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How Luther went viral: Church, movement and social media

Today NHPR's Word of Mouth featured Tom Standage of The Economist magazine. Tom wrote an article comparing the Protestant Reformation to the current use of social media in the Arab Spring. Martin Luther, he says, was a relatively unknown cleric who took advantage of the hottest technology of 1517. He wrote short articles and theses, printed short and punchy pamphlets and also developed catchy hymns to pass his message along.

Tom points out three major ways that the Reformation-age use of printing parallels our own social media. First, he connected directly with the everyman. He wrote in German, not Latin. He lead singing that stuck with people. He wrote short, non-theological works to make powerful points.

Second, the church of his day was incapable of engaging people the same way. When the church wanted to refute Luther, they wrote in Latin and attacked his theology. This mode ensured that church leaders understood, but it failed to capture the everyman the way that Luther did.

Finally, it meant that Martin Luther ultimately could not control his own message. Luther had to let go of his message as people interpreted him, embellished on his message and then acted on his words. On the negative side, this lead to a bloody peasant's rebellion that Luther had to distance himself from. On the positive side, it meant that the Reformation was free to spread out of Germany and across the world.

The article and the broadcast have a lot of important lessons for us a church leaders who are so slow to adapt to new ways of sharing our message.

Read the article here.

Listen to the NHPR broadcast here.

 

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