Digital Discernment

Not too long ago Apple ran into the negative side of the digital revolution they themselves have fueled.  Soon after releasing their long anticipated new phone, consumers soon struggled with their new gadget.  The PR problem soon escalated when Consumer Reports confirmed the problems.  Apple, known for its tight-lipped protocols, barely acknowledged the reports.  That is until the problem reached their own cyber-community at  Soon it became clear that any mention of the phone’s problems in the support forum were being deleted.  In the print age such Machiavellian practice would have gone unnoticed, but the internet has a way of revealing even the deepest secrets.

In chapters 5 and 6 of Groundswell Li and Bernoff help describe how Apple has so misunderstood its own digital medium.  Basically they have forgotten that people use internet.  The remedy for such amnesia is simple: Active Listening. In a marketing culture, such a shift is significant, but fundamental to navigating the groundswell effect (125).  For those of us in the Church today, this may seem like old news.

Or is it?  Terms like marketing, brand management, and even spin control may not be in our vocabulary, or have much theological grounding, but they have made their way into our thinking.  The latest press coverage of the Vatican’s handling of the sex abuse allegations reveals just how much PR defines how we as the Church interact with society.

Li and Bernhoff make it clear in chapters 5 and 6 that the groundswell has changed how organizations, denominational or corporate, interact with the public.  The Vatican and Apple exhibit a control or management approach while Li and Bernhoff talk about listening and response.  It is striking that, given the critique of digital isolation on the internet,  such a listening posture assumes that people are on the other side of the wire.  This is evident throughout the language of listening, responding, and community throughout the book.  The groundswell asks us to interact with our public, not to act funnels of information and resources.

We as Brethren appear to do a lot of listening, but how much do we actually engage our fellow brothers and sisters?  By sharing information we often think we are communicating, but in our groundswell culture publicity and marketing are akin to shouting in someone’s face.  As Li and Bernoff write; “The transition from shouting to conversation will challenge your marketing department” (125).  The primary posture then, is one of active listening.

The Quakers help us, as people of faith, live into this new posture through the practice of a Clearness Committee.  This model of shared discernment is a terrific model for engaging the groundswell.  Rather than managing the conversation, the clearness model puts the community in the position of asking questions before making declarations.  Two things emerge as the questions and responses flow.  First, the other is acknowledged and affirmed.  His or her perspective and ideas are valued.  Second, the hierarchy implicit in a management model disappears in favor of collaboration, of a common search for understanding.  As Elizabeth Drescher commented in her article on simple living: ” Maybe we’re practicing a new mode of engagement that the apparent simplicity of Amish life allows us– and perhaps them– to more safely envision.”

Questions for our consideration

How do we listen to the groundswell?

In what ways are we already listening?  How are we responding, from a management perspective or as a Clearness Committee?

What are some ways we can engage the people already talking about the Church of the Brethren in the groundswell?

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