful for an analysis of changes in human societies based on changes in the major communication system. Several scholars have suggested a number of major stages in psycho-cultural evolution based on shifts in communication:

(i) primary oral culture

(ii) manuscript culture, emerging during the early Hellenistic period

(iii) print culture, emerging in the West at the time of the Renaissance and Reformation

(iv) silent print culture, emerging around the time of the Enlightenment

(v) secondary oral or electronic culture

There are a number of theories on why the form of communication shapes the nature of society. Some see the key in terms of the nature of the relationship established by the form of communication, others in terms of the dominant characteristics of the technology. For Walter Ong, a Jesuit theorist, of paramount importance in understanding the difference between oral and literate cultures are knowledge storage and retrieval devices. Primary oral cultures rely on the living human memory to store knowledge in formulary expressions. Literate cultures rely on knowledge stored in writing and later in printed books. When more knowledge was stored in books than ever before, the human mind was freed for other tasks & thinking was freed to be more abstract and specialised. I think all of those factors are relevant.

Characteristics of oral cultures

Pre-literate people are totally dependent for what they know for survival and meaning on what can be stored and retrieved from actual living human memory. Oral communication is also totally dependent on personal presence, which brings all of the senses into the communication. These factors create particular dynamics of thinking, being and social interaction, so that there are a number of characteristics of dominantly oral cultures:

* People tend to live in an all-at-once sense world using all senses.

* Sound is a dominant sense. Sound is seen as action and having power in itself.

* The physiology of sound produces an interiority of consciousness - sight externalises and individualises, sound incorporates.

* There are common verbal devices used for structuring memory, such as: thinking memorable thoughts; use of mnemonic, heavily rhythmic and balanced patterns; use of frequent repetitions or antitheses, alliterations and assonances; use of epithetic, formulaic, proverbial sayings; use of standard thematic settings

* Oral cultures tend to be conservative and traditionalist. Knowledge not repeated disappears, therefore communication is frequently redundant, back-looping, backward looking. Print allows mechanical retention - print cultures therefore are able to be more forward-looking

* Oral cultures tend to be close to the human life-world, (writing is able to be more abstracted); agonistic or narrative in nature or related to struggle (writing is able to disengage knowledge from the arena where the struggle is taking place); and empathetic & participatory (rather than objectively distanced).

* Oral cultures tend to be relationship oriented.

These characteristics can still be seen in cultures which still retain a strong oral character, such as some Pacific, Asian and African nations.

The Manuscript and Print Eras

In the development of human thought and perception, the shift from primary orality to vowelised literacy involves the movement from an implicit sense of things in concrete operational thinking to explicit concepts articulated through abstract thinking.

Alphabet communication tends to produce lineal cultures: segmented, linear and sequential. Through conditioning from the form of communication, literate people tend to be alphabet oriented and follow a linear pattern of thought, deduction & argument. The literate form of government is bureaucracy.

Some of the major psychodynamics of writing/print are:

* Writing establishes what has been called ‘context-free’ language. Written discourse is detached from the person of its author so that the author cannot be questioned or challenged.

* Writing establishes as outside the mind what in reality can be only in the mind.

* Writing objectifies & distances ideas. It lacks the full dimensions of the spoken word: tone, intonation, interaction and personal presence.

* Writing creates the audience. As there is no present person, writing assumes a presence - I receive a written text as a constructed person or a member of a constructed audience.

* Literate cultures tend to promote dominance of the sense of sight over the sense of sound, leading to a possible physiological externalisation of sense/truth.

* Because the mind does not need continually to be focussing on the past in order to preserve memory, literate cultures are freed to be forward-looking rather than backward-looking, and sequential in thought rather than redundant or back-looping.

* The multiplication of thought and ideas in literate cultures enables them to go into greater detail and discrimination, creating segmentalisation of thought rather than an holistic picture.

Boomershine identifies a further development during the late 17th and 18th centuries in Europe and 19th and 20th centuries in America, a time of rapid technological advances in the production and distribution of written texts. During this time silent and individualised reading, rather than reading aloud or in gathered groups, became the normal mode for reception of written texts.(2) Boomershine sees historical criticism as the biblical method of this era, where the truth of the text is achieved by personal study of the text in silence on your own. Increasingly, he suggests as a biblical scholar, historical criticism is having diminishing value for eliciting lived truth from biblical texts.

