Or, is the approach institutions take to being transformed by social technologies a sacrament of a different kind?
For almost 15 years, I have been involved in various shapes of conversations around the intersection of faith and connected technologies. What first started out as web UI help to a PDA application developer became an online magazine, which itself sparked several faith-based organizations to consider and transform themselves to the very reality that the pulpit isn’t the focal point of personal faith journeys. I have had a very early seat at the front of what the rise of mobile and connectivity has meant to faith communities and organizations. In transitioning from being a #mobmin SME to other intersections of faith, connectivity, and progress, it’s helpful to continue some of those discussions.
Sparked by TheoTek
This writing is sparked from the title of a past podcast/Hangout I’m a part of called TheoTek. The week’s topic sparked when a few of us were speaking well before the show about the Bloomberg Tech article where Mark Gurman reports on the dissent happening with Mac loyalists. Being a suite of macOS and iOS users between us on the podcast/Hangout, we started down the line of discussion towards why it does or doesn’t matter that Apple pushes a larger share of resources towards a platform that doesn’t pay the bills versus the one that is (now, the macOS product line is making Apple much money; it’s just that the iPhone product line is also doing so, a matter of exponents greater). As we conversed, we eventually got to the point where we opined on the emphasis Bible/faith-based software and services companies put towards serving existing users, casual users, and (hopefully positioning towards) new users. We tabled the Slack chat for the show:
A few questions we worked through:
- Why do theo-techies care about macOS so much?
- What do theo-techies actually do with tech (that necessitates a platform like Windows/macOS versus iOS/Android/other)?
The topic lingered a bit and so I’d like to throw out a few other thoughts, some of which might be a repeat of what’s in the show, some well beyond the audience our podcast/Hangout aims for.
MacOS isn’t the primary focus of Apple, Inc. To those who have either followed or had some significant measure of life impacted by Apple’s products, the disruption is jarring. However, it only feels that way because Apple [computer] is what was loved, not Apple (lifestyle) which makes computing run in its right space as an enabler not director.
This is most felt by those who have recently acquired and use the 2016 MacBook Pro — declared as anything but “Pro” because it’s being measured against the shadows of the former model and the proported needs by those who want to at least have the engine of a computer that produces the next big thing. I get it. Software isn’t being written better and so having more space, more power, and more ports is the answer. Kind of like the answer to traveling further being to add faster horses to your carriage.
In faith software, the primary audience has been the (re)producers of the message (pastors, teachers) and their accountants (content libraries, CRM, and fund management systems make up the bulk of “faith” software’s purchases). To these audiences, there’s no need to have mobile, tablet, VR/AR/MR interfaces unless it makes those buckets easier to admin and monetize. And so there’s been very little adventure outside of those business models. Therefore, to those (re)producers of the message and their accountants, the technology really doesn’t need to move away from the systems and platforms currently served.
However, the audience moves. They’ve moved a lot. My good friend Tomi Ahonen publishes a mobile almanac aggregating the numbers of mobile users, services, and those impacts across all the world’s regions (preview of this year’s). What’s most interesting is looking at how fast the audience went from PC to mobile to mixed/social. “Meet me where I’m connected” is what some folks like to think of that as. And it’s appropriate. It’s not really a case of “download my app to give/connect to my faith community;” it’s evolved very quickly into “are you (the faith community) were I am.” That platform can be empowered (re)producers, but it’s usually adherents and dissidents pushing the pace.
Cannibalize or Lag
Now, Apple’s primary focus is found in the iPhone and everything that enables that ecosystem to continue apace. The macOS suite of products has use, but it has declining use not just amongst Apple’s suite of products, but across computing as a whole (all PCs are down, Apple’s is just less down than others). When Apple decides that the iPhone, or even iOS isn’t good enough for their endeavors, they will make the shift and let their vision of making a great product outpace their keeping a great profit perspective. This is the change happening with macOS, and to their audience it’s painful.
To contrast that, it has been very rare that I’ve found faith-based software or services aiming first to make a great product. To be frank, it’s difficult to reverse the culture of “giving things away in order to get reach” that many pockets of faith-based products have found themselves. Therefore many products have intentionality of a decent participant experience, but long term may not meet those expectations.
Those who have been able to cycle to a paid model of some kind, keep their audience by not quickly shifting the floor from under them (moving from one platform of the day to the next), but slowly moving them along the hallway until they find that you were making a better room for them all along. Faith software and services revolves around languages, hardware, rights management, and a quagmire of other legal issues. It doesn’t necessarily move slow because it wants to; but it lags often because it has to.
This kind of lagging doesn’t allow much space for creating new experiences or developing afresh on new platforms quickly (the UX trend). For example, when I attended a student missions conference in 2015, I was very happy to see mission organizations who took it upon themselves to learn how VR/AR/MR authoring environments (or partner with those who know) to create alternate reality experiences of the very vocational journeys they’d previously spent hours explaining, writing, and hoping were convincing enough. There were no large bible/faith software platforms pushing into this space in that venue— their approaches literally amounted to a mailing list and sales team pushing messaging. The audience was in a space where there was nary a boundary between connectivity and missions, the incumbents were far from that boundary protecting what they knew. It isn’t a wrong option, just noticeable.
I made the statement years back that ecosystems are the new platforms. There was a presence of mind then with mobile platforms that the perspectives on how software and services relate need to thread more than just a single (producer) context. Mobile makes that clear; social even more so (and hopefully VR/AR/MR goes further still). Are faith software/services able to disrupt themselves and more to those perspectives, or does the institution that is a faith [culture] need to lag in this space in order to literally live what is preached?
Experiment and/or Enable
I had a good platform with my online magazine to experiment at the edge of tech and audience. In taking advantage of it, I learned a lot and was able to pass on several lessons to the orgs who would listen.
One of the lessons that I learned most of all is that the institution is the frame that’s most afraid of the “Apple effect.” The community (the social constructs that make up faith communities) actually moved at the same, or faster pace than other streams. When I was leading groups into remixing radio content for mobile use, there were already communities not waiting for them and publishing their wares on YouTube and similar. Groups who were ahead of the pack in making groupware found themselves competitions against smaller communities who found following and admin functions of Yahoo/Google/Facebook/etc groups easier and cheaper to deal with. And probably most impressive, I watched non-English communities figure out offline content sharing and monetization well before faith communities paid attention.
Does the current state of faith software/services succeed therefore on enabling better expressions/realizations of faith? Is what I notice as a concentration of tools to leadership/admin actually the proof that this space does put the right tent poles into the ground? Or, is it more true that communities dominate faith-filled expressions? That their use/misuse of technologies and behaviors point not to the success of theo-tech, but it’s failure to meet the community at their points of generating/living faith? I don’t have clear answers to these questions. However, shoehorning the question into the frame of a brand that’s familiar does seem to lead down appropriate perspectives.
Unfinished Paradigm Shifts
For Apple, I’m wondering if it really matters that they are moving past macOS? While it’s been a very good foundation for everything they’ve done for the past 40+ years, it’s been the more recent case for them to move past what’s working now to what will work for them later. Parts of iOS point to this, the iPhone (or at least its personal computing shape) points to this almost more truly than much else. While there are users of macOS, do their tools, methods, hacks, and helps actually keep Apple moving forward, or finally start being a drag to what forward looks like for them?
I come to theo-techies with a similar question. Is the platform your study software, presentation software, CRM, etc. built on really pushing your community’s expression of faith forward, or does it make more rigid your expression (both are good responses)? When that software or service platform shifts, do your methods? One of the defining characteristics of faiths that have lasted more than a few generations has been their ability to assimilate and adapt a different narrative but not lose the core characteristics which make that faith tenable. Being hitched to macOS in an age when iOS is the cultural narrative doesn’t seem to make sense unless macOS adds some skills from its disciple.
…When I’m up at ABCNJ and get called into a meeting, my MacBook stays on my desk. When I’m heading out for a day of writing, my MacBook never comes with me “just in case 11.” When I’m out on a photo shoot, I don’t need my MacBook with me to begin the process of organizing my images. Actually, I don’t need it with me at all. I can load the files from my camera to either my iPhone or iPad Pro 12, do my edits, and let the files sync to Adobe Creative Cloud when I’m back on wifi. I will now go days without ever physically touching my MacBook, and not lose anything in terms of productivity…
That quote comes from one who was also on the TheoTek hangout mentioned earlier. He’s asked himself these and several similar questions over the course of the many years I’ve known him. Those questions allowed him to ask what he really wants of the tech that’s in his space. It’s caused some pretty neat experiments, and transformed a few lives in his faith community.
Is the approach institutions take to being transformed by social technologies a sacrament of a different kind? Yes. Does that mean Apple/Google/etc. have ruined bible software? Probably so. But, if the faith doesn’t evolve, the tech will replace its voice. And no theo-techie wants to be known as serving the blue screen or it’s free-wheeling green-keyed cousin.
While I no longer push content thru it, there are nearly 12 years worth of insights and experiments on mobile and faith at Mobile Ministry Magazine. You can however find me on the TheoTek podcast/hangout talking on these and other faith-tech topics. For specific conversations or consulting in this space, please connect with me at workshops/conferences or by booking directly.