“The medium is the message”

Missional Community in our digital age

“The medium is the message.”

This insight by professor Marshall McLuhan began as some “inside baseball” of communications theory. But it was so profound, and so resonant with our late-modern experience, that it’s now a household phrase. And to prove the point, its popularity in Canada probably owes more than a little to a well-worn Heritage Minute that was broadcast into our living rooms for a few years.

That point, this insight, is that the medium through which content gets communicated has a critical effect on what that content is, and especially on the way an audience receives that content. Written text, spoken voice, a moving image, a single actor in a live theatre (remember those?) all activate different senses and different memories. Often they require different social contexts, such as watching the game by yourself on tv or clamouring with thousands in a large stadium. The sport, the players and the score might be the same, but our experience of watching is very different.

McLuhan was a committed Christian, and explicitly tied his theories of medium and message to the core content of our faith, and to the common and sacramental life of the Church.[1] God communicated the truth of his loving presence with us and for the world, by truly being present when the Word became Flesh. And even today, God tells us this story of the Word made Flesh when we hear Scripture proclaimed in our own language, even over Zoom. He communicates his loving presence by gathering us to his table—even over Zoom–to feast on himself in bread and wine. When you log onto a Zoom liturgy, or tune in on YouTube, and when you say that Prayer of Spiritual Communion, you receive God’s own presence as much as those in the church. Why? Because God has called us to gather together, even online; because God always offers us himself and invites us into his own life, and you have accepted his call and invitation.

And God invites you to take part in his call to the people of your neighbourhood and surrounding area. This brings me to a part of the story from Luke’s Gospel: Jesus sends out thirty-five pairs of people to neighbouring towns to proclaim that “’the kingdom of God has come near to you.’” (10:9) It’s a proclamation fleshed out in part by the signs and miracles that they’re called to perform, which carry on Jesus’ own healing ministry from the previous chapter.

At the heart of this is the medium through which Jesus wants these seventy apostles to communicate this kingdom message, what he tells them to do:

“Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide….”

Luke 10:5-7a

Say peace. Eat and drink. Remain, if possible. Sure, this is in part a matter of physical practicalities and economics, but it also goes much deeper than those. This is nothing short of Table Fellowship, taking part in God’s work of gathering people and building communities in every home and context, “on every continent and island.” Jesus explicitly tells his followers to go out and rely on the generous hospitality of those who are open to this work of gathering and building, which is how he knows that they’re the ones who will share the peace and hear the message that God’s kingdom is near.

Because this gathering, this peace, this fellowship is the message itself. God, who is love, gathers all people to his Table through the Son, who is the Word we proclaim, the Bread that we share, the peace we pursue. People don’t come to believe, know and trust God simply through studying doctrines and propositions (and I’m the first to say that studying doctrine is important). As many have said, we belong and then we believe. And so the Holy Spirit continually forms us into a community worth belonging to, as the medium through which he shows the world that God, who is love, is worth belonging to.

“The Holy Spirit continually forms us into a community worth belonging to, as the medium through which he shows the world that God, who is love, is worth belonging to.”

This, my friends, is what a missional community is all about. We’re called to invite our neighbours to know and belong to the God who endures and remains with us through our darkest tragedies and greatest triumphs, invite them to believe, know and trust that God has eternally bound himself to us by remaining through the dark tragedy of his Crucifixion to the glorious triumph of his Resurrection. They might hear the words of our invitation, maybe find us on Facebook, but it’s through belonging to a group of people who endure and mourn together, celebrate each other, sit at Table—digitally or in-person—together.

“So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”

Galatians 6:9, 10

Let us continue to be a people worth belonging to, because our God is worth belonging to.

[1] See Shane Hipps, The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture, esp. p 32, 38.

Published by Matthew Neugebauer

MA in Theology, Anglican, Star Wars #Prequelist, Toronto FC Supporter

%d bloggers like this: