Grace & Gigabytes Blog

Perspectives on leadership, learning, and technology for a time of rapid change

Warning: this post contains Good Place spoilers. If you haven't yet binged the entire series, consider yourself warned!

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
-Ash Wednesday Liturgy

Spend a moment searching for what Christians think about the television series "The Good Place," and you'll see a mixed set of results. On the one hand, the show presents a godless depiction of an afterlife, which upsets media commentators from Christian Right.

On the other, the show depicts an afterlife system in which people who do not-so-good things can be tormented for eternity, which those same talking heads from the Christian Right are perfectly cool with.

Putting aside this conservative evangelical handwringing, we might see that the show, in particular the series finale, contains tiny glimmers of inspiration that might actually resonate with Christians who aren't in the business of sin accounting and Netflix divinity policing.

"Whenever You're Ready" is the final episode of The Good Place, a poignant epilogue to a show that tactfully careens between network comedy and subtle, accessible philosophy. In the series finale, the characters find themselves living in an eternal paradise of their own construction, a place of indefinite and neverending bliss: Madden tournaments, EDM dance parties, and fancy French dinners, among other amusements.

Yet as these characters experience this eternal paradise over many thousands of years, they come to the recognition that infinite contentment is not all it was cracked up to be. Even William Shakespeare, who makes his debut on the show in it's final episode, cannot stomach too much of the best things, his sequel-laden writing becoming a shell of its former glory.

For the show's characters, an afterlife of their own choosing is simultaneously perfect yet perplexing. As they soon discover, without finitude, even our best experiences and brightest moments become dull and tedious. Without limitation, our happiest thoughts turn to irritation.

One by one, most of the show's protagonists come to the realization that the meaning of our lives is a product of our mortality. Our lives are lived to the fullest not when we experience the complete fullness of time. Rather, our lives are best lived when we realize that what we have is a mere fragment, a transitory moment that comes and goes. We live the good life when we recognize how similar we are to waves crashing on the beach:

Recognizing that meaning is derived by the brevity of our experience, they soon devise a system through which the characters can pass through "the door," surrendering themselves to whatever comes next.

Fittingly for our annual Ash Wednesday observance, the characters turn to specks of light and dust as they take that step through the door. We don't see what happens to these characters when they walk through the door, we don't know what happens next. All we see is that they return to the dust, to the stardust and ashes, of which they were created:

Each year, I pause on Ash Wednesday to receive an imposition of ashes, as is the long-standing Christian tradition. It's an annual reminder that I am dust, and to dust I shall return.

As Christians, we don't receive ashes on our foreheads as a sign of outward piety. We don't receive these ashes to make us feel guilty for screwing up and committing crimes against divinity. The ashes aren't intended to trigger guilt, remorse, anxiety, or shame.

We receive the ashes to remind us of our limits, to hold us accountable for our limitations. Placed on our forehead by a member of a faith community, the ashes are a visible invitation to a season of turning, to a time where we can remember that all things must pass. By receiving these ashes and remembering our finitude, we can set our lives in proper order. By remembering the dust on our faces, we can commit to service, to justice, to kindness. As we see the smudge in the shape of the cross, we are invited to commit ourselves to God's calling, to rekindle our desires to serve in the mission we all share.

This seems to be the most misunderstood aspect of Lent. This isn't a season where we remember that we have fallen short and dwell on our failings. This isn't a season to feel guilty. This is a season to remember that our time is running short, and that there is so much to be done. This is a season to remember that when we have finished our race, God's work continues.

As my late friend and mentor Brent Christianson reminded me each year on Ash Wednesday, we might be stardust and ashes, but we are blessed stardust and blessed ashes, called into existence, invited into God's work in the world. And though that calling may last for but a moment, it is a blessing and a gift as expansive as eternity.


@ryanpanzer will be observing Ash Wednesday online this year.

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Your church's top two success measures likely involve attendees and donations, or, to be a bit crass, "butts and bucks."

Don't believe me? Check out your congregation's annual report. Notice the data on attendance/membership. Notice the data on giving. See any other graphs? See any other numbers? Most likely, you do not.

Finances and attendance have long been the indicators of an "effective" ministry because they provide a proxy for "growth." If both numbers are going up and to the right, we have a growing ministry, and by the standards of the capitalist West, that's a good thing, right?

There's only one problem: donations are down. Attendance is down. Giving will continue to dwindle (thanks in part to the Trump tax law), membership will continue to fall. Sure, some churches will manage to be a temporary outlier. They'll find a way to increase their attendance, and drive up their giving - but this will come at the expense of other neighborhood churches. As Nona Jones tells us in her book on social media ministry, their success will be the demise of other congregations in their hometown.

If you're a member of the clergy, do yourself and your church leadership a favor: divest yourself of these success measures. They'll only wear you down, they'll only demoralize your community. These are the success measures of the "Christendom" church, when our surrounding culture created Christians for us, when the American way meant attendance in a building at a set time each and every week. These measures cannot guide us into the church's future. But what can?

If the future of church is to be a strategic blend of the online and the offline, with the objectives of collaborative service and faith formation, then attendance and giving are relatively meaningless. They can help to plan a budget document, but aren't much good beyond that. After all, how can you extrapolate an intent to live a life of faithful service from a stack of dollar bills? How can you find a commitment to missional collaboration by tracking the quantity butts on a bench?

It's clear that the future of church needs a replacement set of "success" indicators, "KPIs," or measurement tactics. For those who are curious what could replace revenue and retention, I would offer the following suggestion: the future of the church is about extending an invitation, then equipping for service. The future of the church is about creating a culture of collaboration so that all can participate in God's global mission. To that end, we have to arrive at a set of measures that somehow quantify inviting, equipping, and collaborating.

In a digital age church, inviting, equipping, and collaborating happen in a hybrid of the virtual and the face-to-face, through a blurring of distinctions between the online and the offline. To measure the effectiveness of the hybrid church, then, we must start by understanding the extent to which the online and the offline can be integrated in the life of a faith community. There are three concepts that allow us to do just that: coverage, quality, and connection.

Coverage measures the breadth of digital integration within a church community. For every act of service, for every act of worship, and for every conversation, there needs to be a digital invitation. Coverage, then, is measured by the percentage of church happenings that could be simultaneously accessed both online and offline. Was a worship service livestreamed? Then it met the requirement for coverage. Did a board meeting have a Zoom link? Then it has coverage. Coverage happens when we make an intentional effort to invite collaboration, especially collaboration that takes place through a screen.

Quality analyzes the depth of digital integration. For every opportunity to connect digitally, we need to understand whether the connection was seamless and easy. Quality is a subjective measure of integration, displayed on a sliding scale of low to high-quality experiences. If a worship service was livestreamed, but the camera was at the back of the sanctuary and the audio was patchy, the quality was low. If a Bible Study provided a conference call dial-in, and used a Jabra or USB microphone to improve the audio quality for those joining remotely, the quality was high. Quality happens when we focus on hospitality, on treating those who join our life together through technology as equal collaborators in the mission we share.

Finally, connection looks at the degree to which technology was actually used. Connection is a quantitative measure that resembles but is not synonymous with attendance. For every piece of blog content we created in support of a sermon series, how many read it? For every sermon we posted to Wistia, how many watched? Connection-based metrics, which look at raw engagement metrics, are still useful in the hybrid church, because they can tell us where our digital invitations are going unseen. If we find that our digital presence is going unnoticed, we might find that we have some further work to do in defining who we are called to be, and what we are called to do, in this digital age.

These three concepts have at their core three questions. In everything we do as church:

  • Did we make digital collaboration possible?

  • Did we do everything to make digital collaboration a high-quality experience?

  • And did anyone actually participate digitally?

We can learn a great deal from these questions. They can help us to live into our new normal, to reimagine Christian community in a digital age. But they can't help us if we continue to ask the old questions. They can't help us if they go unasked.

Hybrid ministry in an eventual new normal will be quite different from the church we experienced in February 2020. Accordingly, we need to measure "effectiveness" differently. In doing so, we might just find that what we're after as church has nothing do with "effectiveness," and everything to do with service: collaborative, inclusive service, open to all, in response to God's eternal call.


@ryanpanzer is the author of "Grace and Gigabytes."

If you manage a church social media account, chances are, you run the account like a digital bulletin board.

And if that's the approach you take, posting information, linking to events, and using the platform to inform, you're missing the point of social media. So argues Nona Jones in her book, "From Social Media to Social Ministry" (Zondervan, 2020. $18.99).

Jones, who serves as the Head of Global Faith-Based Partnerships at Facebook, argues convincingly that faith leaders are not using social media to it's fullest potential. We're using social media for advertising, but not for equipping, for marketing, but not for ministry.

By relying on one-way communication, tracking the wrong metrics, and delegating account management to unqualified staff, churches are losing out on the opportunity to create disciples in digital spaces.

"While a social media plan primarily focuses on sharing content to get likes, comments, and shares, a social ministry strategy focuses on building relationships and facilitating connections between and among people so that discipleship can happen."
-Nona Jones, "From Social Media to Social Ministry"

For Jones, social media generally and Facebook, in particular, offer a potential remedy to a decline in church attendance and membership. A commitment to ministry on social media would certainly be better for the church than other widespread "relevance-boosting" practices, including removing crosses and Bibles from church buildings and improving production quality!

To that end, Jones encourages to think about social media not as a bulletin board, but as a campus. She argues that a faith community's Facebook page ought to function as a ministry start-up, with a campus pastor, a team of equipped and compensated staff, new content published daily, and a commitment to multi-directional conversation. Jones is correct in her assertion that social ministry depends less on polish and more on leadership, less on quality and more on intentionality.

The book is an important contribution in helping churches to think of the web not as a place to post an invitation to attend worship, but as a mission field, where church leaders establish relationships and form disciples for lives of faithful service.

Jones' well-reasoned argument is limited in part by her assertion that Facebook is "the only true social media platform." Arguing that Facebook is the only platform to support multi-directional conversation as opposed to mere content consumption, Jones' model dismisses the importance and relevance of Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and others. While it's true that Facebook is far and away the most utilized social media platform, it's influence is waning amongst younger generations, necessitating consideration if not engagement with emerging digital channels. At a practical level, I would have appreciated hearing Jones' suggestions for low-tech, low-staff churches who may not have the resources to navigate an increasingly fractured (if not fractious!) social media landscape.

The book also decides to veer away from the thornier issues surrounding Facebook and other social media platforms. As a handbook to social media usage in the church, the book would have benefitted from a discussion on the numerous ethical and privacy concerns surrounding social media giants, including the commodification of user data and the easy dissemination of conspiracy theories.

Still, "From Social Media to Social Ministry" offers an important lesson for church leaders of all denominational backgrounds and theological commitments. If the church is to be relevant (or, resonant) in this digital age, it must learn how to build relationships and engage in thoughtful conversations within these spaces. This will require a long process of learning and iteration. Jones' book is a helpful first step towards the church's digital future.


@ryanpanzer is the author of "Grace and Gigabytes," a book about being the church in a tech-shaped culture.