Pastor’s Letter- June 1, 2018

Dear Friends,

I heard an astonishing statistic the other day: every day, each of us is exposed to between 4,000 and 10,000 advertising messages.  Yikes!  Now, that does include exposures and impressions that we may not really notice or think about, such as billboards or ads we scroll past on Facebook or on a news website.  But still.

Think of a world in which all information and entertainment is continuously available at all times and in all places.  That world is now a reality.  The manifold problems, complexities, and opportunities of the world are always available to us, and can seem to be bearing down on us.

Our mission at St. Mark’s is to inspire the world as passionate followers of Jesus Christ, so that all may experience God’s life-giving love.  This involves being in real relationship with others.  Thus the heart of our mission is accomplished through personal contact.

While this personal contact may be needed and even craved, it’s hard to break through with so much easy stimulation available by looking into our phones.  It’s the old story of instant versus long-term gratification.

As Christians, we like to speak and act as if our beliefs and actions exist in a vacuum.  Sometimes we imagine that the church exists in a pure form.  Yet our tradition and our scripture come out of specific cultural contexts, and they come back into our cultural context.  Our cultural context right now centers on the commercial and personal need for attention in a very crowded world.

How advertisers and individuals get our attention is a vital thing to understand, both for our work in the church and for our personal psychological well-being!  It goes way, way, way beyond just paying money to promote a product or service.

An example is how YouTube is designed to keep us watching.  It is through a mechanistic process called an algorithm.  This means that if we watch a video about science, it will send us to another video about science.  It can be interesting to see an additional video or two about something related to what we were investigating.

But here is the tricky part.  The algorithm is designed to keep us watching.  Thus it will send us to the most-viewed, most-commented-on and thus most-controversial science videos.  This means that we may begin researching a question about the atmosphere on the planet Jupiter and after two or three steps find ourselves watching a video that explains that the 1969 moon landing was a hoax.  The algorithm has determined that most people who ask planetary questions will watch and have the most-intense reaction to such a video.

This happens also if you research a public-policy issue.  You will be out on the fringes of opinion before you know it.  It’s called getting and keeping your attention.  YouTube is just one example—this is happening everywhere.

How is the church to get anyone’s attention, with this going on all around us?  It’s a question that calls us to deep reflection, and to a willingness to try some new approaches.  What do you think?

See you in church!