Boomershine also suggests that the abstracted ideas of theology and doctrine were the means by which the early church adapted their largely oral, lived faith to the abstracted world of Greco-Roman manuscript culture. He asks whether, as we move into a new culture that is strongly oral in character, whether theology and doctrine are necessarily the best way of ensuring integrity and continuity of our faith tradition.


4. Electronic or Audio-visual Culture

Key electronic technologies

There are many new technologies which have made possible the cultural revolution that is now taking place in almost every part of life globally. Some of the key underlying technologies, as I see them, are the following.


One of the major factors has been the increased capability of computers to process vast volumes of data. Computerised storing, condensing, selecting, integrating and re-presenting reality-data are making possible interconnections, applications, reorganisation and re-presentations of reality-data that is mind-blowing. The declining cost and increased availability of computer technology means that this technology is being extended into most areas of human living, literally reshaping human perception of reality.

The Enlightenment posited nature apprehended empirically as the basic reality. Electronic re-processing of reality, and the creation of virtual reality presents us not only with instrumental questions of how we use computers and keep up, but also with questions about what is reality and what reality do we address theologically.

Fibre optics.

Fibre optics have been decribed as "the biggest breakthrough in tele-communications since the invention of the telephone." Basically, in optical fibre technology, fibres comprised of tiny crystals the size of a grain of salt are used to produce light which carries information along the fibres. At the other end a receiver reverses the process and turns each light pulse into an electrical signal and reconstructs the information.

The greatest significance of fibre optics lies in its carrying capacity. One fibre, the thickness of a human hair, can carry 2,000 phone conversations, data, text or pictures at the same time. The difference: in 1956 there were 50 telephone circuits available on the first Trans Atlantic Telephone cable laid across the Atlantic. In 1989 an optical cable called TAT-8 began carrying up to 40,000 digital telephone calls under the Atlantic Ocean. The ease and rapidity of communication has expanded our points of reference away from the local to the global.

Digital Communication

Digital communication works by discerning and converting all information into discreet sequences of on-off pulses, corresponding with the 0 and 1 binary code used by computers.

The significance of digital communication is that it has created a common language for communication of all information. Previously different media used different technology, processes, machines and information languages. The development of digital communication has made possible the integration of all forms of communication and information within the same electronic language. The development of advanced computer technology makes possible the analysis and conversion of all information in this language very, very quickly.(3)

This has enabled the development of a range of new technologies, storage, integration and analysis of data, and multiple applications.

ISDN - International Switching Digital Network

Work is progressing on the development of a single, unified international communication grid to transmit all audio, text, video and computer data, both nationally and internationally. Integrating fibre optics, satellites, and other technologies, there is being created an actual global village which will tie together business, homes, entertainment and computers.

ISDN allows continuous data and voice transfer in all directions at the highest possible speed using digital technology. This will include and enable such things as telephone, videophone, telex, fax, slow-scan television, local area networks, video-conferences, data terminals and exchange of data banks, personal computers and telephone exchanges all on the same network. Transmitting 64,000 bits of information per second, a page of text can be transmitted in just one second on an ISDN Fax line. Data can even be stored until the receiver is ready to receive it.

This will allow integration of data into one cross-related data bank and give high-speed access to all sorts of information for those who have the equipment and the money to use it. The Internet is just one example of this, a computer network allowing next-to-instant access and communication with people, groups and data libraries next door or on the other side of the world.


The shift to electronic culture

The impact of the technologies and institutions of electronic culture need to be understood in relation to their intertwinement with two other major modern movements, each of which is dependent on the other. One is the vast expanse of technological/scientific development, spurred by the Enlightenment ideology of progress and conquest, which has provided almost unlimited (albeit particular) insights into how things work and amazing machinery for controlling, changing and creating physical processes and products.

The second is consumer capitalism, the intricate socio-economic system that taps the human drives of individual gain and greed, rewarding incentive and encouraging participation in the system by the prospect of increased consumption of pleasurable goods or services and access to otherwise restricted activities.

