Keep calm and innovate on!

We were privileged to have had Heidi Campbell, Associate Professor at the Department of Communication at Texas A&M University as the keynote speaker at ECIC in Dublin 2013. On Friday Heidi presented to us her final reflections on our days together for the conference. She described how much the Digital Landscape has changed in recent years, evolving more and more towards the mobile revolution and use of smart phones. The persuasiveness of the technology we use is very clear and we have become active engagers in ‘citizen journalism’, indicative of the nature of present landscape and how we produce content. Even if we chose not to be actively present we can’t opt out of the landscape, as content and images are still generated about us regardless of whether we choose to participate or not. Therefore we need to be active participators and think through our methods and strategies. 

Heidi outlined how the Internet is a platform for highlighting debates and biases. The discussion of religion online generates many respectful and different opinions. It allows us to present many responses and offer different positions.  It also gives us an opportunity to rethink how we communicate as Church and challenges us to consider how we can balance the presentation of the e-Church within the theological and structural boundaries of the institution and the necessity for pastoral ministry in an offline context. 

Heidi discussed how the online digital environment presents an opportunity for developing new religious practices. She referred to the five characteristics for Networked Religion (Convergent Practice, Multi‐site Reality, Networked Community, Storied Identity, Shifting Authority); which she outlined in the opening keynote address and reiterated the tensions and challenges which apply to these characteristics. She reminded us of how we need to think through the challenges of engaging in the online environment. She explained how the screening of web services can be facilitated with users of websites and illustrated how the presentation of religious identity online can enhance of the image of the Church in the digital landscape, for example Bishops making use of Twitter. Heidi described how Churches used to be able to tightly control communications in the offline environment and therefore the present landscape can create challenges at management level in implementing internet strategies. Sacred Space and Pray as You Go were referenced as examples of where theological & spiritual disciplines and tradition have been successfully combined.

Heidi referred to her book ‘Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds’ which presents an analysis of how trends have changed in the last fifteen years. With reference to the keynote presented by Dr. Ciarán McMahon, she proposed that we are being rewired. She suggested that the digital environment erases society cues and flattens traditional hierarchical structures which can offer more freedom and creativity. She also noted the risk of anti-social behaviour that is associated with online presence. She said that communication is no longer focused on one moment and there is a trend of destabilising or extending reality where people feel disconnected from those they are trying to connect to. She noted that Christianity is not just a cultivation of services, it is a call to being, a call to action. Another trend mentioned by Heidi was that of active interiority, the cultivation of doing or being. For example, it is common to observe public transport users engrossed in their iphones, it is a challenge for people to do nothing. 

Heidi then went on to discuss the lessons that we can learn from our experiences in the digital culture. She emphasised the importance of being attentive to the preferences of our users in helping the Church to create more effective forms of ministry. The digital culture has facilitated learning and the shaping of Christian Communication but we need to visualise the needs of our communities while recognising that we can’t meet the needs of all users. It is important therefore to define the market and culture resources to the relevant segment we are addressing, for example youth group or religious leaders. Heidi underlined the importance of being innovative and taking risks, for example giving away technology for free. She encouraged churches to make available beta versions of software, additional website features and apps for users to interact with and offer feedback. By profiling and monitor their usage product offerings could be enhanced she said.

Finally Heidi emphasised the role of pastoral ministry offline, saying she would never advocate exclusive online ministry except in cases where a person has no other access to Church; the process of building bridges through personal relationships face to face is important too. She pointed out that it is important for those involved in online ministry to take breaks from ministry too, recalling that God gave us the Sabbath space for reflection on Him, so we should observe this teaching in our own ministry. In conclusion Heidi encouraged the members of ECIC to remain focused on the mission of advancing digital ministry in these challenging times and offered the this final exhortation to the conference ‘Keep calm and innovate on’!