While re-watching Frost/Nixon, I was struck by one of the opening lines of the film. Reflecting on the whole experience of interviewing Richard Nixon, James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell) says of David Frost (Michael Sheen), “He understood television better than any of us.” I’ve been thinking more and more about the church in the digital age lately and wondering what the church could understand and do better.
As the films shows, David Frost seemed like an odd choice to do a post-Watergate interview with Nixon. However, despite his shortcomings and inexperience, he knew the power of television and, perhaps, how, over time, he could work it in his favor. At the end of the film, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) comments on the reductive power of television. We are left with the pros and cons of a new media.
The church has tapped into the power of television, often painfully so. A few decades ago, TBN launched its own satellite for world-wide broadcasting. Local churches televise services on public access channels or local radio stations. With the advent of the internet and on-line communication, having a web page has become just as important, or more so, than television productions for church members and “outsiders.”
Yet, in the digital age, new programs and technology are daily transforming the ways in which we use the internet and communicate with each other. Facebook, Twitter, etc. have introduced new users to the internet and given almost anyone new means of communication. How will the church respond? I will admit that I was resistant to Twitter at first, until I realized the benefits to both my website and Facebook account.
I realized quickly that Twitter can be a source of banal information, or it can be used to pose probing questions. To people vehemently opposed to the use of Twitter during worship, we must remind them of the ways in which their faith community already uses technology and new media: do they have a web page; do they broadcast their services on television or the radio; do they use electricity? These were all once “new technologies” that challenged the life of the church. Moreover, new media allow welcome new participants in worship and the life of the church: camera operators, sound crew, web designers, etc.
Other critics might fear that Twittering distracts the users from worship: how can they “pay attention” to the sermon if they are “on their phones?” This operates under the assumption that everyone in church is paying close attention in the first place. Can we see the use of Twitter in worship as the democratization of worship? The users broadcast worship and their experiences of it to fellow congregants who may not be able to attend…like televised broadcasts for “shut ins.” With the vast number of people using Twitter and Facebook, such broadcasts will appeal to both “shut ins” and “left outs,” those who do not feel welcome within the walls of a church, but who still have spiritual questions and concerns of their own. Moreover, in a seminar that I conducted on using film clips in worship, one student lamented the lack of financial resources at her church that would allow for such a multimedia experience. Such a small endeavor like Twittering worship can catapult congregations into the twenty-first century with virtually no cost and little trouble.
Yet understandable questions and concerns do remain. Who twitters? Everyone? Are there designated Twitterers? Just as soon as possibilities for wider community emerge, lingering questions of structure and order emerge to complicate the situation.