In many ways the development of each of these would not have been possible without the infrastructure and support of the other. Together they have brought about a profound shift in the nature of thought, the directions and balance of the different spheres of human society, and the interrelatedness of human institutions.

The suggestion is that in our current era we are in the middle of a profound paradigm shift, brought about by the emergence and now dominance of electronic forms of social communication and their supporting ideological and economic structures. It is necessary to remember that such a paradigm shift does not occur overnight - paradigm shifts generally occur over a long period of time, with pockets of thought frequently unaffected by the new for a long period, and often with movement taking place back and forth between paradigms until the new paradigm becomes "settled" and existing social systems are reintegrated.

It is important also to remember that a shift into a new social paradigm does not simply dispense with the old. The old is brought into or taken up into the new, but in a new way or with new meaning. The growth of electronics has not done away with printing or print-based cultures or sub-cultures, for example. In fact most electronics are dependent on print and in many cases some forms of reading have increased. What has happened, however, is that how print is used and seen is being transformed. How and what texts are produced, what people read, and what people look for in reading is changed. These changes also change the structures of power in our society, so that, for example, literate people who know how to access electronic information will have increased power over literate people who don’t.

Walter Ong proposes that electronic culture has characteristics more resemblant of oral cultures than literate cultures. According to Ong, electronic culture is essentially literate but involving a new sensory mix that accentuate sound and pictures. This he calls a "secondary orality". The nature of that blend of both primary orality and literacy is still emerging.

"This new orality has striking resemblances to the old in its participatory mystique, its fostering of a communal sense, its concentration on the present moment, and even in its use of formulas .... Like primary orality, secondary orality has generated a strong group sense, for listening to spoken words forms hearers into a group, a true audience, just as reading written or printed texts turns individuals in on themselves. But secondary orality generates a sense for groups immeasurably larger than those of primary oral culture - McLuhan’s ‘global village’. Moreover, before writing, oral folk were group-minded because no feasible alternative had presented itself. In our age of secondary orality, we are group-minded self-consciously and programmatically."(4)

Pierre Babin provocatively suggests that one of the keys to understanding the difference between the new electronic, audio-visual culture in which we now live and the previous dominantly literate culture lies in the shift of sense from the externalised abstract truth of the eye to the internalised, participatory truth of the ear.

"McLuhan suggests that the ground - what frames and contextualises explicit figures - is the determining component of the mediated message.... I came to see that it is often not the explicit message or the rationalistic arguments that are most important in communicating faith, but the deeper tones of feeling and background..... These media are not just technologies transporting content, but they form a world, an enveloping environment like the countryside, which everywhere surrounds us with its rhythms of life and its mechanism for coping with problems." (5)

Babin suggests that the change in dominant communication forms has actually brought about a shift in dominant sensory perception. With electronic culture, he suggests, the resonance of sound has become the dominant mode of communication and conveyor of truth, rather than sight (as in reading books to discern ideas).

For those bred in the abstract, "objective" world of print, such characteristics reek of a decline into undefined "subjectivism". What has happened, rather, is that the new revolution in electronic communication has broken the monopoly of print and the visual senses. Electronic communications are not just "aids" or tools for communicating - they are a language in themselves. They have brought with them a new, all-encompassing culture that is creating a new way of perceiving and relating to reality which is more oriented towards getting all the senses into the act: aural, oral, tactile, kinetic. This is a style of communication that is "messy" for those bred with the clean "logical" world of print culture’s abstracted ideas.

It is this shift in how truth is perceived and appropriated that is one of the factors creating resistance to electronic culture by theologians and clergy, whose understanding of faith has been strongly shaped by the characteristics and requirements of print culture in which they were educated and by virtue of which they hold status and power.(6) They tend to see in the focus on feeling and background and the lack of discrimination of specific ideas a compromise of faith and truth (See, eg. Jacques Ellul, The humiliation of the Word).

I propose that what we are dealing with is not a decline in culture, to be fought against and resisted. It is rather a change in culture, as ambiguous and as potentially good and bad as any other culture. And whether we like it or not, it is the culture in which most people within our society, most people within our churches, and we ourselves are now living. If the incarnation is to be communicated, that is the culture in which it must be incarnated. Like other cultures, it needs discernment, encouragement and critique. But if such critique is to be effective, like all cross-cultural communication, it needs to be in terms the culture recognises and from people whom it is perceived appreciate and understand the culture.

