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Is the Medium Really the Message?

Apr 20, 2017 9:45:00 AM

Is the Medium Really the Message?

A half-century after its publishing, Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man continues to be a popular work in the area of media and communications. In the opening paragraph, he proposes the following:

“In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium—that is, of any extension of ourselves—result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.”

Now, to be clear, the use of the term medium doesn’t always apply to a specific technology in the sense that we typically use the word. Andrew McLuhan, Marshall’s grandson, explains this distinction: “He was talking about the effects of technology, not about the technology itself — a telephone or a radio or a computer — but what and how the technology affects people and societies.”

Marshall McLuhan’s thesis is that the resulting changes from a medium actually become the message. This was true for McLuhan as he reflected on technological advances through the ages, and can still be true in our world of exponential changes and advances in technology. The resulting consequences of these advancements certainly carry a message that, whether implicitly or explicitly, affect us as people.

McLuhan writes: “The medium is the message because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action. The content or uses of such media are as diverse as they are ineffectual in shaping the form of human association. Indeed, it is only too typical that the 'content' of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium.”

Did you catch that? It’s the medium that “shapes and controls” how people associate and act. And those things dictate what message is communicated.

The Church's Medium

So how does this relate to the Church? In this Easter season, we’re reminded in very clear ways what our message is as the Church: Christ was crucified and was raised from the dead to save us from sin and give us eternal life. This message, proclaimed for 2,000 years, does not change. However, I believe that McLuhan’s work has much to say to our churches as we think about communicating this Gospel message to Christians and non-Christians alike.

Remember that the medium is the effect of, or the environment created by, an object or technology, not the actual object or technology. The environment (physical, emotional, intellectual, and even spiritual) in which we communicate the Gospel message can have an effect on those receiving the message.

In some cases, the medium we choose might actually cloud the Gospel or replace it with a false gospel. In other situations, the chosen medium might help someone who has never heard the Gospel hear it clearly for the first time. It’s not always easy to know how the medium might affect the Gospel message, but it’s worth pondering and exploring the connection between the two.

In the first article of the Creed, we confess that God “has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them.” Do we consider these senses when communicating the Gospel message? Do we take into account how God has wired us, how we perceive information, and the environment we’re in?

I could very easily write a number of posts analyzing the messages we send by the media we use in our churches, and how those messages might be clear Gospel proclamation or how they might impede the hearing of the Gospel. That may happen in the future, but for now, I’ll leave you with three takeaways as you ponder the connection between medium and message.

#1: Faith comes by hearing.

Paul lays this out clearly in Romans 10. Consider what effects your choice of medium might have on this hearing.

#2: Don’t make assumptions.

Don’t assume that all hearers hear the same message the same way, even for hearers of similar demographics. Don’t assume that a new medium will be more effective because it’s a trendy piece of technology. Don’t assume that a medium that was effective 50 years ago is still effective today.

#3: Get feedback.

Ask people in your church and your community for feedback about the effectiveness of certain media in communicating the Gospel. Don’t be afraid to ask for help in improving your media to facilitate a better hearing of the Gospel.

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Billy Schultz

Written by Billy Schultz

Billy serves as Director of Communications and Mission Support for the Minnesota South District. A resident of St. Paul, he spends his free time leading worship, playing golf, and drinking cold press.