Reaching the Unconnected

There’s an interesting report in a local newspaper today here in Glasgow which suggests that half of the households in the city do not have access to the internet. The local library service is trying to give people computing skills and access via community hubs in local libraries.

I’ve long had a concern about a developing digital underclass in society and yet I also lead a congregation which is very much online and which couldn’t really function now without the expectation that nearly everyone involved has access to the internet. That means a wee bit of careful thinking. After all, if we claim to be an inclusive congregation then what does that mean if half the people in the city don’t have access to the primary means of communication that the congregation uses?

Some of my answers to this have changed a little since I first started using the internet in order to be able to reach people.

Here’s a few things I think people in churches need to remember.

  • Friends are the best evangelists for new technology (and most other things too). Getting people to buddy up to learn new skills is one of the most effective ways of getting people online.
  • Tablets and phones are much easier for some people to get their heads around than sitting at a computer. Some people may not even think they have internet access when it may in fact be sitting in their pocket. For a long time, optimising web-pages for mobile access and visibility on smaller screens didn’t really matter in terms of the reach that a website would have. Now it matters hugely. I think  it is more likely that many people will get themselves connected through such devices than by going to sign up for a course at a local library which demands going and sitting at a frightening machine worrying about not being able to type.
  • Churches do need to think about the unconnected. Do they need a champion? Do they need a missionary? Will some congregations specialise in reaching the diminishing group of people who remain unconnected?
  • There are different types of unconnected people. The church should worry far more about those who are unconnected due to issues of poverty or lack of education than those for whom opting out of the internet age is a preference. There is a huge difference between a late middle aged man who runs a company who has simply relied upon his secretary to do all of this in his working life to someone who simply can’t afford a decent phone contract. Some people genuinely need help in order to get online. Others are choosing to be people who will increasingly matter less in society and who will have particular disadvantages. There is little that we can do but to respect that choice but we should not pander to that choice by devising our communication systems around it. For example, we’ve just started an online magazine and there will be those who want to say to me that we shouldn’t do it that way because of those who are not online. My reply to that is to ask them to show me a church where everyone reads a printed out magazine and then I’ll take what they have to say seriously. Print was never a magic bullet and isn’t now. Some people choose not to read what you have to say no matter how you say it.
  • So, it remains my view that the existence of people who can’t access the internet should not prevent churches from using the internet in order to communicate with those who are online. The reality is that vast numbers of people in Scotland don’t read newspapers and have no knowledge of what lies therein.  It just means we need to have some consciousness of those who don’t. I’ve come across a number of people who are very willing to buddy up with those who are not online and who are happy to print out snippets for their friends from time to time.
  • Remember that digital access is a justice issue that should from time to time be addressed by our Church in Society people. But remember – the primary task is to work for greater access, not to limit the use of the internet because of those who have none.  The progressive thing to do is work for digital inclusion not dumb-down or limit effective online ways communicating.
  • Think about where the internet is going. Text is still important online but the truth is, video is snapping at its heels. Remember too the ways in which the web is sneaking into the living room. Many of those who are currently unconnected are going to get their first taste of the web through their tv. That means ever increasing use of video and if people want to reach others in the years that are to come then now is the time to brush up on video skills.

10 Discussion Points about the Church and Virtual Reality

A very interesting discussion last night with Anne Tomlinson as part of the Church in the Academy series at the University of Glasgow’s theology department. (Or faculty or school or whatever the thing is right now).

We were discussing the possibilities for the church with the new opportunities that new social IT technologies have brought us.

After thinking about it overnight, here’s 10 discussion points and questions, some made last night and some fresh ones.

  • The church is actually very good at doing virtual reality – so good we don’t realise we are doing it half the time.
  • The Easter resurrection appearances seem to cast doubt on the necessity of the physical. Thomas was invited to touch but Mary Magdalene was forbidden to do so. The risen Christ seems to be no respecter of physical space, time or geography and we are the body of [the risen] Christ. Are we not?
  • If we believe in the Real Presence, do we believe that presence to be physical?
  • Prayer generally takes place in virtual space.
  • Virtual reality is most likely to be used successfully as a way of enhancing rather than replacing more common forms of perception, friendship and social interaction but that should not rule out new possibilities altogether.
  • The internet is a world-wide web of megaphones drowning out the voices of those who do not know how to use it. I tweet therefore I am.
  • In evolutionary terms, the voices of those who choose not to engage online simply may not be voices that matter.
  • Whenever we perceive new territory we send out missionaries. Current experiments in cyberspace fit that experience.
  • One day we will need to provide special ministries to the cyber-poor. (We should be planning this now – those who engage in these ministries will release the rest of us).
  • Cyberpoverty may stem from actual poverty, fear, lack of education, low personal expectation or low self-worth. Churches have a mandate to address such societal evil and should not shirk the task of digital inclusion.