Why Churches Must Think About Mobile Digital

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November 26, 2013
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May 20, 2014

What if you knew with absolute certainty that twenty years from today every person in the world would be carrying or wearing, 24/7, a smart device (phone, watch, glasses, or some yet-to-be-invented device)? How would that fact influence your missional engagement strategy around your church, community and world? How would that inform your evangelism, discipleship, and leadership development?

Since the beginning of time every new communication technology gave an advantage to those who adopted the new technology. Think of the revolution and radical behavior-change each technology brought about. Lets look at a few examples…

  • 2600 BC–from aural communication to the alphabet and the clay tablet–communication went from the ear to the eye
  • 1200 BC—from tablets to scrolls–think of the portability the scrolls brought
  • 100 AD—from the scroll to the codex–hand-bound books (Christians were the early adopters with this technology. While the Jewish community continued with the scroll, Christians became known as “the people of the book”)
  • 1450—from the quill to the printing press–Luther said that “Printing was God’s highest act of grace”
  • 1844—from the printing press to the telegraph. S.B. Morse remarked that “distance is erased.” Communication moved from 35mph to nearly the speed of light
  • 1876–from the telegraph the telephone–individuals communicating over distance
  • 1920s—from the telephone to popular radio–one to many broadcast model
  • 1950’s—from popular radio to popular television–Billy Graham said, “Television is the most powerful tool of communication developed by man”
  • 1970s—from popular television and land line telephones to cell phones–tether free communication
  • 1990s—from the cell phone to the Internet–information increasingly available
  • 2007—from the Internet to the smartphone

The greatest breakthrough

The smartphone can be considered the greatest breakthrough in the history of communication technology. There is a very high probability you carry with you three things: Your wallet (or purse), your keys, and your smartphone. The phone connected people to people; the Internet communicated people to information. The smartphone connects people to everything. The fundamental shift is this: No longer will people have to “go to” someplace to get what they need or want (Honey, I’m going to get on the Internet and find a good restaurant…”) From this point forward, everything comes to people. Everyone and everything is accessible to me at all times. I never have to be bored. In one hand-held device you hold a phone, camera, video device, audio recorder, clock, entertainment system, along with access to over 800,000 iPhone apps and 650,000 Android apps that help you know something, find something, do something, become something or be entertained. Just 20 years ago if you had an iPhone along with access to all the information available through this portal, you would probably rule the world (or at least a primitive tribal community) within 3 years.

Why think about mobile-digital?

Well, enough with the history of communication technology. Why do we need to think about mobile-digital?

1. We who are in ministry are in the business of “changed lives.” People that study human behavior and change management (See Change Anything and Switch) tell us that change comes by taking small, consistent, do-able steps over time. Smart phones with daily reminders enable that to happen more than through any other medium. They also tell us that successful change is a product of individual, social, and structural motivation and ability. If ever there were a mechanism for inspiring individuals, connecting individuals to an encouraging community and provide a mechanism (“pings,” reminders, etc.) to bring about desired behavior that is with a person 24/7, the smartphone is what we need. Being in the “changed lives” business requires we get familiar with mobile-digital.

2. The second reason is a bit more subtile but as equally compelling. Marshall McLuhan proposed that “the medium is the message.” He argued that, “The medium (of communication) changes us more than any particular message on that medium.” In other words the medium of television shapes us more than any individual program we might see on TV (“Doh!”). So with the invention of the alphabet and writing average people lost the ability to memorize a speech after hearing it just one time. During the Lincoln-Douglas debates, people could stand for 7 hours listening to their speeches.  We no longer have that ability. The scenes on most every TV program change every 3.5 seconds. It is this medium that shapes our brain on what good communication looks and feels like. So when we are watching a one camera angle “talking head” we may conclude that though the content was solid, it just seemed a bit off…maybe a bit cheesy.

Marshall McLuhan leans in

Here’s where the nickel should drop. Increasingly, because of the smartphone, people around the world now expect content and experiences to come to them…at any time…in any place. The third most common activity for teens, next to breathing and sleeping, is touching the screen of their smartphone. 80 percent of teens sleep with their smartphones. If McLuhan is right, our brains are being shaped by this medium. We expect videos to load in less than 3 seconds or we move on. We expect information to come in small, consumable packets when we want it not in long books or long sermons. This medium is shaping how people will learn in the future and to make an impact on them…to be involved in the life-change process, we need to figure out how to minister to others in this space.

Some churches are leaning very hard into this space. Check out DJ Chuang’s Top Five Churches that use social media along with his read on  Top Churches on Facebook.

At a minimum…we need to consider

I don’t want to fall into Maslow’s trap that “Those who are good with hammers see every problem as a nail” by suggesting that every church or ministry must jump into the mobile-digital space or die. However I am suggesting that churches do need to investigate what is happening in this space and asking themselves if and how mobile-digital could help them change lives…more lives…with a greater geography of lives that are being changed. After investigating what mobile-digital can do churches and ministries can choose to go forward or not but to ignore what is happening in the mobile-digital revolution is to be left behind–as certainly as those who insisted on carrying stone tablets in the age of the scroll.

If we don’t

In every age there are the early adopters in technology. In 1450 Gutenberg combined some disparate parts and created the first printing press and published the Bible. In 1519 Martin Luther published his 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenburg. Within a month they had spread to all of Germany, within 3 months they were translated and read in every country in Europe. Luther got it! Fifty years later, in response to this technological revolution, our Catholic brethren finally came to the party in 1559 by publishing their first book– Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which was a book listing of all the prohibited books the Protestants had published!

Author, David Smith says this: “Every day the church must wake up and ask itself, ‘What kind of day is today?’ for no two days are alike in her history.” Today is not like yesterday and tomorrow won’t be like today.

As men and women of Issachar let us continue to consider how today is not like yesterday and tomorrow won’t be like today, as we make our lives Count for Zero.

Eric Swanson serves on the staff of Leadership Network where he currently works with scores of missional churches around North America. He is an adjunct professor at Denver Seminary and is co-author of The Externally Focused Church (Group, 2004), The Externally Focused Life (Group, 2009), The Externally Focused Quest (Jossey-Bass, 2010) , and To Transform a City (Zondervan, 2010), and numerous articles on churches that are transforming their communities. Eric has been married to Liz for over 35 years, has three married children, six grandchildren and resides outside of Boulder Colorado. www.ericjswanson.com