Amateurs in the Institutional Church 1of2

I know that blog posts about the Church and online media/phenomenon don't get many replies here, but I post them anyways because that's an area I'm interested in.

So here's Internet theorist Clay Shirky (remember him from the What the Church can Learn from Wikipedia series?) talking about the the effect of amateurization and what institutions can do to respond to it...and *I* think it has parallels in the church.  Check out the video and read specific quotes after the jump:

Here's a striking quote for me. Shirky is talking about the advance of online media options and interaction, but I think it parallels the church too:

When you open up new capability, then the average quality decreases. But that happened with the printing press. Prior to the printing press, the only written works which were obsessively copied were Plato, Aristotle, [hand]-copied by monks. When the printing press came along, the quality of the average book actually fell because now lots of people could be writers. So this is the absolutely normal pattern for new media....the way you get out of that is if the increase in abundance is so enormous that the absolute amount of good stuff increases.

[Thus I believe] we are living through the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race.
In short, mass amateurization of an industry certainly reduces the quality of the industry (think blogger ethics v. journalism standards), but because it's en masse the amount of good stuff increases.  So while any idiot with a keyboard can post something online, there are brilliant people who can now reflect online too.  So while the overall quality of the written word has gone down in recent years thanks to txting, IM, and blogs...the sheer amount of good contributions have gone up...if you can wade through the garbage, that is!

I see elements of this in the Church today:
  • Institutional Church v. Dime-a-dozen church startups - The institutional church's membership levels have gone down, while non-denominational churches have popped up a hundredfold.  These churches lack tradition, established avenues of accountability, and indeed some are just tax havens in Westboro, KS.  So while institutional churches have decreased,  I suspect the absolute amount of people experiencing the Christian tradition has increased.
  • Trained Clergy v. passionate local pastors - The number of seminary-trained professional clergy has gone down, while the number of local church pastors has gone up.  Local church pastors may be gifted but don't have the full measure of church tradition and theological training under their belts.  But while seminary-educated clergy has decreased,  I suspect the absolute amount of people experiencing passionate pastoral leadership has increased.
  • Local Church Discipleship v. loosely affiliated groups - On a local-church level, attendance in traditional church discipleship structures has decreased, while impromptu and sideline ministry groups has increased.  Outside of the general church structure are often groups of people that wouldn't call themselves a group but they are doing ministry and discipleship regardless.  So while supervised, accountable discipleship has decreased, I suspect the absolute amount of people experiencing diverse reflections on their spiritual growth has increased.
In short, the Church is also reeling from the effect of mass amateurization.  At the denominational, ecclesiastical, and local church level, the rising tide of "amateur" embodiments threatens the viability of the institutional church.

Thus the question lingers...

  • Will we go the way of the newspapers and struggle to survive in the face of a changing world that values ease of access above all else?  
  • Or will we adapt and thrive, seeking out the best ways to use amateur input and shepherd the power and conviction through our difficulties?

More tomorrow; what are your thoughts today?


Songbird October 21, 2009 at 11:38 AM  

On the one hand, I'm not attached to being hierarchical, but on the other hand, I fear the amateurization of our relationship with the Bible. It's taken a lot of work (scholarship, archaeology, you name it) to get to our present level of understanding of the context in which the Bible arose. Without that, we're at risk of literalism, because we live in a time of science and bullet points rather than imagination and mystery.

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