Pick Up The Phone

Reply All co-host PJ Vogt intoned on a recent episode, “Ugh. Talking on the phone is the worst!” I forget what the episode was about, but I remember the resonance I felt with the sentiment. Talking on the phone. Ugh. Especially in light of the alternatives–texting and emailing–, seriously, a phone call? Ugh.

I knew there was something awry with that resonance at the time, and Sherry Turkle’s recent book, Reclaiming Conversation, is helping me to name what that was. The almost-completely-established preference for texting over phone calls (to say nothing of face-to-face conversations) is changing how we talk to one another, and in troubling ways, especially for those of us whose work is to cultivate community, particularly among the young.

Turkle documents case upon case of people in their teens, 20’s, and 30’s who quite literally fear talking on the phone. A college student describes phone calls as, “The absolute worst . . . I instantly become this awkward person. On the phone–I have to have these little scripts in front of me.”

The phone is a synchronous medium. It is not, like its digital successors, biased outside of time (I’m totally cribbing from Douglas Rushkoff’s Program or Be Programmed here). Digital media are asynchronous, so they give us the advantage of conversing without the pressure of responding and reacting in real time. We can compose and edit our contributions to the conversation. It feels safer.

Gone are the days, then, of teenagers hijacking the family telephone for hours on end with inane conversation, like I did. Teenagers and young adults today view the telephone as a terrifying relic that wants nothing more than to expose their un-edited vulnerabilities in real time. So they’re simply not using it.

That’s a problem.

Youth ministry is a vehicle for celebrating the un-edited and the vulnerable in the service of transformative human community. Youth groups and youth retreats should intentionally teach face-to-face conversation. Youth leaders should force teenagers to converse with them over the phone and eschew the text message. Our mission of mediating the acceptance and love of God to adolescents simply can’t be accomplished with emojis; it requires a voice. It requires those awkward silences. It requires the misspoken word and the grace that follows.

Seriously. Pick up the phone.


Books for 2013

I’ve pre-ordered Douglas Rushkoff’s forthcoming book, Present ShockWhen it’s released on March 21st, I’ll be reading and blogging my way through it, like I did with Christianity After Religion.

What forthcoming book, dear reader, are you eager to read? Name it in the comments and I’ll put it on the blog calendar.



Rushkoff to Google: Don’t Give Up on The Humans

Douglas Rushkoff gave a Program or Be Programmed talk at Google last fall, and the video of it is on his blog. It’s embedded below, but I’ve extracted the juiciest quotes, which churchy commentary interspersed.

“Computers are essentially anything machines.”

“After I had played with Basic for the first time, I looked at the New York city streets and said, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a grid pattern not because cities grow up into grids but because someone in history decided to make this a grid. And for a 12 or 13 year old that’s a profound moment, and it’s a moment that most people don’t have very often, if at all.”

Likewise, the congregation, the presbytery, the synod, and any nationally organized religious denomination is there because people in history decided to make it that way. The Christian congregation is modeled on the post-temple Jewish synagogue, which was a response to a particular historical situation. The model for it isn’t in the Bible. And the further up the associational pyramid you go, the more abstract and theoretical the decisions have been that the structure should be that way. North American Christians should all recognize this and be able to spot the biases of the structures that frame their religious participation.

“When I say, ‘program or be programmed,’ I don’t mean it just as a metaphor.”

“You wouldn’t know what an operating system was if there was only one operating system.”

The same is true of religion, isn’t it? Or of any theological construct within a religious tradition? My recent anxiety over the encounter of the youth from my quasi-liberal church with evangelical camp culture illustrates this. I want my kids to recognize that the altar call is an operating system programmed with a certain bias, just like the hymns they sing on Sunday.

“This media is biased towards binary logic, which then leads to polar conversation, which then polarizes the political landscape.”

“I so don’t care about what technology is doing to us. I care about what we’re doing to one another through technology. Technology is not doing anything to you. It’s people that are doing things to you.”

Every theory of technology has a hidden doctrine of humanity.

“Everything in the digital space is basically a snap-to grid in one way or another. You’re here or you’re here.”

“Just because you have more choices doesn’t mean you have more agency. It just means you have a wider number of choices.”

“The fact that you can keep going forever means that it doesn’t actually work.”

This pertains to the economic model of making money by getting closer and closer in what you do to the actual making of money. Abstraction is lucrative. Aggregation is the new content creation. So why not aggregate the aggregators? The problem is that with each step you get further from the creation of any real value until you have a culture of people who no longer know how to create it. How do churches help Christians actually create value in the world and not just combine and distribute value they got somewhere else?

“The more anonymity is an aberrant behavior, the better off we are.”

“The biases of our technologies matter. Guns don’t kill people, people kill people, right? But guns are more biased towards killing than pillows.”

So what is the bias of the typical mainline protestant congregation? The top 15 megachurches in the United States have an 80% turnover rate. Scads of people come once or twice but don’t dig in for the long haul. That’s a bias toward occasional non-committal participation. What about your typical Methodist or Presbyterian church in anywhere, USA?


Program Or Be Programmed, part 1

“In the emerging, highly programmed landscape ahead, you will either create the software or you will be the software. It’s really that simple: Program, or be programmed. Choose the former, and you gain access to the control panel of civilization. Choose the latter, and it could be the last real choice you get to make.”

Welcome to Douglas Rushkoff’s latest book, Program or Be Programmed: 10 Commands for A Digital Age.  In the coming weeks I’ll use this space to explore those commands from within a context of Christian ministry, often referring explicitly to youth ministry.

Every new communication medium brings with it a capability that people miss. That’s the unsettling observation that spurred the book’s writing (see Rushkoff expound that here). A text alphabet brings the capability to read, but people use it to listen to priests  read; the printing press brings the ability to publish, but we use it to read elite authors; digital technology brings a chance to program reality, yet we employ it to publish on platforms programmed by programmers. Every new communication technology realizes in full the promise of its predecessor.

I spend an awful lot of time and anxiety in my ministry setting trying to implement the programs of others. Evangelism programs, education programs, worship programs, service programs: I’m trying to apply other peoples’ programs and so find “success” in my vocation. What I’m getting from Program Or Be Programmed is the bald assertion that I’m a full technology and ministry iteration behind. I need to be programming this stuff myself.

That goes well beyond writing my own youth lessons instead of purchasing them from Youth Specialties. It starts with that (it already has). But it proceeds to ask not simply, for example, how youth ministry can make use of the social media tools that teens are using, but, further, what important tools for accompanying young people in faith yet need creating? And how can we create them?

An answer may well be a piece of software that one of us writes. If that sounds too intimidating, though, then at least it should begin with hearing Rushkoff’s 10 commandments for this digital age, commandments that will help us to program the coming reality, and not simply be programmed by it.

Up first: Do Not Be Always On.