For most of us, digital technology has become ubiquitous to daily life. The way we make purchases, consume content, and interact with each other—nearly every facet of our lives and the culture around us has been impacted by the digital revolution. But what about “church” culture? We’re talking with Dr. Corrina Laughlin, author of Redeem All: How digital life is changing evangelical culture about the impact of technology on the church.
Corrina Laughlin, Ph.D., author of Redeem All: How digital life is changing evangelical culture
Corrina Laughlin is an instructor of Communication at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and a graduate of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Her work focuses on digital culture, especially the interplay between religion and the digital and she is the author of Redeem All: How digital life is changing evangelical culture (University of California Press, 2021) She has also written for outlets such as The Atlantic and VICE.
Mentioned in this episode
Dr. Laughlin's book, Redeem All: How digital life is changing evangelical culture
FamilyFire resource: "Finding Healthy Space with Technology"
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As our culture has become more and more connected through social media, our digital lives can potentially shape our actual lives. So for example, we no longer see something beautiful and snap a photo. We go searching for something beautiful to post on our feeds.
The same is true with bringing evangelism into the digital space. In today's episode, we talk about how digital life is changing evangelical culture and we explore ways that you can navigate this transformation.
Hey friends. Welcome to another episode of the Church Juice podcast. Whatever your title or role is, this show is designed to give you the communication and marketing tools, resources, and community that you need to be successful.
I'm Brian Haley and I'm joined by my co-host, Jeanette Yates and we are here energizing church communications.
Hey, I'm so glad to be here. Hey Bryan how are you?
You're fantastic. Always great. Church Juice. Energizing. You have to get pumped up, Bryan.
I'm here. I'm waiting for you to take it.
Take it and run.
Okay. I'm taking it. Today, we welcome Corrina Laughlin, an instructor of media studies at Loyola Marymount University and the author of Redeem All How Digital Life is Changing Evangelical Culture. Welcome Corrina.
Absolutely. We're going to dig into digital life and evangelical culture in a little bit, but first I just want to introduce you to our audience, get to know you a little bit and talk about how you came up with your idea for this book. You also did quite a bit of research connected to the book. So it's not just theory, which a lot of things that are published are. What did that process look like in the research and publishing and how did you get here?
So it was actually a really long journey. I think first this sort of spark came when I learned about some places that were doing online churches, which I didn't personally learn about until 2009. I think the first LifeChurch started doing online church was kind of the first big online church in 2006.
But I learned about it then and I was like, "Whoa, this is just really interesting." There was a lot of questions and I was in graduate school at the time actually for English literature. I was getting my master's degree and I totally pivoted and I was like, "I want to write about online churches actually for my master's thesis."
And then I did and luckily I found an advisor that was like, "Sure you could write about this stuff." So I started talking to people way back then, probably 2009, 2010, 2011. And then I went on and got my PhD in media studies.
So I started reading a lot of media theory. I started thinking a lot more broadly about what was going on in the Evangelical church, not just about online churches, but faith-based startups about everything going on on social media, all this other stuff.
And ended up becoming my dissertation and then kept doing interviews. I ended up doing about 75 interviews with people, went to churches all over the country. It's kind of a travel log in that way. Had a lot of fun, met a lot of really fun people.
I had a brief internship at a faith based startup. I went to Silicon Valley. So it ended up being 10 years of research. There's hopefully a lot of voices represented, a lot of perspectives represented. I just kind of kept doing it until I was like, "Well this is a book now." So luckily I found someone to publish it. The University of California Press published it. And so that's it. That's the whole thing.
Well I know that I enjoyed reading about that journey and like you said it, you do talk about all the different places you went and all the different experiences you had and that made this academic book much easier to read I think than one might think. And so I really appreciated that aspect of it.
But as we dive in to this topic, the term evangelical carries a lot of meaning and emotion and maybe some people think of that word meaning something different than other people, but it's kind of the central element of your research. So I would love for you to just talk about how you define evangelicalism and what implications does that have.
So it is thorny and I feel like it's also become even thornier as I've been researching maybe over the past 10 years. There's been a lot more contestation and public talk about what is this and is this really the correct label? So it's complicated.
And there are books written by sociologists and other people, theologians and people that are trained in this that answer just this question and talk about all the doctrinal and liturgical sort of threads that flow in and out. But I often find that people don't always, who are just normal people going to a church, they might not even know.
They might not even know, oh this is a church in the Baptist tradition. The church might not ever say that anywhere. And a lot of times you go on the websites of these churches and they don't say, "We are coming from whatever reformed or Presbyterian or whatever."
They don't even talk about that even though clearly the pastor knows and the leadership knows. It's sort of on a lived experience level. It's a good term I think that sort of ties together this sort of broad culture of Protestant Christianity that is expressed in a lot of different ways.
But I do think there's some really common themes in the way that things like church services look. And then there's also some clear sort of definitions that I took from sociology to make sure I wasn't going too far afield.
And David Bevington, this sort of British sociologist has this definition of evangelicalism that's broad enough, that was broad enough for me to encompass all these things. And he has four things. I always forget one of them when I'm talking about them.
But I think it's like biblicism, so centrality of the Bible. Crucicentrism is his term. And it's the centrality of the passion of the Christ and that being really important theologically. Activism, going out there trying to spread the faith. There's a fourth and it's important and that's why I have the book in front of me. His definition is really, really helpful for having that there. And I'm just going to let, well, you can Google it.
Oh my goodness. I've heard you talk about evangelicalism as this idea that evangelicals believe that we are to go out and preach and bring people in. So I think even at the very just basic level, this idea of just evangelism is something that's easy to understand and Evangelicals of course have that as a center of their faith.
So that was always expressed. I've always heard that expressed as being in but not of the world. So for us, for someone who studies media, that's really useful because it's like we're going to be there, we're going to be on social media, but also we're going to sort try and interact with it in a different way.
And I think another way that we see either technology or culture both impacting and being impacted by the church we see in the church landscape of recent history. In the first section of your book, you talk about a mindset I guess that has recently changed.
It's gone from the popular churches being the megachurch to multi-site churches to the startup mentality. And you even talked about startup faith based organizations too, and you use LifeChurch out of Oklahoma, use them as a key example. I'm curious to hear what is this shift and what's causing it?
So I think there's so many things that we might think of as causing it so many threads, but I think what's really enabling it is digital technology and the changes in the digital that have allowed this to happen. So I think it's a lot easier now.
For example, if you have a popular church brand, if you have a really charismatic pastor to spread your particular message and gather communities in the digital world and even in the physical world, in the case of multi-site churches, technology has really enabled that kind of shift in church. And there's a lot of things, there's a lot of issues that are associated with that.
I talk about some of them in my book. Some of them recently people brought up that as they're become these larger church brands that can expand this way, is there going to be a weakening of small local churches, small local congregations where people might not want to go necessarily to that place if there's a big popular sort church brand or church plant near them?
So there's a lot of things that sort come along with that shift. And a big part of my book is thinking about, well digital technology enables all these things like changes in the church, but what happens as a result of that that people doing this who are excited about technology might not have thought about in the beginning?
I really, as you were talking, I just was thinking about how those shifts have happened and just I've been working in the church base long enough to see the megachurch be the thing and then the satellite churches and in some places the satellite church is thriving depending on who's doing it.
And then other, I live in an area where there was a church that started in a building as a second service and now has campuses all over the country and it's one preacher, but many places and they simulcast and all that kind of stuff.
And then just thinking about how people's, do I want to say rejection sometimes, of the more traditional church spaces, church types is leading people back to that more the startup church or even the small home church. As you were talking, my brain just was threading that all the way out.
And then I think also COVID changed so much obviously. And that's something that because most of my research was kind of done before that or before I could really think through that. I didn't get into too much. But yeah, I see it here. My neighbors were going to church online during COVID and they still do, even though they kind of do other stuff in person now.
