Viral: when the transmission of a message takes on a life of its own, spanning far beyond the reach of the original sender.
In 1455, Johannes Gutenberg produced 200 illustrated Bibles in Latin, using his now famous printing press. He didn’t invent the press or movable type even, the Chinese had him beat by a millennium. What he did do however, was enhance the design and bring it into close proximity to Martin Luther. When Luther wrote his 95 Thesis, his compatriots used the printing press to distribute it to the masses. Luther was amazed at how fast it spread and quickly adapted to the new medium, producing several more publications with more accessible language.
We’ve already witnessed social media’s ability to empower movements: Occupy Wall Street, The Arab Spring, Kony 2012, The Ice Bucket Challenge, Black Lives Matter, etc. In it’s time, the printing press served the same function, it allowed Luther to speak critically about the inherent power structures in a way that those power structures couldn’t easily control. These days, every successful institution knows how to control printed media to further their aims. They have adjusted. Social media has raised the bar. Now instead of merely getting information into more people’s hands, like the printing press, the people themselves create the story and share it faster and farther than ever before. As long as net neutrality is enforced and big companies like facebook, twitter, and Google don’t become evil, then this dynamic will persist.
In this time of amazing possibility, it feels like the church is stuck on writing books. In seminary, I must have read 500 pages of material a week (which I thoroughly enjoyed). I have yet to visit a pastors office without at least one full wall of books in it. We do book studies. I don’t want to undersell the importance of literacy, this is likely the most literate time in our history, but not because people are reading books, because they are reading posts! If we put as much time into book literacy as we did into digital literacy we might more often witness the execution of God’s mission on Earth on our feeds and in our hearts. The printing press fueled Luther’s Reformation, today’s technology in no less astounding for our times. What will it fuel?