For Babin, the changes brought by electronic communication constitute the development of a new culture which present those of us educated within a literate world with a radical challenge.

"To understand the reality of our times more profoundly, we have to break out of circles confining our vision....It is impossible to have real intercultural communication in the electronic age without leaving ‘your country and your kindred and your father’s house’ (Gen 12:1). Becoming a full person in the electronic age is not playing with a camera; it is being born to the depths of humanity for which our previous education has not prepared us....we shall have to enter this new universe with the same enormous sympathy that Christ has for this earth." (pp.16-17.)


5. Implications for the church

Since the gospel is always received and appropriated in a specific cultural form, and since the church is established and functions as a social institution, the changes that are taking place in global societies have profound implications for churches (as profound, some have suggested, as our initial transition from a regional Jewish Jesus movement into a global Gentile church).

I do not see many of the challenges before us as necessarily unique ones. Nor are they necessarily bad or destructive. Some criticisms of post-modern electronic culture reflect the threat being felt by people whose power base lies in the differently ordered literate societies. However, if seen as the characteristics of a new culture into which we are moving, they present themselves simply as a new context within which the Gospel needs to be embodied and contextualised. Useful for guidance, therefore, may be previous work that has been done on inter-cultural communication and on indiginisation of the gospel.

These changes also place the church as an institution in a different power relationship to the culture than it has previously held since Constantinian times. The church’s position moving into the new may also be more akin to experiences of marginalisation experienced by such groups in our churches as women and ethnic minorities than by male church leaders who lack experience in dealing with marginalisation, or by the church in Asia than in Europe and U.S.A.

Some of the implications that I think these changes in culture have for the church are the following broad issues.

The expansion and commercialisation of communication institutions.

Whereas once communication was understood and legislated broadly in terms of the community "good", communication has now become strongly dominated by commercial interests. Rather than conceptualising a larger community to which media outlets have a social responsiblity, society tends now to be seen commercially as a composition of smaller "markets", to which the various media address themselves.

The media themselves are undergoing massive change. On one hand there is a growing diversity of sources: cable television, satellite broadcasting, VCR, desk-top publishing. With the multiplication of media outlets of all sorts, production or publishing has moved away from the principle of publishing what is significant to producing material to fill available time slots. The guiding principle, whether for electronic or print or whatever, is whether one can find a market (a group of people with something in common) sufficiently large to sustain financially the publication.

This leads to and supports the principle of subdivision of people into various markets. People don’t belong to communities as much as they belong a variety of different markets. eg. church members - church is one "belonging" along with many others.

While there is a diversity of outlets, there is a parallel concentration of control and ownership in commercial media. So this diversity of sources does not necesssarily lead to a diversity of content. The question behind diversity of content is not whether there is different material - rather whether there is genuine diversity of communal viewpoint represented. While the diversity of content is limited only by the ability to find a new market which will sustain a new outlet, there is a fairly well-defined and narrow mainstream of ideology, ie. western consumer capitalism.

The widespread influence of consumerist ideology.

The widespread promotion of the products of western capitalism, coupled with increased availability of goods and the sustained cultivation of desire through commercial media, has led to a profound influence of the philosophy of consumerism in western societies and increasingly in developing countries as well. Far from being just a marketing of goods and services, consumerism promotes a comprehensive philosophy of life that has profound religious dimensions, specifically

* we all have needs and wants

* we all have a right to have those needs and wants met

* we are the best arbiters of what our needs and wants are

* the society’s obligation is to create a climate in which our needs and wants can be identified and satisfied

* the purpose of life is principally to satisfy or work towards the satisfaction of those needs and wants

* needs and wants are satisfied principally through the acquisition of products or services

* while satisfaction of our needs and wants may be temporarily delayed, sustained denial of satisfaction to significant wants and needs is dehumanising and requires action to correct it

One of the significant effects of this lies in the commercial process of commoditisation, where non-commercial, social activities are reformed, packaged and sold as commercial products or commodities. The competition now generated in the communication marketplace means that in order to survive communication institutions must beome aggressive imperialist organisations.(7)

It is instructive to note how significant an influence consumerism has had as a philosophy, even as a hermeneutical lens through which Christian faith is understood and interpreted.(8) Yet rarely has the church addressed this aspect of culture in a sustained and balanced way that helps its adherents live faithful lives within this particular culture.

