by Keith Anderson
During COVID, church leaders and members have harnessed the internet and the digital tools built upon it to facilitate a variety of ministries. This new hybrid reality will be part of our congregational life moving forward, pandemic or not. Recently a parishioner asked me how long we will be live-streaming our services. I responded with a mix of excitement and exasperation, “For the rest of our lives.” Soon afterward, a forward-looking colleague commented to me: “Yes, and just wait until it is all done in virtual reality.” Ok, friend, one step at a time!
Several new considerations have emerged as churches have found themselves more dependent upon digital platforms for their worship, education, and fundraising. One of those is our participation in what Nobel Laureate Herbert A. Simon has coined as “the attention economy.”
The Attention Economy
The attention economy is based on capturing and holding our attention, whether that is using “free” social media platforms that advertise to us and use our personal data, binge-watching our favorite shows on streaming services, indulging in guilty pleasure clickbait headlines, or the steady string of notifications on our smart devices. While information is everywhere, our attention is still limited, and it is in high demand. There is enormous competition to capture and keep it. As we have seen through the stratospheric rise of valuations in tech companies during the pandemic, the attention economy is an incredibly lucrative business.
We do not know what the future will bring; however, if we even dare to look ahead to 2030, what we can say with confidence is that these technologies will only accelerate and that they will demand even more of our attention. We are just starting to see the early edges of this with wearable technology, virtual reality, gaming, and the “internet of things.”
Stewarding our Attention
What is the church’s call in an environment which commodifies our people’s time and attention? Some will question whether participating in these digital platforms is even a good idea and look for other options. Certainly, the Christian tradition has resources to help us keep our attention focused on God and neighbor, whether that is reclaiming sabbath, placing a high value on personal relationships, encouraging loving service to our neighbor, worship, and critical engagement with media and culture (see Philippians 4:8).
However, truth be told, if we want to help our people not become commodities, we will have to stop treating people like commodities ourselves. For, so much of our approach typical to stewardship, sometimes called the “butts and bucks” model, has treated people as just that. The calculus has been: attention and attendance equals giving. Greater participation, thus more attention, equals more giving. We have been playing the same game, but we have justified it because of the higher aspirations and ideals it supports. Nonetheless, it is still a form of commoditization.
Subjects, Not Objects
In her book Imagining Abundance, Kerry Alys Robinson provides a helpful correction by inviting us to treat our givers as subjects, not objects. She writes, “What we realized was that we were unwittingly viewing donors as objects to try to get as much money from as quickly and painlessly as possible, rather than as subjects in their own right. Donor prospects are not objects; they are subjects, and like all of us, they want to contribute to something meaningful and life-giving and successful. Like us, they too search for meaning, have fears and hopes, desires and regrets, and beliefs that should be acknowledged and reverenced.”
If we approach stewardship, intentionally or unintentionally, as part of a competition for people’s attention, we will lose. Our homespun livestreams and tiny marketing budgets will never compete with global technology companies. However, where we can succeed—where we can authentically practice the ministry of stewardship—is listening to our people’s hopes and dreams, help them make meaning, and then practice their faith in a way that makes a positive difference in the world through our faith communities or in other ways.
In the Reign of God, the attention economy is about not about the attention we receive, it is about the attention we give. That is something that Netflix will never provide, no matter how sophisticated its algorithms.