TiVo church?

WHYY's Radio Times this week had an interview with Syracuse University's Robert Thompson talking about television. When I was a kid shows were transmitted and we had to watch them when they were broadcast, or we were out of luck. To watch a show again we waited for reruns. Thompson notes that TiVo has really expanded on the revolution started 25 years ago by VCR's, making timeshifting easy and allowing us to program our own personal networks. If you wake up at 3 a.m., instead of setting for an informercial, you can go to your personal list and call up the show and episode you want. (Well, you can -- I haven't sprung for one yet.)

This move to being our own programmers is springing up in all kinds of ways. I often listen to a podcast on the way to work instead of terrestrial radio. People are now watching TV on an iPod or checking email in the doctor's waiting room rather than reading old magazines. We're becoming a society that is used to programming its own inputs and consuming them when we want.

There certainly are downsides to being taught to desire "what I want, when I want it!" But I want to take the positive aspects into account. With all of the pressures on our time today, the ability to find content you want and view/listen/read it when you have time is very helpful, provided we resist the temptation to inform/entertain ourselves all the time and not get any sabbath. Me, I like catching up on technology podcasts or Grace Matters in the car sometimes instead of listening to formula radio.

This brings up the question: "What does Church look like in the TiVo world?" By that I mean how do we take advantage of people's ability to seek out what they value and use it when it works for them, and meet their expectation that that will be available? I'm thinking about this because of a convesation in the ELCA Communicators discussion group about podcasting sermons. One take: If you're doing recordings now, podcasts are an efficient method of distribution. The opposite: Audio doesn't convey the style of presentation or the sense of the community; hearing the words without the context of the community is a bad idea.

This isn't just an old paradigm/new paradigm thing. I hear in this a valid concern that participation in the community is of prime importance. Beyond that, I think that there's a danger of sending the message that the content of the sermon is key, rather than the act of the community coming together. It's valid to ask, I think, if a sermon doesn't work in a podcast, is it working in the community?

Just talking about sermons limits the discussion. Our church programs are for the most part like the network schedules in the 70s. Worship is Sunday morning and if you miss it, it's not rerun. You can't time shift it. The same with Bible study, Christian education, etc. Those that can attend do and get real value from the face to face community. But what about those who are left out? How can a TiVo model work with worship? Podcasting a service isn't the answer, but how can worship be a part of every gathering of parts of the community? How can podcasts or just posting worship aids help families to worship when they are away from the gathering? Can discussion "sermons" be podcast so people can participate, even if they weren't originally there, via email or blog? How can we help people to program a path of spiritual formation so that the time that they have to listen, read or interact with family and friends can promote spiritual growth?

Gathering is important, and its becoming more important in our culture. But we have to let go of the idea that there is our gathering, with "the" sermon and "the" community, and then everything else. Can we look at people's spiritual lives as formed not just by church (which hasn't been a reality for a very long time anyway) but by a self-programmed network that they tune into? And then how can we provide or point them to gatherings, discussions, books, podcasts and sermons that can be part of that network?

Instead of viewing the options as a threat, we should be looking at them as ways of bringing people into the gathering and nourishing them between gatherings, however frequently that is for them. What if we looked at our gatherings as adding something of real value to the program that people self-select, and helped them to program their network with valuable stuff, instead of telling them it's our way, take it or leave it?

What would we want to podcast, or make downloadable, or make options within our schedule, that would enhance rather than compete with communitiy gatherings?


Lutheran Zephyr said...

Bob - I think you're right on with this post. I hear from pastors, lay people and others that they would like quality religious content on CD or podcasts. Additionally, we need to provide religious resources for people in the forms that are useful to them - and for more and more people, that is the podcast.

but you're also right to warn that we not lose the community. Community should not become an idol, but even as the church seeks to make it's message accessible and technologically portable, church is more than simply a message to be heard through earphones - church is an action, a community, a life, a gathering, a celebration, a ritual pattern in and through which we experience death and new life, a place that helps us make sense of the death and new life we experience every day. Church is experience, not just message. We need to hold on to that.

Bob said...

Chris -- "Church is more than simply a message to be heard through headphones." Very well said. That's why gathering as a community needs to be focused on what can best happen in that setting...interaction, investment and involvement in each other's lives, praying together, experiencing the God moments that we and others have perceived. There are so many ways to communicate the "message," and such rare opportunity to share the journey.