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Pastor speaks on harnessing electronic culture for the sake of the gospel

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Since communication is essential to Christianity, people of faith need to understand it. And in the 21st century, that means understanding electronic media.

This was the message Shane Hipps, pastor of Trinity Mennonite Church in Glendale, Ariz., brought to Bethel College audiences when he delivered the Staley Lectures on campus Feb. 25 on the topic “Digital Christianity: How technology and media are shaping faith.”

Like any monotheistic religion, “Christianity is a communication event,” Hipps said, in which God reveals himself to people through Scripture, the prophets and other means.

Although he majored in communication in college, Hipps, author of The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, the Gospel and Church (Zondervan/Youth Specialties, 2006), had never heard of media critic and communication theorist Marshall McLuhan until he was well into his first job, working in a Twin Cities (Minnesota) ad agency.

Perhaps appropriately, Hipps first discovered McLuhan after seeing the movie The Matrix in 1999. “I thought, there is something deeper going on here than just the spectacle,” he told a group of Bethel students in a vocations seminar.

Hipps read an essay about The Matrix that mentioned “media ecology” and e-mailed the essay’s author. The response: “Read McLuhan” – who, it turned out, had invented the field of media ecology. Hipps was hooked.

However, even as he was becoming more fascinated with McLuhan’s thinking and writing, he said, “My interest in media, technology and culture was colliding with my inner calling to be a pastor.”

Hipps left Minnesota to study at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., where he and his wife, Andrea, found a spiritual home at Pasadena Mennonite Church.

Now, as a pastor, Hipps’ deep interest in communication and culture continues. He wrote The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture, he said, to make McLuhan (known for his often convoluted sayings and odd comparisons) accessible to people of faith. “If we can begin to think a little bit like McLuhan,” Hipps said, “we can also begin to anticipate changes in culture and to control it rather than being controlled by it.”

Hipps does believe in limiting electronic culture to some extent. For example, “when kids learn to watch TV before they learn to read, it increases the chances of [Attention Deficit Disorder] and dyslexia, because it changes neural pathways in the brain,” he said. “And for junior high and high school students, MySpace and Facebook are heroin – it’s bad for them, no qualifications.”

Overall, though, Hipps won’t be found preaching against electronic culture. “The culture is going to move on whether we want it to or not,” he said. “For me, the question is how can I enter the culture and help people to see? That seems more effective than the prophetic approach” like that of Wendell Berry or the Amish.

“God understands ‘The medium is the message’ [Marshall McLuhan’s most famous aphorism] better than anyone,” Hipps said. “Look at the burning bush, or the stone tablets. Jesus is the only place where the medium and the message are perfectly united. And after his death, the best extension of that message was ‘the body of Christ,’ the church – the [speaker] for the message as well as the message itself, which is the kingdom of God.

“The methods change but the message stays the same. [It’s logical to] harness [current communication methods] and apply them to the unchanging message to spread the gospel.”

Bethel student interest in Hipps’ presentations at Bethel has resulted in the organization of a noontime book discussion group to run for several weeks, led by Nathan Koontz, associate pastor at Faith Mennonite Church in Newton.

A few weeks before he came to Bethel College, Hipps spoke on a similar theme, “Discipleship in the Digital Age,” at the Mennonite Educators Conference in Pittsburgh, Jan. 31-Feb. 2, which had as one of its goals “to explore the cultural realities of today’s students, including the impact of technology” in order to more effectively invite young people to follow Jesus. Hipps will bring his message to south central Kansas again as the featured speaker for Hesston College’s Anabaptist and Discipleship Series conference next November.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the highest ranked Kansas college in the national liberal arts category of U.S. News & World Report’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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