The Spiritual Echo Chamber

In trying to explain the rash of abysmal election predictions by media pundits, political analysts offered the concept of the “echo chamber.” The echo chamber is both a product of and a contributor to extreme polarization. When we speak and listen only to like-minded folks and hang around only those who share our views, our own biases become amplified. Pretty soon, all I hear is my own voice in stereo until I begin to think mine is the only sane voice out there.

Although my congregation is hardly what I would call like-minded, politically, I’ve recently begun to wonder if those of us who stand up in the pulpit are locking ourselves in an echo chamber. The religious cliché for this, of course, is “preaching to the choir,” but what I’m talking about is more than that.

In watching a recent motion picture produced by a Christian group for general, secular audiences, I felt like I entered the echo chamber. This earnest effort tried hard to make Christianity authentic and appealing to the unchurched, but the result was cringe-worthy even to me. When you spend life in an echo chamber, you don’t recognize when you’ve lapsed into jargon, habits, and attitudes that makes Christianity appear out of touch with the rest of the world.

Standing in the pulpit echo chamber, we communicate with a very small audience of people, and it’s largely the same people every week. We try to reach out and evangelize, but find ourselves more and more alienated from those people outside our walls. One solution seems to be to get out and preach in places that those others frequent: malls, street corners, bars, and the like. But this seems painfully inefficient when there is a much better way to get outside our walls, namely the media.

Given the pioneering example of Martin Luther 500 years ago, it’s amazing that we in mainline Christianity have failed so miserably to proclaim through the media. Luther succeeded in his reformation movement largely because of the printing press that took his message out of the ecclesiastic echo chambers and into the realm of mainstream culture.

That’s not to say that his success was an accident of history. The Spirit seeks opportunity, and there it was, ready to be seized. The proclamation went out into the world where it could engage the public — all of the public — in real terms.

I’ve come to see the failure to use modern media for proclamation as mainline Christianity’s largest failing in the twentieth century. We ceded the public airwaves and print media to secular society and opportunistic religious sales folk with their own entrepreneurial or political spin on Christianity. I fear we are missing similar opportunities with the latest social media.

In our world, information, attitudes, conventional wisdom, and even ethics come from mass communication. As we speak from our pulpits to a limited audience, the message stays in the echo chamber while other messages and proclamations sweep the nation and the world. We’re not really in that conversation. Which is why most Americans, despite their professed belief in God, have no clue what the Christian church is really about.

Is a sermon delivered in an echo chamber really a proclamation? Imagine if Luther had done nothing but nail his proclamations to wooden doors and preach from the local pulpit. If we are serious about proclamation, we need to be using the communications outlets that God has made available to us. We need to be preaching to television audiences, radio stations, local newspapers, and web surfers.

A proclamation whispered in a closed room isn’t going to change lives.