Changes in people’s relationship to the media.

The dominant theory of the media to this point has been one in which the media have been seen primarily as one social institution among others. In this view, it has been assumed there is an separate social norm or reality and the media primarily act as tools for communicating this reality. The dominant approach therefore has been to study the "effects" the media have on people. In this view, institutions such as the church have tended to look at the media instrumentally, ie. how can we use the media best to convey "our reality". In recent years, however, there have been several major shifts in thinking about media.

One change has been away from seeing the media as just one aspect of culture. Rather the media, as it were, form the "web" of the culture, the matrix where most people now get most of their insight, influence, values and meaning. In this view, institutions do not use the media to communicate their reality - rather, institutions are placed on the web of culture in different positions and for different purposes.

The second major change has been in shifting the centre of focus and attention in thinking about media away from the intended effects of media messages toward the active role audiences play in selection and use of their own media-mix for meaning-seeking and meaning-satisfying purposes. On a broad scale, people increasingly tend not to see the media through lenses developed through their enculturation in other social collectives. The media are such an inextricable part of our lives and culture that we now see all other social collectives (including our religious faith) through the lens of our enculturation in media.(9)

The crucial dimension to note about this is that people are not passive recipients who require protection against "harmful" media messages.

"This relationship between people and media is entirely a volitional one....People live on the media "map" because they want to, and more importantly, because that map is an authentic one for them." (10)

That is, people are not passive recipients of media messages generated by commercial media organisations. People now participate in the media-web of culture, not because they are coerced or duped into doing so, but because they choose to do so, they get enjoyment out of it, and it is meaningful and authentic for them.

What we need to realise is, the same applies for religious or "Christian" people or church members who are themselves members of and immersed in this culture. The church as organisation may no longer be the main source of religious information, truth or practice even for its own members.

Changes in churches’ visibility in the public realm

In the electronic era the church has largely been displaced from the public realm. Previously the Church, along with the State, was a major direct participant and influence in the public realm, with substantial control over how it was represented in the public realm. Today, however, "an independent institution of publicity and publication - the media - predominates, and the Church and the State must submit themselves to this ‘media sphere’."(11)

Losing its power to control how its symbols were used and how it is represented publicly has created confusion in most churches about how to participate publicly without privilege. Confusion about its public role has further diminished church institutions’ relevance and visibility in public debate and issues. Because both people in society and people in our churches live in the public realm, and because existence in the public realm validates authority and relevance, the absence of church presence in the public realm of the media diminishes people’s perception of the relevance of faith to their everyday existence - ie. their real life.

An urgent issue for churches, therefore, is to rethink the relationship between the gospel and culture, in a situation where almost every function the church used to serve is now alternatively available as a (often more attractive) consumer commodity, where we can no longer control how we are represented or how our symbols are used, and how we are going to exercise influence as a diminishing minority in a utilitarian culture.

Changes in the nature of community and effects on the church as community

Gabriel Bar-Haim suggests that in this post-modern, mediated era, there has been a shift in the way in which people view and participate in community.(12) The consumer orientation of electronic culture and the expansion of widely advertised and available alternatives has brought a shift away from a committed and sacrificial relationship to organically-integrated communities towards one where as individuals we construct our own individualised networks characterised by tentativeness and usefulness.

The readily availability of any number of alternatives in almost every area of life (from toothpaste to intimate relationship to spiritual life) has meant that there has been a shift in participation away from durable loyalty to one commitment towards selection of a mix of alternatives on the basis of their usefulness and enjoyment. People now tend not to be shaped and defined by our membership of a signficant single community (such as the church) because that community has a compelling sense of "otherness". We now tend to be more self-defining within a personally constructed mix of utilitarian networks.

The loss of a compelling sense of otherness in social institutions is accompanied by a sense that the orders we participate in are transitory, relative, or artifically constructed and controlled. Social communities, therefore, are increasingly being given only a tentative commitment.

