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Blogging: How Influential?

Evidently very. Time magazine has an article on how influential the bloggers of the SBC were in the recent voting for leadership. Mark Roberts, who links to the Time article itself, has made some observations and I’ll make some here.
The secret to blogging is fast communication. Because of independent minded folk, bloggers will say what they think, their words are often contextless so that one can’t tell if the writer is an expert or a hack, and that democratizes words at a level perhaps never known in history. And it happens all at once: within a few hours a hornet nest can be awhirl and awhorl. I’ve seen it happen. All at once.
It also empowers people: if everyone can express an opinion, everyone’s voice is heard, and everyone feels that they are being heard. If enough folks say the same thing, a beachhead can be formed on the part of those who are not in power. Think about it: how many who are willing to say what they think in the blog world are also willing to stand up at a national convention? Not as many. And how many would the convention have time for? Not that many. So, when blogging gets going more voices are heard. This is good.
What I find most interesting about the SBC, about whom I’m no expert, is that there was lots of criticism of bloggers at the convention. It makes me wonder if the congregational polity of the denomination is not at threat when the “congregation” (of voters) actually starts acting like a congregation. Maybe I’m off base on this one, but maybe not. On the blogs I’ve read many who thought the bloggers offset those who were sitting behind the desks. But, I have no desire to enter into the SBC politics.
I do think bloggers have some power, though. Each blogger instantly becomes a public journalist. Which media has been most hurt by bloggers? Newspapers.
Has a new day arrived?

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John Lunt

posted June 29, 2006 at 5:51 am

I’m not sure if it’s newspapers or to some degreet television news that has been hurt by bloggers. I think back to the infamous 60 minutes II story on George Bush and the National Guard. The blogosphere nailed the coffin closed on Dan Rather’s career. I think that any group whether politicians, leaders, journalists (who exercise the power to shape debate by their biases and reporting) are troubled by the blogging world. It opens up a chance to challenge their positions and authority quickly with thousands or tens of thousands of voices. I believe blogging is a great equalizer. Sure there will be some bad info on blogs, but it is the sum of the whole which has the power to influence and change. If a blogger messes up, there will be hundreds to correct him or her. That same challenge is being faced by people in power.
I’m sure that at some point, there will be the blogging “elite” who will wield more influence than most – but right now it’s still pretty open.

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Tom Gilson

posted June 29, 2006 at 6:09 am

John, what you say is true. One could also say that Dan Rather closed his own coffin, for the blogs only pointed out the facts. There was a day, though, when the only “facts” that got published were the media’s.

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posted June 29, 2006 at 6:49 am

Is it a generational/cultural thing? Many people, my parents for example, would read an article in a Newspaper then watch the evening news report about the same event, from a media/news outlet that controls both media.
I’m more likely to do a technorati, topix or google search on an issue or event, subscribe to a feed of the tags, and possibly keep updated by a select handfull of bloggers.
Power to the people, not just the blogger, but the commentors, (blogs without comments, that’s an issue… kinda like a newspaper without a letters page).

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posted June 29, 2006 at 6:53 am

Thanks for your posts (not just this one.) I’m not sure how this happened with the SBC, but I think the influence of blogging is probably more significant than the single influence of one individual blogger. And that seems to be what you are saying about the blogging effect of establishing a beachhead.
As a military strategy, establishing a beachhead assumes there will be individual loss – sometimes great individual loss – but that the collective impact will be great. That’s what I see happening with the raising of voices in the blogosphere.
I do think you raise an interesting point about how that ‘voice raising’ experience works on a congregational level.

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posted June 29, 2006 at 7:46 am

“Because of independent minded folk, bloggers will say what they think, their words are often contextless so that one can’t tell if the writer is an expert or a hack, and that democratizes words at a level perhaps never known in history.”
This is of course the danger of blogging – it is difficult to separate the good from the bad, although often “tone”, word choice etc. tells quite a bit. On the other hand the real advantage is rapid communication and the possibility for back-and-forth discussion. What used to be possible only in small local groups, isolated by geography or time commitments, becomes widely available and accessible.
Over-all a good thing I think.

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posted June 29, 2006 at 7:55 am

I couldn’t agree more with RJS on the benefits of blogging. It brings to mind what Marshall McCluhan said of electronic media, “Time has ceased and space has vanished”. But every new form of media has brought hope of a certain democratizing. Reality has shown however, that someone is always left out, and in that, I’m not sure is democracy. For blogging, it requires internet access and the ability to write well (if one wants to have a certain influence). While each individual’s voice is important in expressing preferences, there is something to be said about the expert who makes policy decisions based on information and experience.

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John La G

posted June 29, 2006 at 9:46 am

Scot, I believe this emerging “microclesia” (virtual Xn community) will continue to grow and impact the church in ways we cannot yet imagine.
Twenty years ago, roughly fifty corporations controlled the bulk of national media. Today, around 85% of mainstream U.S. news-media (by viewership) is controlled by just six giant corporations (Murdoch, AOL-TimeWarner, Bertlesman, Viacom, Disney, General Electric). The collection of media companies owned by these six is
staggering. Internet-based information reflects a relatively small piece of consumed media, but its influence is growing fast – especially among special interests such as religious and political organizations. Mark Roberts’ election is yet another indication of this growing virtual community.
We’re seeing a shift from “vertical” information (top-down media cartels) to “horizontal” virtual information (broad-based, instantaneous, egalitarian, memotic, self-regulating). Media vehicles such as local radio and print newspapers are shrinking. In 2005, U.S. newspaper circulation dropped roughly 3%. Terrestrial radio is also fading, with zero annual revenue growth and a downward trend. Blogs, on the other hand, are currently doubling every five months, with nearly 25% of online teenagers now maintaining their own blog site. Podcasting is growing so fast that demographers cannot keep up. Certainly, this is just the beginning of a major cultural shift.
Early-adopter Xns, those who understand and participate in the shift, have a remarkable new window of opportunity to reach a huge emerging audience and effect structural change – as SBC bloggers recently showed. Barna calls this shift the third “Great Awakening” of American religion, with house-churches, marketplace spiritual expression, and cyber-churches being the top three emerging religious trends. “Young adults are leading the way towards new forms of evangelistic outreach. These next generations are “pioneering language that bridges the gap between postmodern cultural imperatives and first-century biblical principles, to create new expressions for effective communication… these new evangelists have championed a novel universe of relational networks in which faith is a cornerstone of friendships and shared experiences.”
Barna states that the Internet currently serves as a foundation for “interactive faith experience for more than one in every ten adults,” and that within roughly five years “up to 20% of the population will rely primarily on the Internet for its religious input…whether or not the cyberchurch is a `true` church may not be as pressing an issue as what current church leaders will do about the inevitable gravitation of tens of millions of people away from the existing church and how they can help to shape this emerging church form.” Barna states that by 2025, when Millennials (he calls them Mosaics) have fully defined their culture, the “local church will have lost roughly half of its current `market share` and that alternative forms of faith experience and expression will pick up the slack.”

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posted June 29, 2006 at 10:47 am

Thought provoking post Scott. I have been ruminating lately on the rise of Wikipedia, and other open source information hubs that are gaining prominance even is blogging radically expands its influence. The net result (bad pun, whatever…) truly does seem to be a decentering, as John put it above, from vertical to horizontal information channels and the potential implacations are enormous although still somewhat nebulus.
Like you, I was surprised by the amount of criticism directed at bloggers (and technology in general apparently) in the SBC context. I was especially intrigued by the comments made by the outgoing SBC president. This piece from Spero news caught my eye and deserved its own post: Southern Baptist President attacks technology

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posted June 29, 2006 at 11:02 am

The SBC’s situation with blogging and technology probably reflects the general struggle the church is having in coming to grips with the changes that technology is bringing, especially the changes of the so-called “Web 2.0″ ethos. I think, like others who have commented, that the decentralization of who has a voice and who doesn’t is especially disturbing for many church leaders.
Andrew Jones posted some thoughts on “Church 2.0″ (what Web 2.0 means for church) last November, and I’ve started a series of posts on Church 2.0, thinking about the changes that may come to our churches as a result of a Web 2.0 ethos (I think they’re mostly good).

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Rich Kirkpatrick

posted June 29, 2006 at 11:18 am

I think that not all blogs are equal and that when a blogger’s identity and credentials are available on his or her blog that the opinions really can carry weight. Those who hide identity and just rant really clutter and dilute the blogosphere, but they really are not taken as seriously.

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posted June 29, 2006 at 2:08 pm

Can you imagine if you had the opportunity to go golfing everyday with Tiger Woods, Vinjay Singh and Phil Mickelson?
What would happen to your understanding of the game and your ability to play? This is what Christian blogging does. Each day those that are learning have the opportunity to have access to great players and great players can become better. I can touch great truth and not even leave my house. I can be challenged, stimulated and encouraged and not have to drive hours…….get in a plane and fly somewhere or anything else. I agree with John in #7….this has the ability to revolutionize the church because we are no longer limited by our limitations.
Great stuff is going to attract others and time,space,
distance and cost are all minimized. “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,[25] not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Hebrews 10 We are meeting together, it is not physical but it is still meeting together and encouraging. The main input is great as are the comments from others that add tremendous synergy to the impact. I shoot a few muligans every once in awhile and appreciate the tolerance. I am blessed everyday.

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Bryan W

posted June 29, 2006 at 4:08 pm

I think blogs will have the same effect on the church today as printing the Bible in the common vernacular had at the end of the Middle Ages.
Just as the printed Bible allowed for differing interpretations (and thus allowed for challenging the power structure), so does blogging do the same today. No longer do we have to depend on the pastor to tell us how and what to think. No longer are we in isolation in regards to orthodoxy and orthopraxy, totally dependent on some guy who says he’s been “called” by the Lord (I hate to sound harsh, but I’m really tired of pastoral abuse of power— that’s been my whole experience as a Christian).
I don’t necessarily despise power structures or hierarchy (okay, yes I do). But I do believe the power structures need to be challenged and checked at all times. The blog world enables that. But just as Luther, Tyndale, and Wycliffe faced stiff and dangerous opposition in their day, so will bloggers face rhetorical opposition today from the “old guard”.
Although Mark Roberts gives certain credence to the former SBC president’s “questions”, I find that I can’t. I believe the former SBC president is sensing a power shift… a shift away from the near infallibility of the local pastor and denominational leadership to the congregation. As a famous Sith lord once said, “All who gain power, are afraid to lose it.”
I believe the blogosphere represents true democracy. But like all tools, it can be both good and bad. Like a hammer that can be used to the the head of a nail or the head of a person, the blogosphere can be a benefit (like this one) or an evil. Taking part in consuming the sharing of ideas requires true discernment (not the fake discernment of “it’s from the devil if it doesn’t agree with what my pastor says the Bible says”). The blogosphere requires us to think for ourselves, just as the printed Bible required us to read for ourselves.
I love the blogosphere (although I’m no writer) because it challenges and holds authority accountable (just because a pastor is “called by God” doesn’t mean he’s infallible and above reproach). God knows, we need more of that nowadays.

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posted June 29, 2006 at 4:27 pm

Communication in a forum such as this may challenge power structure – but I don’t consider that either a strength or a weakness. I have also never in my life been in a situation where pastoral abuse of power was a problem. All of the pastors I have known have been honest, intelligent, God fearing, hard working, men, doing the best job they could in a difficult position by the grace of God, with, of course, human strengths, weakness, and failings.
The strength of the internet in general, is the ready and mostly democratic availability of information.
The strength of blogging in particular is the opportunity for back and forth discussion of ideas. This is not easy to accomplish in a typical local church setting. In any academic/intellectual endeavor we make progress by putting forth ideas, having them challenged, listening to the opinions of others, revising and refining our ideas, putting forth a new version, having it challenged and further refining the concepts and ideas etc. No one actually makes good progress in isolation, dead ends and traps abound – we are designed to think in community and relationship.

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posted June 29, 2006 at 6:28 pm

First off I have no idea what the previous comment is all about.
But anyway, Scot, have you read Thomas Friedman’s book “The World is Flat”? It speaks this very thing. Ity is very interesting.

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Scot McKnight

posted June 29, 2006 at 6:57 pm

That book is on the list of books I once almost read. I then read so many reviews about it I didn’t need to.

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Jim Martin

posted June 29, 2006 at 7:53 pm

I think that blogging is one very good example of the shift that has taken place in some many churches. Who is influencing the thinking in our churches? It certainly isn’t a “top down” influence any more. (Much to the frustration of some church leaders). On a “lay” level, people are listening to pastors of various churches, as well as other gifted teachers. They read popular books from Christian bookstores (which may respresent authors from a variety of theological streams). They gather at various “Christian” events to hear popular Christian groups or to hear well known speakers.
All of this coupled with a general distrust or suspicion about the mainline news media has created a ripe environment for bloggers. People are listening.

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Scot McKnight

posted June 29, 2006 at 7:58 pm

You are right. This is what Barna calls “distributed spiritual formation” and it a reality created in part by the internet and blogging. Best thing to do is to become good at it and use it for the kingdom.

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posted June 29, 2006 at 10:01 pm

Even while it “democritizes words” certain individuals are more read than others, obviously. There is rising a “bloggers class” of individuals who are not published in hard copy but respected in the blogosphere. They are already distinct from most bloggers who don’t get many hits (yours truly). Over time, we’ll simply defy the democritization of words, even if there is a new layer of voices in the mix. The “blogger class” will eventually come to be identified with “the man” of print media and another rebel underling will arise to take the places they now hold. (And with the speed of change nowadays, it won’t take long.)

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Broken Messenger

posted June 29, 2006 at 10:32 pm

I think of the Internet as the modern day printing press and blogging as the modern day, independent newspaper before the Industrial Revolution. Just my two cents.

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posted June 29, 2006 at 10:42 pm

You ought to try Guns Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. It is also fascinating

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Ted Gossard

posted June 29, 2006 at 11:43 pm

I just don’t know. For bloggers like you, Scot, I think there is probably something of an exponential influence. For many of the rest of us, I just hope for a ministry that can touch and help someone. Especially, I’d like to be able to connect with those who find Christianity to be an enigma or worse. But also to encourage and help any young Christians along their way. So I hope my sharing is a ministry. And I see others doing the same in their own unique ways.

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Dana Ames

posted June 29, 2006 at 11:53 pm

Have you read Tim Bednar’s paper, “We Know More Than Our Pastors”? He speaks to blogging and other new media ideas. Really thought-provoking stuff., download from the red column on the right.

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