Sermon: An age of one

Here is the sermon I gave on Oct. 30 at Pilgrim Congregational Church, Warren, NJ.

The age of one – Jeff Jarvis

I believe we are entering the age of the individual, when technology empowers each of us, anywhere in the world, to take back some small measure of control of our lives from corporations, institutions, and governments. This presents us with new freedoms, new opportunities, new responsibilities, and new dangers. I see this age of the empowered individual as a good thing… and a trend that actually has implications for us as Congregationalists and as members of Pilgrim Church.

Let me explain why I think this age is upon us, what affect it has on us and our communities, and how this could possibly relate to our church.

It starts with the internet. I am often accused of being an online triumphalist. Well, guilty. This amazing new means of connecting people did change my career and my life. But far more important, I believe it is changing the world as fundamentally as Gutenberg did with his movable type. What Gutenberg really did, of course, was tear down the doors where Martin Luther banged his nails. They used translation of the Bible into the vulgate, into the language of the people, and the technology printing to bring the word of God directly to His children, bypassing the priesthood.

My friend Andrew Tyndall, a TV news expert in New York, wrote this on my weblog about his ancestor, William Tyndale, the first to translate the Bible into English before he was burned at the stake for heresy.

“Arguing with a Roman prelate, Tyndale famously said (according to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs): ‘I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life, ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth a plough shall know more of the scripture than thou dost.’

“Tyndale’s testaments were printed in miniature format, like today’s paperbacks, so that they could be more easily smuggled – and also fit into that ploughhand’s pocket.”

Andrew Tyndall’s father, he recalls, “is fond of saying that Tyndale, if he were alive in these times, would have used the Internet rather than the printing press to spread the word.”

The internet does, indeed, grant people the freedom and power of words.

Once before when I stood here, I told you about friends I have made on the internet in Iran, Iraq, China, Maylasia, all over the world, who can now broadcast their stories, their truths, to every corner of the globe, defying the regimes that would imprison their thoughts. I have seen single brave souls begin to launch revolutions in their nations, which is made possible by the internet. That is the new power of the individual.

On a less profound scale, in media, it used to be that you could speak to your entire community only if you were privileged enough to own a printing press or a broadcast tower. But now, anyone can publish. This means that a few bloggers can bring Dan Rather, Trent Lott, Tom Delay, or The New York Times down at least a few notches. It also means that anyone with talent and something to say can start a media company and even earn a living at it. Jake is earning money from ads on his blog. Two young people I know put out a video show online and without any expensive studios or equipment or cable deals, they already have half the audience of some of the better known shows on CNN. They are empowered.

In business, our virtual world of connections means that anyone can also start a worldwide company. Fortune magazine recently profiled two men – one who started a scooter company and another who started selling music players inside Pez candy dispensers – and they both did it by using outsourced manufacturing, shipping, marketing, everything. No longer do you need to toil in a giant corporation to contribute to the nation’s or your own economy. Now, just by getting on the internet from India, you can serve customers in America. Just by opening up shop on eBay, you can compete with Walmart in a small way.

So small is the new big. For thanks to this miracle of worldwide, instantaneous communication, the definition of “big enough” has changed. You no longer have to own a network or a factory or produce blockbusters or millions of widgets to make a living. Now you can make just enough. This, I believe, will continue the exodus we see from company jobs to self-employed, self-directed individual freedom.

And we’ll see the same trend of empowerment come even to education, where people are cooperating to write a free encyclopedia at and free textbooks at We see empowerment come to technology in the open-source movement, in which genius technicians come together from anywhere to create great programs not because they will get rich but just because they can and they should. We’ll see empowerment come to politics, as your neighbors wage independent campaigns from their blogs. We’ll see empowerment come to government, where a single muckraker can use the freedom of information act to find out what’s happening in Washington and tell the nation. Just last week, House Speaker Dennis Hastert starting a blog. We’re certainly seeing empowerment happen in the consumer marketplace: I bought a lemon of a Dell computer and complained about it online only to find, to my surprise, hundreds of people sharing their similar tales of woe, until the chorus of complaint grew so loud that Business Week magazine wrote about it. I got a refund.