How the church sees and offers itself as community, cultivates loyalty, and embodies authority in such a competitive culture is an important question to be faced. For too long, I think, we have counted on our social privileges as a religious monopoly and maintained that by the suppression of alternatives. Rapidly churches and church leaders are losing the perception that we have unique "divine authority". In future we will be recommended only to the extent that we have private and public integrity; what we say and do makes sense, is interesting and is useful; and we are known to back up what we say by what we do, even if it costs us.

In communication, we need to recognise that communicating, even with our own members, is now an open, competitive marketplace. Communicating to members may be ineffectual if we are assuming they’re interested, or that the church commands greater interest because of their loyalty. Perhaps we need to explore reforming all our communications to make them (1) competitive to all other communications in terms of their usefulness to members’ lives; (2) made easily accessible for when members want to use them, rather than thrust on them involuntarily; and (3) the accessibility advertised rather than the information given.

Changes in the nature of social institutions and effects on the church as institution

There are now all sorts of different agencies that have become part of the commoditisation process of late capitalism, specialised intermediary agencies that aggressively identify and sell services to meet needs of all sorts that once were the province of religious and humanitarian bodies: mass media, advertising offices, computer networks, leisure clubs, adult education classes, therapy support groups, volunteer political organisations, international exchange programs, manpower offices, travel agencies, etc.

In order to survive in this environment, people have developed quite refined skills in consumer discernment. Characteristic of consumerist post-modernism is a scepticism about the self-interest of what is offered or made available. Along with this is a bringing into the light of personal and institutional acts of destructiveness and self-contradiction that previously were taboo or that institutions had the power to keep hidden.

Hoover suggests therefore that the postmodern era is typified by a decline in formal institutions of all kinds. Today...all institutions are being questioned. With the constant influx of information, perceptions are continually being shifted. As in oral cultures, it is necessary for communal memory and attitudes to be cultivated and renewed more deliberately within the public sphere through repetition and ritual.(13)

It is of note that those churches which are now growing the fastest are those which eschew institutional trappings, and which can therefore at least present the impression that they are less likely to have an institutional moribundity and self-interest.(14) There are echoes here of the apostle Paul’s recognition, reflected in several of his letters, of the importance of general social trust and respect of church leaders and members as a necessary framework for communication of the gospel.


The reformation of moral structures

One of the major effects that the new web of electronic culture has lies in the reformation of moral structures - what is sometimes called destructuring. Whether it is a breakup of moral structures towards a condition of social amorality or relativism, or a reformation of moral structures may be open to debate.

There are several reasons for this reformation: (1) an emphasis on and desire for, and consumption of information for information’s sake; (2) the lack of practical differentiation between different types and value of different information; (3) the lack of practical opportunity to live out a commitment to one body of information over another; (4) the constant influx and renewal of information makes durability and relevance of structure difficult; (5) lack of skill in the implementation of silence makes discernment of moral value difficult.

The way this works is best illustrated by several quotes from Pierre Babin:(15)

"The process of destructuring takes place irresistibly, just as water dripping steadily on a rock....this happens because gradually but irresistably the media bring everything - all acts of violence and all the opinions of the world - into the family or local circle....Everything....comes to us piece by piece, without any logical connection..."

"So, we hear, read, and see countless things that mean nothing to us, either at the level of usefulness or at the spiritual level....What counts is not the rational structure of a good basic training, but being in the flow of information. When I read my newspapers and magazines on the train, I am not consolidating my mind, but developing my membership of the world....adapting myself correctly to this world."

"In the past, when you went to Mass on Sunday, the parish priest’s sermon took up the whole day and even the whole week. But now I receive fifty pieces of news on the same day in addition to my parish priest’s sermon."

"Beyond such information, there is emotion in what we are offered, which, even more than the lack of logic, keeps us in a permanent state of masked shock....after so many of these pinpricks, which are like the drops of water on stone, we too shall crumble into fragments."

"Finally, in free-market economies, destructuring is brought about by a strange law of journalism and the media that dictates that the only interesting things are those that depart from the norm."

"Watching a broadcast, the child is aware of a series of moments rather than logical development....flicking through and mixing....They become disjointed. They lose the solid bars that the linear logic of the book had given them.... And what can a child think, spending life watching television? Surely that there are no more rules, that what is exciting is life itself, and that in such a life everything is possible and everything is permitted."

