The medium IS the message

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Have you ever thought about how the way we present scripture might actually shape its message?

I’m a child of the 80’s and 90’s, when MTV, Sony Walkman’s, big haired rock bands, grunge, and the Internet radically changed much of western culture. The digital revolution started to influence us in every aspect of society as personal computers became accessible and affordable.

In the midst of this change, Churches were faced with new and exciting opportunities to connect with people and share the gospel, and the catch-cry ‘The methods always change, but the message stays the same’ was something many of us held onto.

In other words, the same ‘gospel’ message is shared, but the delivery platform- or the way it’s shared – constantly changes as technology and culture change.

As the effects of digital technologies began to manifest, people started to consider if in fact the medium becomes the message, or at least influences the message.

If that’s true what are the implications for engaging people with the Bible?

It was Marshal McLuhan, a communication theorist back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, who coined iconic phrases like the ‘Global Village’, ‘Globalisation’, and the ‘Age of Information’. For me, one of his phrases in particular stands out:

The medium IS the message.

McLuhan challenged the idea that message and medium (print, film, stage, gallery, the internet etc) could be thought of in isolation. He said that the 2 were deeply inter-connected, to the point where the very way we communicate – the voice, the clothes, the location, the technology – all inter-relate to influence and shape the message that is actually being conveyed and received.

A bit of history…

Before the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, culture was predominately oral: people talked, shared ideas and passed on their cultural stories to each new generation. Community was central to society, and central to finding ‘meaning’.

With the printing press came the ability to mass-produce books. Combined with increasing literacy, it wasn’t long before text – not spoken words –became the dominant transmitter of meaning and knowledge, and as this happened the role of the community was diminished, because people could now read in isolation and discover meaning for themselves.

Spiritual practices became more private as well, with personal Bible study, personal journaling and solitude emerging. It also meant that the Bible was often reduced to a personal handbook for moral living and right thinking, rather than something to be read and understood in community.

The digital revolution has re-shaped how we absorb and understand information. If you’re like me, you much prefer to see online content that has images, sounds and pithy sentences presented in bullet-point form that don’t take long to understand and engage with.

What about engaging young people with the Bible?

If the medium IS the message (or at the very least influences the message) with Bible engagement, then how we use social media, small groups and worship events needs to be carefully thought-through.

For example, consider a young person in a youth event, where, gathered with their peers, they listen to a message delivered by a person who generally will be a young guy in their mid to late 20’s, dressed well, charismatic and funny, but with just the right amount of seriousness, humor, and well-chosen bible passages to convey a ‘powerful gospel message’ that climaxes with an alter call.

Contrast that with a nervous young person sitting with a group of her peers talking about her ongoing struggle with depression, and how that week she had been reading Philippians 4, and those words really came to life as she felt God speak to her and encourage her. She shares how life is still tough, but she feels a bit stronger that week, and somehow more aware of Gods closeness.

Both are sharing a ‘gospel message’, but the medium is vastly different, meaning the message received will also be different. One seems far more authentic to me.

We all use social media in our bible engagement with young people, and while it’s a great means of connection, generally all that’s required is a passive response. I’m sure you’ve come across the meme with a picture of a praying Jesus, with the text: ‘Like and share if Jesus is number one in your life’.

What if you posted something on your youth groups Facebook page that encouraged them to dig deeper into a bible passage; to offer an opinion; to explore a different interpretation; or to get some thoughts from their peers.

In what ways might your Bible engagement ‘mediums’ be shaping the message of scripture for your young people?

Id love to hear any approaches you’ve used that harness media to convey healthy messages around the Bible with your young people.

*The 2006 book by Shane Hipps, The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture is a great read on this issue.

Article written by Adrian Blenkinsop, National Youth Ministry Development Manager with Bible Society Australia

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