The Attention Economy, the Commissioning of Souls

January 26th, 2020

Peracher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

To listen to the sermon click here.

Today is our Annual Meeting, and it is our tradition on this day to commission those involved in ministries here at Epiphany. We’ll get to that at the end of the sermon.

But first, let me tell you a story of a sixteen-year-old boy who wanted to learn to play the guitar. He did what sixteen-year-old boys do, he went to You Tube and found an instructional video. The guy teaching was well “liked,” and so the boy began.  But it turned out that in addition to being a guitar teacher, the man in the video was also a proponent of extreme, rather hateful, political views and would carry on about them during the guitar lesson.

Because of the algorithms of You Tube, which create viewing “recommendations,” the boy was not only exposed to other guitar music, as you would imagine, but also, to videos that reflected the guitar teacher’s particular worldview. Each time the boy viewed a “recommended” video a more extreme one would pop up. Eventually, the boy gave up the guitar, to pursue his new passion of radical politics; his parents were stunned. This came out of the blue, or so it seemed. (Down the Rabbit Hole (Attention Economy Part II) by Tim Weinhold)

Once upon a time the economic engine of society was hunting and gathering; then it became farming; after that the industrial revolution took economic center stage. Then came the information economy, with its math and science and research giving flight to aerospace and pharma and communications. Today the engine of economic development is your attention.

We live in the age of the Attention Economy, and the battle is for your eyeballs.

The 800-pound-gorillas fighting for supremacy in the Attention Economy are Facebook, and You Tube, and Google, and NetFlix, and Fox News, and MSNBC, and the NFL… Did you know that a billion viewer hours occurs on You Tube each day…

There was a time when the church had a monopoly on the Attention Economy.  There was a time when everything shut down on Sundays and communities the world over stopped working and came to church to pay attention to the preacher, and, hopefully, to God. 

Over the last twenty years, maybe more, the church’s Attention Economy market share has slipped precipitously. Here is why: What the church requires that You Tube, Facebook, Google and Netflix do not, is adherence to time and place. Worship happens in a place at a particular time. It requires a commitment, and some planning, and changing up your schedule to adhere a time set by someone else. Whereas on the virtual Attention Economy platforms you can watch what you want, when you want, where you want, and as much as you want…at your whim, no place or time required.

And so, in this brave new world of the Attention Economy if the church’s message is to endure we have to articulate why bricks and mortar, flesh and blood, and incarnational presence are necessary for a healthy society.

Here is the good news, science is on our side. A study at Harvard University, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, followed 5,000 youth between the ages of 8–14 over a period of time, and found that youth who attended religious services at least weekly in childhood and adolescence were approximately: 18% more likely to report higher happiness as young adults; they were 29% more likely to volunteer in their communities, and 33% less likely to use illicit drugs. Those who prayed at least daily while growing up were 16% more likely to report higher happiness as young adults; 30% less likely to have started having sex at a young age, and 40% less likely to have sexually transmitted diseases than to those who never prayed.

And yet, church attendance in American is falling…and I think one reason why is that we didn’t realize we were part of the Attention Economy, and we weren’t out there articulating why bricks and mortar, flesh and blood, and incarnation are what gives health and higher rates of happiness than watching what you want, when you want, where you want, and as much as you want…

This battle for our eyeballs sort of snuck up on us. We didn’t know its algorithms would drive our children to places of polarization; and we didn’t know that it could lead to such isolation; and we didn’t know that it could cause depression and even suicide. We didn’t know.  It just showed up…out of the blue. But now we know. Now our eyes are opened. Now we have the data. AND we have the antidote –bricks and mortar, flesh and blood, incarnation.

So, here is what we can do…
Two things:

  1. continue being church;
  2. and vigorously and actively articulate why church matters more than ever in the Attention Economy!

Here is what we can do because we care about this generation and future generations, we can actively share with our children and neighbors and our parents and friends and colleagues that committing themselves to a particular time and a particular place is good for us and good for the community. That getting together week in and week out to attend to something bigger than our selves with the same old people and different people, with strangers and friends, of all ages, and all walks of life is good for us and good for the community. 

We will give them the facts…hard data is the friend of worship and prayer in the age of the Attention Economy. But, we will also be honest, confessing to them that it was not always good for individuals or communities when the church  held a monopoly on the Attention Economy. Me must own this and confess it!

There were bad priests, and bad denominations, and bad teachings, and horrible misinterpretations that crushed peoples trust in the church. And it may be that it was this loss of trust that gave rise the new giants of the Attention Economy; Facebook, YouTube, Google and the like. 

And yet, I believe their ascent is good news for the church, because it has made us look inward and ask: What are we doing? Why are we doing it? And how can it help people? And the core answer we come up with is the one that spawn Christianity in the first place…incarnation.

It is a word that means relationship is primary; relationship between me and God, and you and God, and me and you. What we offer is the communion of souls. What we offer is heart health and a path towards holiness. What we offer is transcendence and transformation. What we offer is a connection that runs deep…and it doesn’t transmit over the Internet.

The soul can’t dance in the virtual realm because there is no floor to dance upon. The soul needs a place, and the soul needs a time. If the soul is to flourish it needs bricks and mortar, flesh and blood, incarnation.

Epiphany is the dance floor where souls can be drawn up into the mystery of God; souls yearning to brush against eternity, souls yearning to experience a magnificent lightness of being.

We come here to dance

(DLC to come down into the congregation)

We dance when we study together.  Stand up if you are part of a study group; if you have participated in adult formation at Epiphany this past year.

We dance when we care for children. Stand up if you have helped with Children’s formation or the Well.

We dance when we reach out beyond our walls in service. Stand up if you are part of a service and outreach activity this past year whether it be by helping with Have a Heart to apartment clean up.

We dance when we gather in fellowship. Stand up if you are part of hospitality, or bringing food, or a small group of any sort here at the church.

We dance when we care for those who are ill or can’t get to church.  Stand up if you are part of a pastoral care ministry.

We dance when we do art together, whether singing like the choir or curating the St. John’s Bible or participating in All Threads. Stand up.

We dance when we work to get stuff done.  Stand up if you service through buildings and grounds or in the office.

We dance when we serve in the worship services. Stand up if you are part of anything to do with worship and this everything from serving at Parkshore to ushering to proofing bulletins.

Now everyone who has been called by God to dance soul to soul here at Epiphany in the mystery of God stand up to be commissioned as an evangelist of souls!

I commission you today…. (say a Holy Spirit Prayer of Commissioning)