Shane Hipps || A Unitive Interview

Posted on March 18th, by Bryan Halferty in Head, Interviews, Unitive Sessions: Technology. 3 comments

Shane Hipps || A Unitive Interview
I had just figured out how to get speaker phone working on my office line. I had my iPad out with a newly downloaded recording app. And if I was to be honest, I was sweating.
The reason for the nerves, I was about to call Shane Hipps, author, thinker and once teaching pastor at Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Shane has written a number of books, newest among them is Selling Water by the River. However, when I talked with him we spoke mostly about technology, culture and the art of following Jesus, a topic he knows well having written the landmark Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Our Faith.

 

Bryan Halferty: My worship pastor and I talk about the pressure to be an “early adopter”. So much new stuff is coming out. There is this pressure to be cutting edge. I think many pastors feel this. Could you speak to the need for caution and discernment, as opposed to just going out and buying what’s new and cool?

 

Shane Hipps: I think we need to be aware of what technologies “do or undo” before we critique or adopt them. So, my interest is not so much speed or lack of speed, my interest is: do you truly understand what it does or un-does. That’s what will decide whether or not you should use it.
Every technology you introduce to yourself or community comes with a set of values, or an ideology. The moment you introduce that technology into your community it begins arguing that ideology in a way that is unconscious to most of us.

 

Let me give you an example with something as simple as light. So, I came from a Mennonite church before I was at Mars Hill and Mennonites have ideological and theological bias–in almost an extreme way–towards community. As a consequence, as you walk into a Mennonite gathering–if you come from a more classic evangelical background–you would find the space a bit restrictive, even invasive. The reason is because the lights are always up full. The reason the lights are always on is because it makes sure you are seen and can see others, it makes sure you are known and can be known by others. This increases community but decreases the experience of uninhibited worship because uninhibited worship is best facilitated through a darkened room.

 

In contrast, when you walk into a classical evangelical church the lights are often low, making it easier for people to have a vertical encounter with God. So, light has a bias. It is presenting a theological perspective. The question is, do you understand that? And if you do, what choice do you make and why?

So, light has a bias. It is presenting a theological perspective. The question is, do you understand that? And if you do, what choice do you make and why?

 

BH: OK, so rather than saying, “Oh, I like that church a lot. Check out how they set the room up. We should it do it like them.” We should understand what’s being “argued” or advocated.

 

SH: Just understand the ideology. Does it agree with your ideology? Does it agree with what you’re seeking to promote? It’s not to say that you have to make everything aligned all the time, it is just to say that we should be conscious about the message being communicated.

 

BH: Five or six years ago I remember listening to an NPR anchor describe what a “podcast” was. It’s amazing to think that in such a short time there has been such a high increase in sermon podcasts. Are there risks in podcasting a sermon? Detaching the word from it’s community?

 

SH: Yeah, my thing is that there is no decision you make in a church that doesn’t have costs attached to it. The question is can you name, own and accept the cost that comes with whatever gain you’re seeking. My problem with how we typically view church is, we assume that everything is additive and don’t recognize that things are being subtracted with every addition.

 

My problem with how we typically view church is, we assume that everything is additive and don’t recognize that things are being subtracted with every addition.

 

So, most certainly there are losses associated with podcasting a sermon. There are definitely losses. One is the boundaries and intimacy of the community is comprised. You, essentially, expand the reach of the community to give illusion of community to people that may or may not know a thing about you–but feel a sense relationship with you. So, people that listen to Mars Hill podcast feel as if they are members of the church, even if they may have little in common with members of the church. It’s not entirely a bad thing. It just depends on what you’re trying to create and what you’re willing to accept.

 

BH: How has technology facilitated an ease in discipleship and evangelism and how has it inhibited discipleship and evangelism?

 

SH: I guess you’d have to put a finer point on what you’re referring to by “technology”. My clothes are a technology, they’re useful in evangelism.

 

BH: [Laughter]

 

SH: My naked body is not a useful tool in evangelism. Not attractional. So, what technology are you referring to?

 

BH: I guess what I’m referring to is… uh… internet, Facebook, Twitter, etc. The stuff we seem to find in endless supply, as of late.

 

SH: Well, it’s not easy to say “it helps” or “it hurts.” What we can say is that it creates a new gospel. And that gospel is being propagated much more rapidly. One of the first things that this gospel is is disembodied. It presents a direct challenge to the incarnation. If you’re a person that has a high view of the incarnation than you may see the digital age as threatening.

Now, if you’re a person for whom the gospel is primarily a message, content, something that can be articulated through words and images. Then, the digital age is fantastic. It is continues to allow that expression of the gospel to thrive.

 

In general, you sacrifice breadth for depth. So, if you compare the medieval era of apprenticeship to our type of apprenticeship–in any fields, it could have been a blacksmith or a spiritual tradition. The medieval level of immersion and relational connectedness (which allowed for virtues and values to be caught, not taught), it could only reach a certain number of people. But, those people would have an incredibly rich experience or relationship. In contrast the digital age provides access to everything (discipleship content, etc.) to far more people, but in a far more limited way. The digital age ends up being content based rather than experience based.

 

the digital age provides access to everything (discipleship content, etc.) to far more people, but in a far more limited way. The digital age ends up being content based rather than experience based.

 

BH: Another thing I see as a college pastor, and you spoke to this in Flickering Pixels, is how technology creates a culture where the young become old and intelligent and the old become young and irrelevant–in a sense. Explain that for us.