I think a lot of people got used to it. A lot of churches of got on board then. And so it does change the way the church is geographically in space. And then of course we can think about, and this is not something I get too deep into in my book, but well what does that mean for traditional community which was geographically based? Not to say that community can't exist online. I think we all know that it can, but that it's also different. There's so much to think through.
We talk about building community a lot here on the Church Juice podcast, so our listeners are familiar with that. And yes, there is online community, but it is a different type of community and building it is different and all of those things.
Another thing that is not on our list, Corrina, so it's not on our list of questions as we're talking about this, Bryan and I get really excited. I got excited when reading your book. You talk about how these churches and startup churches are using technology really well.
But then something that we encounter a lot is churches that are not. I was just like I wonder if she has anything to say about that because in my experience there are so many churches that are not using technology and are not using it well and how we can talk about, and your book does this, this is a tool that can help you spread the gospel, and that way of thinking. But I just wondered if you had any thoughts about that two different worlds.
Yeah, but I think that's okay. Because I think it can be okay. I think churches can survive and thrive without using technology. And I think it depends a lot on audience and that's something I try and get into in my book. Audience and community or sometimes the same thing.
But there's a lot of, and I did talk to a lot of people who are like, "No, no, that just wouldn't work in our community," and they don't want to do that. Then I also, I talked to people who were like, "We tried to give the older folks who were at home who couldn't come to church anymore, we tried to give them iPads and we said come to online church. And they didn't want to. They didn't like that."
It wasn't the same thing for them. So I think we might be tempted to say, "Oh well if you aren't using technology, you're going to be left behind in an increasingly technological world." But I think that there's always going to be people who don't really want that experience. Does that make sense?
Yes. And that is a fresh perspective that we hear a lot in the church communication space, which is you have to be online. You have to be online. So I think it's comforting for some people to hear. There will be tools of technology that do make sense for you. There will be ones that don't and it's okay to know who your community is and use tools that help you build it, but don't use tools that are not helpful.
Well, I would even go further and to say, yeah, it should be something where it's not just like, "Let's jump on this bandwagon." It's got to be something that's really mindfully incorporated or using technology if you're using it well, could be a bad decision.
Yes. But speaking of using technology, and it's something that many of us do, especially this our listeners. We're all church communicators here. We're using technology sometimes whether we want to or not. We just talked about social media in our last episode as well. And I was telling Bryan, I think social media is inherently evangelical in the sense that it at least fosters being evangelical because it gives us a platform to talk about what we love the most and sometimes that may be our church family, but more often than not it's the new product I love or this juice that's spectacular that I think you should buy from me.
You talk about what you love and it comes easy for a lot of us to talk about our favorite beverage, our favorite TV show, our favorite tech tool. But when it comes to talking about church, we're not always as comfortable with that. And so how can church communicators or church leaders foster that gospel centered type of social media presence in their community?
I think it's a question that people have answered in different ways. We see a lot of people doing this in interesting ways, and I do have a chapter on Instagram influencers, in particular women influencers where I think try and think through a lot of the things going on in that space.
I think again, it's about mindfulness too. So whenever we approach digital technologies, and we were kind of talking about this before we even started today, whenever we approach digital technologies, we bring our perspective to them, but then they also bring something to us and they shape what we can say and how we say it.
So being really mindful of that. I always encourage, for example, my students, we always also have to remember these are for profit platforms. Sometimes the kind of speech they encourage isn't always the kind of speech that is going to be evangelizing, is going to do that work.
Jeanette, you and I are both on Twitter. Twitter can be crazy. And I feel like it often encourages sort of negativity and it rewards that and I notice that in myself. So we also have to think about, well how are these platforms also shaping what I can say?
Even at the same time that they are incredibly powerful. We have this megaphone, and before this in human history, it was sort of unheard of that just a normal person could go on online and talk to potentially millions of people at once.
So it's an incredibly powerful tool that at the same time is not built for people to do that work of evangelizing. It isn't build for that. People can try and use it that in that way, and I think people had that success doing that. But I guess I would just put a point of caution, and I hope I'm not tamping down on the enthusiasm too much, the church's enthusiasm, but it's also about reading the terms of service and understanding how these technologies work on us too, and just can trying to consistently be mindful.