Our Christian faith is a moral or ethical faith, ie. faith is demonstrated in outward behaviour. The changes in social structures of moral action, which previously were strongly linked to and supportive of Christian faith, has important implications both to how we conceive our relationship as Christians to our host society, and how we nurture ethical behaviour within adherents of the Christian faith who also participate fully as members of this society.




(1) Therefore an essential part of the missionary movement was to teach people to read, both as a means of extending the church’s mission, as a way of bringing what was seen to be practical "improvement" or progress to a missioned culture, but also to reinforce the superiority of the particular media culture within which the church’s power was based over the indigenous oral culture, in which the church didn’t hold power.

(2) This has been formalised by the techniques of speed reading, the learned method of consuming multiple texts quickly, which stress not mouthing the words as one reads. This development of silent print has had an influence on how the bible is consumed, for instance. The bible became a text to be studied in silence, with the truth of the text becoming increasingly separated from the sound of the text. Public readings of scripture now tend to deemphasise sound - scripture readings in worship tend to be almost mechanistic and without passion or drama.

(3) Technology has been or is being developed that uses the numbers 0-9 as the basis of digital communication, rather than the numbers 0-1, which will increase the speed of computers 8-fold.

(4) Orality and Literacy, pp.136-7

(5) The new era in religious communication, pp. 9-10

(6) It is interesting to note that the emergence of Reformed theology concurred with the emergence of mass print in Europe. The printing press gave Martin Luther an alternative base of power and influence against the organisational power of the Roman Catholic church. Luther’s theology was a reappropriation of the earlier manuscript theology of Augustine - one could speculate it was a practical appropriation of manuscript theology into the new paradigm of print. Reformed theology has been a strongly literate-based, clerical theology, most of it developing and being disseminated within academies/seminaries, the centres of book-learning. One of the practical theological tensions within reformed churches has been between the literate-based academic theology of the clergy and the largely oral practical theology of the people.

(7) For example, in recent decades the personal motivation and esteem dimension of the Christian faith has been siphoned off, repackaged as motivational seminars, and sold to people for anything from $50 to $1000 a pop. The new preachers of our culture are the dinner speakers and personal motivation gurus. Note also the development in recent years of extensive and increasingly aggressive marketing data banks (eg. fly buys) in which personal consumer information is accumulated, to befarmed in order to identify new patterns of consumer behaviour and needs. This information will become the source for development and packaging of products, addressed to identified individuals, to fill those needs - the commercial equivalent of pastoral care by product.

(8) Note, for eg. the commoditisation and advertising of faith "products" and religious "services", church growth philosophy, and the appeal to what’s in it for the participant in many different ways - see Horsfield, "Church shopping: a hazard to the health of he Kingdom?" On Being, 1986 and Hoover, "The cross at Willow Creek".

(9) For a further development of this, see my article "Teaching theology in a new cultural environment," in Chris Arthur (ed.) Religion and the Media: An Introductory Reader.

(10) Stewart Hoover, "Mass media and religious pluralism," in Phillip Lee (ed.) The democratisation of communication. Forthcoming.

(11) Ibid

(12) "The disappearing sacred: anomie and the crisis of the ritual." Unpublished paper.

(13) One can note, for example, the intention behind major advertising campaigns simply to renew brand recognition through the ritualistic repetition of slogans and sales dramas. Even large and solid social institutions like AMP, for example, identified this changing attitude towards institutions (in research by Hugh Mackay). The AMP’s most recent advertising campaing featured ads specifically designed to cultivate and reinforce the feeling that AMP was an institution that was dependable and would be here for a long time, and therefore could be trusted.

(14) Of particular interests here is the effect on perceptions of the church in the public sphere of recent news of clergy sexual misconduct. I propose that in this particular issue, where the church has had a marvellous opportunity to project itself into the public sphere as an institution that can be trusted, and to proclaim in deed the gospel of justice and restoration, the church’s actions have contradicted its gospel message. Church pronouncements and responses to this issue have projected the message of a self-interested, defensive, and suspect institution, messages that are read and understood very accurately by the general public.

(15)The new era in religious communication, pp. 41-44.