 

SH: There’s an interesting thing that happens in the rise of the print age. Prior to the print age the time of adulthood was about seven years old. That was the time when you could meaningfully contribute in a feudal structure–in a farm or a trade of some kind. With the advent of print what you suddenly have is a symbol system and a code that was incredibly complex and difficult to master, which would take sometimes around two decades to get access to that code. As a consequence it moved the goal-posts of adulthood because it took kids 18 years before they could gain access to the same level of information as adults. So, age 18 became the new level of adulthood, which we take for granted.
With the advent of television what happened was those two worlds–the adult world and the child world–that barrier was perforated. Suddenly you had a kid who could get access to the adult world just by watching television–something that was not possible in the print age. You have instant and immediate access, no one has ever been diagonosed with a television watching disorder.

 

What happened was that the notion of adulthood has gotten younger and younger because kids have had increasing access to a number of different streams of content. Kids became less and less naive because they increasingly had access to more.

 

Now, in the digital age, there is a complete inversion of the print age. Kids are on top, adults are below. This has happened in part because power is often derived through information control. So, kids now are digital natives–they have access to information that adults don’t understand–making adults digital immigrants.

 

BH: Which threatens the value of wisdom. Right? There’s a guy who recently posted on our site a quote from Abraham Heschel saying, “old age used not be a defeat, but a victory. Not a punishment, but a privilege.” The old now, would seem to be seen as, increasingly, obscure and wisdom is, consequently, forgotten. Would you agree?

SH: Yeah. If you look at the difference between information, wisdom and understanding. Information is like water. Understanding is the bucket that contains the water. Wisdom is the ability to know what to do with the water. We have now, an age of a great deal of information–lots and lots of water. I think there are very few people who know how to contain this information (understanding) and even fewer that know what to do with it even if they have it contained (wisdom).

 

That wisdom comes through, usually, through experience. It’s a little like the adolescent who has more muscle that he has coordinaiton and gets injured because he doesn’t know how to handle his strength.

 

BH: Do you see a movement from excitement to numbness as young adults and teenagers continue to get exposed to these incessant streams of information?

 

SH: I see it more like a crackhead. I think there is a neurological evidence that suggests that it is more like a drug. The very same parts of your brain centers light up when you are gambling light up when you hear your phone tell you that you’ve been mentioned on Twitter or have a Facebook notification.

 

BH: I remember someone listening who made the same connection between cocaine and email alerts. So, alright, how do you get a handle on this? What strategies do you employ to guard yourself from being totally absorbed? I took a Sabbath day a few weeks ago and I had a hard time not touching my phone… and I like prayer, reflection and reading.

 

SH: It’s the same question as: “How do you eat right?” I do it the same way everyone else does. Just because I know this stuff doesn’t mean I’m immune to it. I didn’t own a cell phone until I was 35. I didn’t miss it. But now that I have one it made an ecological change to my life.

 

BH: Can I hop back a bit? To a few questions ago

 

SH: Sure.

 

BH: When I told a friend of mine that I was doing an interview with you he mentioned something you said at Catalyst in 2009, which you also mentioned in Flickering Pixels. You said that we need to change the message, which is like highly viral… talk about what you mean by that?

 

SH: What I’m challenging is the evangelical catch-phrase “The medium changes but the message remains.” What the thinker Marshall Mcluhan would say is that “the medium is the message.” Every time you change your methods you bring about a new argument–a new kind of thinking is introduced which shapes your culture, it changes everything… whether you want it to or not.

 

I also said, and say in the book, that the ever changing gospel remains the same. And, so, those people who are worked up about what I have said may have just not heard the nuance. It’s ok. It’s understandable, it’s a provocative thing to say. I would just say that it’s not unlike what Jesus says when he says the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. A mustard seed is always expanding and  growing. And yet, it’s DNA isn’t changing.

 

There are certain parts of the good news that, I think, never change, like “love is unconditional”–I don’t think that changes. Grace is free, that never changes. Peace in this lifetime is possible–never changes.

 

BH: Would you connect those elements of the unchanging gospel–grace is free, peace is possible, love is unconditional–to the creedal statements of our faith. What I’m thinking is that grace is free doesn’t mean a lot unless it’s intricately connected to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Would you agree?

 

SH: Yeah, it’s fine. I just think that many Christians are trying to preserve a lifeless artifact when they should be trying to preserve a living organism.

 

BH: You have spoken about the church needing less guards and more gardeners, is that what you’re talking about there?

 

SH:Yep and I think the guard is motivated by fear and threats. Whereas the gardener is aware of the threats but is motivated by anticipation, creativity and love. Those things are much more useful and interesting.

the guard is motivated by fear and threats. Whereas the gardener is aware of the threats but is motivated by anticipation, creativity and love. Those things are much more useful and interesting.

 

BH: As a gardener myself I am very aware of threats. Invasive bugs. The neighbors cats. But my primary focus is cultivation not protection. The Bible tells us to be discerning, and rightfully so, but the primary focus is cultivation.

 

SH: And the thing is that this thing is going to grow with or without me, so humility is also important.


Bryan Halferty Bryan Halferty runs, reads, writes, pastors and spends copious amounts of time with his beautiful wife and two children. He studied theology at Regent College (Vancouver, BC) and currently pastors Salt, the young adult and college ministry of Mercer Creek Church. He contributes to and edits The Unitive. Connect with him at @bhalferty.
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3 Responses to “Shane Hipps || A Unitive Interview”

  1. […] Bryan, I was a bit nervous going into this interview.  I too had my iphone out and recording our call, […]

  2. […] a Unitive interview a few days ago, Shane Hipps said technology is not simply additive… it also subtracts […]

  3. Marilu says:

    That’s a cunning answer to a chagienllng question

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