Easier said than done. I'm someone who goes on and tweets and I'm just like, "Why did I say that? Whatever."
Well, and I think there's a difference between, we just were talking about a few minutes ago, you can go online as a Christian person and live online, be online, communicate online, connect with people online as you would in real life with intention, with encouragement, with community building.
And it may not look like evangelism in the same way that we think of in other ways, but that in itself can be a positive experience. Like you say, the algorithm doesn't like it, but that doesn't mean that you're not making a difference in the people who do see your content.
So I think it is one of those tricky places where you have to, as you mentioned at the beginning, you got to be in it, but not of it and do what you can. But thank you for that.
It's definitely a hard balancing act and there are people that just seem to do it right. There's no real formula, but then some people just do social media just sort of can do it right.
Well you just pointed out, I think a key difference in the digital technology advancement compared to the printing press or other technological advancements throughout church history or cultural history. And that is the digital technology tools that we use today are not created as a way to be inherently evangelical or gospel centered.
I guess I'm just kind of curious to hear from you a little bit about what you see as some of the implications of that. How does a church, a standard size church, how do they take the tools that we have available today and the advancements in how people engage online and offline, how do we take that into our communication both at home and at church? What does that technological advancement look like and how is that different than other shifts in history with technology?
Yeah, I'm glad you brought up the printing press and I'm kind of going to get into the media studies professor thing here. So hopefully that won't be too pedantic or boring. But the printing press is a great example to think about mediated change throughout history.
And Elizabeth Eisenstein wrote this giant book specifically about how that changed the Catholic church and she makes the case, her whole argument is that the Protestant reformation could not have happened without the printing press because that's what allowed normal people to read the Bible.
Otherwise you were walking into a church, you were hearing, for example, thinking of in Europe, you were hearing Latin, you were seeing all these beautiful rose windows and that was your experience of spirituality and you couldn't then take the Bible home and read it. You never really touched it or saw it. So this was something that absolutely changed Christianity forever.
In media studies, when we think about mass media, we think about this one to many model of communication. That's mass media. There's someone that owns a printing press and they can print a bunch of things and send it to a bunch of people.
There's someone that owns the radio station, there's a bunch of gatekeepers, there's all sorts of rules about who can get on, whose voice is going to be out there, and they can transmit their voice to a lot of different people. You can write letters back to someone you hear on the radio, but you can't just sort of radio back to ... Or you could call. I guess there's call in shows, but TV, same thing.
Here in LA, we've got CBS studios down the road from me. They broadcast to a bunch of different people, but they're all so sort centrally located there. The gatekeepers are there. You can't just get on there and do the Jeanette show, as amazing as that might be.
We've for a long time had this one to many model of communication. Central place to a lot of people. And then now we have this many, many model to a communication and it's wild. It's very different. Anyone can get out there and they have their podcast, they can be a radio star. Theoretically.
Not everybody can actually do that. Not everybody's going to start a podcast, but it's there. Anybody can get on Twitter and they can talk to someone and that person can come back. And there's all these moments on Twitter where somebody says somebody and they at some famous director and then the director talks to them and it's like, "Oh my God, this happened." So it's a totally different model of communication that I think everybody is still grappling with the consequences of it.
And I think that's something that is still not well understood. It's something we're still trying to understand in terms of how it changes. All sorts of different things. Like you said, from the church to the home to everything. I think one thing that has changed a lot, and I talk about this a lot in the book, is authority structures.
We also think about this a lot in media studies. Are you going to the church leaders as authorities or are you going to those influencers as your authorities? Big, big, big difference. Big, big question about how the author structures change.
I think that's something that sometimes makes church leaders especially who have all this sort of institutional power probably maybe went to seminary and did all these things. It's maybe a little bit scary to say, "Okay, the power is shifting. The power is shifting."