But it’s not just about money. I’ve come to know a man named Tom Evslin who single-handedly made online explode when, while at AT&T in Bridgewater, he set the price for all-you-can-use internet access. He says that one thing the internet has taught him is this:

“Anthropologically we have a much greater urge to cooperate and to do cooperative things than we knew that we had as a species. [For example take] the help forums that grow up around every possible service where there’s a bunch of volunteers basically providing support because they want to…. We assumed that people only did things that they got paid for doing…”

And so we are seeing the empowerment of the indivdual in good works, as well. For after the tragedy of Katrina, we saw hundreds of millions of dollars pour in online. And on a smaller scale, I have met a score of people who used the internet to rally help for the storm’s victims. Actually, we saw a surplus of good deeds online, with more than 50 places where family and friends could reach out to try to find the missing. The problem was that you couldn’t find the missing for all the places there were to find the missing. I wrote online that we, the internet community, needed to come together and learn from prior disasters to help better in the next. I was humbled to soon sit in a room in San Francisco with 45 people who thought the same way and wanted to come together to find better ways. Among them: a man who started a weblog to share news among the diaspora of Slidell, Louisiana, and became a leader online… engineers from Yahoo who took those 50 message boards for the missing and created programming to search for names across all of them them… more Yahoo engineers who went to the Red Cross to help with their computers when they were overloaded… a woman who started a weblog just to help people in one town… a man who plans how to help people with special needs when, God forbid, the big earthquake hits San Francisco… and on and on. These were all individuals who did something to help after Katrina, because they could.

We are, indeed, entering the age of the empowered individual.

This is not good news to everyone. This is not good news to media moguls and business magnates who see their centralized, highly controlled worlds nibbled away by us little people. This is not good news to political leaders who will have to learn how to share. This is not good news to self-proclaimed religious and moral leaders who think they should tell us what to think and how to act and what to say and what to see. And this is not good news to fundamentalists of various stripes who believe in the concreteness of a word over the power of thought and heart and deed… and humanity. These forces fear the power of individual freedom. I, for one, do not. I celebrate it.

Are there bad individuals? Of course, there are. But I have seen online that given the chance to rally round and fix our communities, we do. We are are meant to live in society. What’s even more intriguing is that we’re proving to be smarter in groups than alone. James Surowiecki wrote a fascinating book called The Wisdom of the Crowds in which he argued that conventional thinking is wrong: While our culture trusts experts and distrusts the masses, Surowiecki says that “under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.” A large group will reliably make better predictions of events, such as stock prices, than one expert. Google, our biggest search engine, is the product of the wisdom of the crowds, for it raises to the top of its results the entries that get the most links and clicks; it assumes that we know best. Google collects the wisdom of the crowd. We are meant to think together.

As trivial, as silly as this sounds, I started learning to respect the wisdom of my fellow Americans when I was a TV critic in the mid ’80s. That was an important time, for it was the moment when more than half of American homes started using the remote control. The clicker became part of our lives … and part of marital discourse on couches coast to coast. I’m fond of saying that the remote control, not Gutenberg’s press, was the more important invention in the history of culture, for it gave all of us control of the consumption of media and of that part of our lives. And what happened then? What happened when we could turn away from the junk we were being fed? TV got better. The age of the Beverly Hillbillies yielded to the age of Hill St. Blues and Cosby. I pointed this out once and a TV producer said, “Jarvis, you are defending the taste of the American people.” And I recoiled. That would be utter heresy for a member of the media elite, eh? But I quickly saw that she was right. Given the chance to watch good TV, we choose it. We do have taste.

And so I became a populist. I realized that if we cannot trust our fellow man with television, then why would we trust them with the rest of life? If you don’t believe in the inherent intelligence and good will of your fellow citizens – of God’s own children – then you really can’t believe in democracy. Otherwise, why would you allow people to elect their leaders? And if you don’t trust the wisdom of the people, then you can’t believe in free markets, for why would we trust consumers to chose what’s best? And you can’t believe in education, for why should you bother bettering fools. And you can’t believe in reform religion – our religion – for why should you trust the people to have a direct relationship with God? How can you trust the people to interpret and live by His word?

