Disruptive theology

When I was a kid, the Polaroid camera was really popular.

They were clunky things. Heavy. The pictures were as thick as a couple of credit cards. So Polaroid didn’t revolutionize the industry. People kept shooting pictures on good old fashioned 35mm film.

People like to think that innovation happens suddenly. Techocrats will tell you that one day, we’re all developing film, or going to the bank teller for cash – and the next day Steve Jobs has us all using smart phones to take pictures and doing banking online. It’s just not true. This idea that “disruptive technology” – that new ideas that fundamentally change the way we think or act just fall out of the sky – that’s balderdash.

The fact is, Polaroid had an instant camera on the market in 1947. It wasn’t until 1977 that the cameras were affordable enough or reliable enough for home use. Even then, it wasn’t until digital cameras started to appear in the late 1990s and early 2000s that the idea of a truly “instant” picture started to capture people’s attention. And even then, people would still download and print pictures at Black’s.

When Apple started making smartphone cameras with the resolution of a point-and-shoot digital camera, and people could afford to send the data over the internet – now THAT was the end of paper pictures. It took decades and the coming-together of several kinds of technologies to kill Kodak. The death of film – and the disruptive rise of digital pictures – has been like watching a tree fall in slow motion.

It’s not that companies like Kodak or Polaroid – or their boards – were stupid. It’s just that we want to believe revolutions are easy to see. We think that when disruptive change is happening around us, we’ll be able to notice.

Not necessarily.


When records gave way to CDs, or VHS gave way to DVDs – not much changed. You still had record stores, they just sold CDs. You still had Blockbuster Video, they just rented DVDs. But then, as broadband took hold, the digital format of the CD or the DVD was suddenly liberated – able to fly free of the shackles of its packaging and exist as pure information. And as the data made its way to iPods and iPhones, hard formats died, and the stores died along with them. It was a slow process.

The same thing is happening in the Taxi industry. Uber isn’t so much a new way of hiring a cab as it is the coming together of several ideas and technologies at once – cell phone apps that let you call the cab and pay with your credit card, and a spirit of entrepreneurship and anything-goes capitalism free of regulation. But the biggest reason that Uber is overthrowing the century-old cab industry – the same reason that Apple Pay is threatening the banking industry, digital has overthrown photography and you don’t buy CDs anymore – is NOT because technology is disruptive. It’s because you’ve had enough. You’ve decided the old way of doing things doesn’t work, anymore.

You don’t want to store a CD when you can just play any song, anytime, anywhere, on any device. Why lug around a photo album when you can show friends pictures on their phone? Things become obsolete because they stop serving their original purpose – and something new does it better.

So – what if that’s happening to churches?

A new kind of Reformation

Churches exist because people need a faith community. But in the old days, your community was the people who lived near you. And even if you only shared 50 percent of the same attitudes about faith, the fact that you shared 100 percent of your geography made up for that. Today, many of us draw strength from our extended communities of bloggers, authors and Facebook friends. And while it’s helpful to know other believers share our concerns and doubts and sense of mission – it’s often discouraging that they don’t share a pew with us on Sunday.

Now it’s tempting to say: “But that’s not a real faith community. Community is about getting to know someone, meeting them, encountering them, living with them.” But I’ll bet the executives at Kodak were saying “digital pictures aren’t real pictures” and folks at Sony were saying “MP3s will never replace CDs.” They thought they knew what was best – and didn’t listen to what people were actually telling them. And the church is just as vulnerable as any other institution to new ways people choose to see the world. Just ask Luther and Calvin. Maybe even more so – since faith itself is based on a close, personal relationship with someone we feel like we know well, but have never seen.

I think we’re in the middle of a new Reformation – we don’t know it yet.

The Spirit moving across ISPs

As information becomes more available, networks widen and Christians who have doubts about the old way of doing things encounter each other in ways that transcend geography, more and more Christians are questioning the conservative, rules-based, geographically-bound churches of their youth. For many progressive Christians particularly, a faith community based on what you must do or can’t do is less relevant than a community that speaks to what you should do. A community based on how close you live to someone is less important than one based on the faith and values you share.

Pope Francis is a good example of this. Pope Francis is a South American outsider. He’s an activist for the poor. He’s a reaction to decades of stale, angry, establishment conservative Catholicism and the hope of a new generation of engaged, concerned and activist grassroots Christians powered by new technologies and new ways of telling the old, old Christian story. This is a Pope who washes the feet of Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists, for Pete’s Sake. He is the most Reformational Christian leader of our lifetime – we just haven’t realized it yet.

The message that Francis – and other Progressives – are sending is that the Church is back in the business of dealing with the world as it is, not as we wish it would be. That we’re letting down the drawbridge, and coming out of our fortified churches to encounter people with our arms wide open in acceptance, not crossed in judgement.

So as the shrinking and increasingly rabid American Political Right Wing continues to apoplectically define what it means to be a Christian for many (anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-taxation) a progressive counterrevolution has slowly, patiently, inevitably taken hold. It’s happening everywhere, and nowhere – like a single idea spread out over a vast, spiritual peer-to-peer network. The Spirit moving across ISPs.

Today, Christians who are inspired to work with the poor in their communities, eager to meaningfully encounter people of other faiths, beliefs, sexuality and values and who see the church less as an exclusive club and more like the wedding feast Jesus describes in Matthew 22 – these Christians no longer find themselves at home in their community churches.

Instead, they’re moving past geography into a digital spiritual community. These Progressive Christians are living out a disruptive theology – and churches and their pastors need to understand and deal with this. Otherwise, community churches risk becoming the last local record store or Foto Mat – still serving a loyal clientele of die-hard customers who are confused and angry about a changing world, unwilling to adapt, quick to blame everyone else for breaking faith with the past, and facing an uncertain future.


  • Lloyd Rang

    Lloyd Rang works in communications and is a member of Rehoboth CRC in Bowmanville.

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