Yeah, I know as you were talking, I was like, that is so true that sometimes the people with the biggest platforms are literally ... They have some great thoughts, but they didn't do all of that seminary and formal education. Just like you said, not everybody with a platform will use it well, but some people are better communicators and better able to utilize.
And I think it's not good or bad. It's not like this is a bad thing, this is a scary thing. It's this is a really complicated situation.
In the conclusion of your book, you say, and I'm just going to read the direct quote, "Americans are increasingly living lives in some digital realm or another, whether or not they are conscious of it," which I think also speaks to that. It's just there. I mean it's permeated. So even if you don't like digital tech, in some way you're being influenced by it or it's around you and how does this impact ministry?
And I know that's a whole 'nother book. How does that impact ministry when it's just there? It's just permeating. We don't really have the choice of ignoring it. Even on a personal level, the title of your book Redeem All, I want you to talk a little bit more about that and how can we redeem this increasingly digital life?
Well, it's definitely with a title like Redeem All, you would expect me to have an answer for that question that's like, this is how we can do it. And I don't think I really came up with an answer to that. And also, I do think there are a lot of people who are church leaders that have written books about that thing.
My book is much more descriptive than it is prescriptive. I don't know if I can give anybody the formula for how to do this right. I certainly don't know it. So there's that. I think that I'll go back to sort saying what I've been saying is it about definitely about mindfulness. I think there has to probably be cede some of that institutional control or be comfortable with the fact that everybody has a voice now. Be able to listen more to that, to the extent that that's possible.
Well, and I think to your point, your book, you're talking about we need to understand what's going on. We need to examine it even if we don't, we can't figure it all out because digital, it changes so quickly. But I think your book does such a great job of showing us how this has transformed over the last couple of decades and can potentially give us some context for looking toward the future in digital ministry as well.
So like I said, I've been digging into it and every page, I'm learning so much. I do think, like you said it's almost comforting to hear, "Well, I don't know the answers. Let's just talk about, let's just keep examining, keep looking at this." I think that's important that we have to be willing to take a look at how digital life is transforming evangelical culture, the church, the way we communicate all of those things. And then what that means for each of us individually as individual disciples of Christ, but then also for those of us who work in the church, how we can then redeem that.
And I will say that my book is, I'm just not the kind of person that can say, "1, 2, 3, 4, here's what we got to do." If I was, I'd probably be on a multi-city book tour right now, and with Redeem All, you're getting a media studies professor, not a pastor, so it's a bit more of a mess.
No, it does teach you something, which is-
Yeah, I definitely gained a lot. And there's a lot that we didn't even touch on in your book. We talked a little bit about authority, but talking more about, you have complete sections on politics and race, and so I think there's a lot more that we could have dug into. But for time and knowing our audience, what's one piece of advice or encouragement that you would like to give to the church leader that's listening to this episode?
I would say listen. We have this amazing opportunity to really hear a lot of other voices out there. And I think openness and listening are skills that a lot of us aren't very good at. And speaking from myself also, it can be really hard to listen to what other people are saying when it doesn't always reflect what we've learned.
We do have this opportunity to hear a lot of voices, to really understand people in a different way than we've been able to in the past with the traditional dynamics of authority and our pastor and flock.
So I think there that can be power in that mindful listening and reflecting and willingness to change, willingness to grow into this world that I do think we're sort of at the beginning of figuring out what the digital revolution is actually going to do to broader culture and society. We're just sort of wading through it now, and I think willingness to change is going to be a skill that we're going to have to continue to exercise.
Thanks for hanging out with us for a little bit today. I really appreciate you taking the time and talking through it.
It was fun. I really appreciate it and I appreciate the opportunity to be here. Thank you so much.
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The Church Juice podcast is a listener supported production of Reframe Ministries, a family of programs designed to help you see your whole life reframed by God's gospel story. Church Juice is produced by Bryan Haley, with Post Production by Audio Engineer Nate Morris in Grand Rapids, Michigan. For more information about Church Juice, visit churchjuice.com. For more information about Reframe Ministries and our family of programs, visit reframeministries.org.