There are those who would accuse us of being humanists or relativists, words they sometimes spit out as if they are calling us heretics. But I argue strenuously that it is a higher form of belief not just to recite words, or to follow the orders of others, but to take those words into our own hearts as we try to make judgments about what is right to do. No authority on earth and no selection of words can tell us what to do in every situation we face in life without our judgment. We must face ethical and moral and religous questions every day and we must do so armed not just with our own sense of right and wrong but with what we have learned here. We take the word of God and see that it is living in us as we discern the right path.

That is what we Congregationalists believe: If you came here from another church or tradition, you surely noticed quickly that we do not recite creeds. We believe that we must answer these questions of faith and life, each of us, but not alone: We come together to discern God’s way in and through our lives.

And so we have our answer to those who would accuse us of being loners, isolationists, egotists, antisocial. If we believe in the power of the individual, they’d say, why would we bother to involve ourselves with our fellow man, to help or learn from or respect him?

And the answer is: We come together because we choose to. We come here because we need to, want to, choose to. We congregate. We are Congregationalists.

We believe that we are stronger together, wiser together, better together than apart. But we are not here because some authority ordered us to be here. We are not here because we are following some law of man or the land or even of God. We are not here for a free lunch… or even free coffee cake. We are here because we know we are better together.

This is our natural state: in community, in society, congregated. I see this online, where people come together around no end of shared interests, needs, abilities, and tastes. We see it in this nation, where we have taken the essential beliefs and organizational structures of reform religion and the freedom and responsibility of individuals in a community and turned that system of beliefs into the finest and strongest exhibition of democracy and the power of a community of equals in the history of mankind. And we see the power of community here, every Sunday, as we come together to learn and share and help and enjoy. But most of all, we come together to grow. For the Pilgrim Congregational Church we see today is not the Pilgrim Church of last year or five years ago or at its founding. It grows with us, and we with it.

So why would I bring this up now? Because next week, our beloved senior minister, Dr. Ken Wildrick, will be returning to us for his last season in this pulpit. We will be seeing many changes. And there will be changes we will not see until it is time, until the Pastor Search Committee works hard and discerns together what they best believe our church needs and we come together to vote on that decision. That is unsettling; uncertainty and change always are.

But we cannot back away and say, well, the church isn’t what it was yesterday or last year, or I don’t know what it will be tomorrow, so I don’t know what to do with that. We cannot say that this church is rudderless because the truth is that this church has every hand on the tiller … every hand.

We are empowered individuals, each and every one of us. We are empowered by God to think and act and learn and interpret His word in our lives and in our time and in our community. We are empowered by this very church and its structure of organization and beliefs to take charge wherever we can and should. The church is not one man or one job title or one committee or one set of bylaws or one club or one activity. The church is every one of us, empowered individuals who chose to come together to make a church.

So we must continue to make this church, now more than ever. As the courageous
reformers of Christianity did when they recognized the gift God had given us in the power of thought and word and deed, we must use that power to act individually and together here. As the founders of Pilgrim Congregational did when they met in living rooms and synagogues and school cafeterias and as they poured out their money and time and effort and love, so must we find the ways that we, as individuals, can add one more stone to this foundation.

There are many opportunities: We can use a few more people on the Diaconate to help guide the church’s activities and spiritual life. Interested? Talk to one of the ministers or Bonnie Vinciquera or me. We can use a few people to have the time of their lives teaching our young people for just a few weeks in church school. Tempted? See Susan Ivan or Tammy Westmark. We need people to sing in the choir. Talented… or not? Doesn’t matter. See Tom Paster, who’ll make you sound talented. We need people to bring flowers and sunlight to our shut-ins. Able? See Fleur Conrad. We need people to help with our fellowship dinners and fundraising rummage sale or just to bring in some of that coffee cake to the narthex or to usher or greet. Eager? See those sign-up sheets in the back of the church. See a need? Fill it. See an opportunity? Take it. You have the power. Each of us does.

For that is what freedom is all about. That is what being an empowered individual truly means in this age. It means we have the freedom and power to choose to do what is right and good together. We have the freedom to congregate and we do.