Thinking Out Loud: Making Disciples in an Age of Information Extraction

Caution: Thinking out loud as the title says, so a bit of a choppy post. But I’m curious of your thoughts.

It is often true that we look back at how we did something as being the only way something can be done. For example, if I took all these classes (Greek, Hebrew, exegetics, etc.) in seminary, then every student should take them to get that Master of Divinity. Or if ordination required A, B, and C, then I have to do A, B, and C as well. But often, we don’t re-evaluate how things are changing, and what things need to change along with them.

I’ve been thinking about this issue for several reasons, but primarily because I think the Church, and most often ministry gets caught in a pattern of doing things the way they have always been done, and fails to be innovative in its thinking. Don’t get me wrong though, many Churches are innovative in ways that need to be innovative, and not just for the sake of it.

So my thinking out loud concerns the amount of information now available to us online, and will continue to become available online. How will that change how we do things?

Last month Wired Magazine ran an incredible series of articles called The Petabyte Age: Because More Isn’t Just More–More Is Different. In this series one of the articles was The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete, and it begins with this:

Sixty years ago, digital computers made information readable. Twenty years ago, the Internet made it reachable. Ten years ago, the first search engine crawlers made it a single database. Now Google and like-minded companies are sifting through the most measured age in history, treating this massive corpus as a laboratory of the human condition. They are the children of the Petabyte Age.

The Petabyte Age is different because more is different. Kilobytes were stored on floppy disks. Megabytes were stored on hard disks. Terabytes were stored in disk arrays. Petabytes are stored in the cloud. As we moved along that progression, we went from the folder analogy to the file cabinet analogy to the library analogy to — well, at petabytes we ran out of organizational analogies.

At the petabyte scale, information is not a matter of simple three- and four-dimensional taxonomy and order but of dimensionally agnostic statistics. It calls for an entirely different approach, one that requires us to lose the tether of data as something that can be visualized in its totality. It forces us to view data mathematically first and establish a context for it later. For instance, Google conquered the advertising world with nothing more than applied mathematics. It didn’t pretend to know anything about the culture and conventions of advertising — it just assumed that better data, with better analytical tools, would win the day. And Google was right.

And thanks to Guy Kawasaki I came across this article World’s Oldest Bible Goes Online. This is just another classic example of what was not available to us before will now be online. Think how information like this will change seminary education, pastoring, Church life, etc. as it becomes more available online.

Ever been sitting there, late at night, thinking, “Gee, I’d like to find a good Bible quote, but how do I know if it’s been accurately translated?” Well, you’re in luck! Portions of the Codex Sinaiticus, dating from 350 and thought to have been written by early Egyptian Christians, will be available on the internet courtesy of the Russian National Library, British Library and St. Catherine’s monastery in its entirety by July of next year. The oldest complete version of the New Testament, the original text may baffle those unfamiliar with ancient Greek, but translations in English and German will also be made available. “A manuscript is going onto the net which is like nothing else online to date…It’s also an enrichment of the virtual world — and a bit of a change from YouTube,” commented the director of the Leipzig University Library.

So what does all this available information mean to us as pastors and leaders in the 21st Century?

A few months ago I wrote a post called The Changing Seminary–The Changing Pastor where Scott McClellan of Collide Magazine
interviews Craig Detweiler in the article Culture and Seminary. Here is a brief exchange:

Detweiler: No, that’s the right question. Seminaries were created in an era where ministers were prepared to have the most information. The ministers were supposed to be the most educated and the most informed about the Scriptures.

COLLIDE: The most literate maybe?

Detweiler: The most literate. And none of that has necessarily changed, but we’re now dealing with an age of too much information. And so, the job is to help people sort through all of the inputs to find out what matters amongst the avalanche of information. It’s about pointing people to reliable sources, pointing people to credible interpretations, inviting people into ongoing dialogue with their friends, neighbors, and coworkers around the pop cultural expressions. So, it’s moving the seminary education from pastor as most informed to pastor as most insightful because people no longer have an information problem. It’s not about lack of information. It’s about lack of discernment. Information is available to all. Wisdom and discernment remain rarer than ever.

Observation: As more and more information becomes available online we will need more and more discerning Christian leaders who can sift through all the information and apply/teach/preach it appropriately. But it seems to me that the Bible is not just information, or should not be reduced to that. I remember my Greek professor telling me that it’s not enough to simply know the meaning of a Greek word (caution to everyone who looks up the meaning online and assumes that’s how it is used in the NT), but one must understand the context of the word in that letter, how the author uses, it, etc, etc.

Question: So how do we cultivate discerning Christian leaders to not simply extract information, but grow disciples in such an age?

