Countercultural Rebranding

beyond the screenBy Gary Hatter, an incoming student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

Andrew Zirschky builds upon powerful ancient principles to make the case that the church is generally off-base in its well-intentioned response to the digital age.

The foundation is Paul’s response to the Corinth church in regard to their inappropriate practice of the Lord’s Supper, seen as tainted by the same cultural dysfunction that characterized feasts throughout the Roman Empire. Instead of a ceremony of recollection, the church is called to reclaim an understanding of communion in Christ, that is the oneness of the community (koinonia) in and with Christ and one another, along with the Spirit-led turning outward to openly embrace the greater community that is the world.

Zirschky effectively articulates the state of things in the digital world, with particular focus on the rise of networked individualism as the new social operating system. In such a world, personal branding is paramount, leading one to present an idealized, curated self in order to maximize one’s value toward building the best possible network.

The risk to youth – and indeed to all ages, as Zirschky makes reference in several places – is two-fold:

  • contributing the sense of self as never good enough, never quick enough to like or reply, such that the always-on device truly results in social isolation even when physically present; and
  • creating and sustaining intense anxiety around the potential loss of connections, or even one’s entire network upon which one’s mistaken ideas of selfhood are built.

I suppose that I am most intrigued and challenged by the idea of the church taking a strong, countercultural stance, mainly because I believe this is one of those times when the popular culture is truly out of control. We could certainly see it coming, as confrontational provocateurs took the place of real journalists and ‘reality shows’ supplanted seemingly all else. The past year’s GOP mud-bath… er… Presidential primary gives ample evidence that we have reached a new low. While there may have never been a better time to assert a countercultural position, the church may have never been at such a level of disinterest in the American mindset.

Ironically, in this era of personal branding (with so many associated downsides), the challenge and the charge is for the church – universal, denominational and individual – to make clear who we are, whose we are and what we are all about. Having been a ‘marketeer’ in my previous life, I must say that this has to be the best / worst brand-restage ever! Following decades of ‘the church’ message being hijacked by folks seemingly driven most by political ideology, we must reclaim the most fundamental precepts: Gospel, grace, communion, love, fellowship, friendship, justice.

As a Sunday school teacher of middle school youth and as a parent, this book is a real eye-opener, helping me to better understand the reasons behind years of behavioral observation. By serendipity, I have practiced some (few) actions and attitudes, Zirschky recommends. Going forward, I will be much more intentional, especially to create opportunities for youth to build meaningful one-to-one relationships together, and to experiment with text-emojis as a means of initiating some digital presence among the group.

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