8 Comments

  1. by Matt Singley on July 23, 2008  12:02 pm Reply

    Great post, Rhett. Answering your question, I think it's almost as simple as getting outside of the comfortable confines of the walls of the church and participating in culture. Most pastors that I know are so busy "tending to the flock" that they know few (if any) non-Christians, they don't participate in cultural activities that the world participates in (I can't go see that movie, it uses the "F" word) and they tend to be involved in church-only, ministry-only activities.

    This keeps them so far out of touch with what the world thinks, that as they sit around with their collective think-tanks trying to come up with ideas for reaching the world, the ideas are often old and used.

    All that to say...extracting information is easy, it's simply being an observer. Discerning information is more difficult, it requires participating. This is where the church is falling down, IMHO.

  2. by Rhett Smith on July 23, 2008  12:45 pm Reply

    Matt:

    When you said "most pastors I know are so busy 'tending to the flock'" I almost fell out of my chair....haaa.

    I totally agree with the rest of your statement, but I've always felt, especially recently that most pastors aren't tending to the flock, but rather to CEO matters, and meeting with those that they see as most influential (i.e. those who have money, power and status). I know...a pretty grim outlook. But I think a lot of pastors have lost the ability to care pastorally, and have left it to those at the bottom of the hierarchy chart.

    But it is true that we can become so isolated in Church land that we don't even interact with non-Christians, let alone have them as friends.

    Obviously a pastor shouldn't participate in everything those in the congregation do (that could get sketchy knowing what goes on in some places), but I agree that much preaching seems out of touch from what the rest of the congregation does the rest of the week.

    I like what you said about extracting info. as being easy...being an observor, and discerning is more difficult.

    Karl Barth always talked about preaching with a Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. So now I guess it's the Bible in one hand, probably on a mobile device, and the internet in the other, probably on a mobile device as well.

    rhett

  3. by Rhett Smith on July 23, 2008  12:45 pm Reply

    Matt:

    When you said "most pastors I know are so busy 'tending to the flock'" I almost fell out of my chair....haaa.

    I totally agree with the rest of your statement, but I've always felt, especially recently that most pastors aren't tending to the flock, but rather to CEO matters, and meeting with those that they see as most influential (i.e. those who have money, power and status). I know...a pretty grim outlook. But I think a lot of pastors have lost the ability to care pastorally, and have left it to those at the bottom of the hierarchy chart.

    But it is true that we can become so isolated in Church land that we don't even interact with non-Christians, let alone have them as friends.

    Obviously a pastor shouldn't participate in everything those in the congregation do (that could get sketchy knowing what goes on in some places), but I agree that much preaching seems out of touch from what the rest of the congregation does the rest of the week.

    I like what you said about extracting info. as being easy...being an observor, and discerning is more difficult.

    Karl Barth always talked about preaching with a Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. So now I guess it's the Bible in one hand, probably on a mobile device, and the internet in the other, probably on a mobile device as well.

    rhett

  4. by chuck slocum on July 24, 2008  7:53 am Reply

    it's just data until it is put in context -- then it is information. isn't the key compenent that pastors need to add the context -- to draw out the significance of selected data and enable the disciple to turn it into information on their own?

  5. by chuck slocum on July 24, 2008  7:53 am Reply

    it's just data until it is put in context -- then it is information. isn't the key compenent that pastors need to add the context -- to draw out the significance of selected data and enable the disciple to turn it into information on their own?

  6. by ChristianPF on July 25, 2008  8:13 am Reply

    You know, we are in an age of abundant information. Google is basically a geenie that will answer just about any question you can conceive...

    But it is still just information. Understanding is what so many people are lacking. Proverbs makes it clear that there is a difference and that we should seek after understanding (and wisdom of course)

  7. by ChristianPF on July 25, 2008  8:13 am Reply

    You know, we are in an age of abundant information. Google is basically a geenie that will answer just about any question you can conceive...

    But it is still just information. Understanding is what so many people are lacking. Proverbs makes it clear that there is a difference and that we should seek after understanding (and wisdom of course)

  8. by chris on August 1, 2008  8:14 am Reply

    In response to the latter part of the post...I agree with Deiweiler. Seminary trained persons have tools with which they can (mis)interpret Scripture. More importantly, however, are our ability and willingness to interpret culture. While the steps to ordination may need to change -- sorely, and that's another story -- they haven't, but that hasn't stopped the world from changing. My whole goal this year has been to play seal, jump through hoops and engage culture in a way that allows the Gospel to have a say (especially in the church).

    I've always appreciated Detweiler's approach and find that those who can teach through media, both awesome and awful, will be able to credibly address the needs, concerns and identity of communities and congregations.

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