First of all, congratulations to all those churches up and down the breadth of the country whose pastors, ministers and lay-people have stepped out of their comfort zones (and certainly out of the offline church zone) and set up online expressions of Church over the last two weeks. You are all marvellous! Many have seen increased congregations by doing so. Many have experienced the growth of community engagement. Many have felt the presence of their God online.
The capital ‘C’ for Church in the middle of the last paragraph is important. Jesus promised that where two or three gather in his name, he is there in the midst (Mt 18:20) and Pete Ward’s Liquid Church (among a fair few other books at the time) taught us that does not just mean coming together in physical church buildings but also in networked, online, liquid expressions of Church. Online Church is proper Church. It may not be the form we are used to but it is biblical — Christ present among his people wherever they congregate — offline or online. Enfleshed, multisensory beings no doubt feel more engaged in physical church. Digital, at present, limits us to our visual and auditory senses and we feel limited or not properly present. But nothing about digital engagement is virtual — as Christine Hine has written in Ethnography of the Internet, digitality today is embodied, embedded, and everyday.
While online church may well be a temporary measure for some of us, it’s been long awaited for many in the disabled, health-challenged or housebound communities, who have been socially distanced from Church for too long. Suddenly, when the able-bodied Church is unable to get into the buildings, the Church seems to have come alive to the digital possibilities, having turned a blind eye to those for whom this has been a persistent and real need for so long. Of course, where we can, we have made our churches disabled-friendly and if we make a special provision for the disabled, then mainline church may become an able-bodied-only church. I too felt this was the way forward. But when I have listened to those who minister in this field who are themselves often disabled, I realise that this simply has not worked. To Bill and Emma, to Christine and Dave, and the many others, I am sorry for my ignorance. And thank you for your Ordinary Office resources
The Centre for Digital Theology, formerly CODEC, has been working at Durham University for the last decade seeking to raise awareness of the need for the Church to take digital seriously. We have run a course called ‘Medialit’ every year for the last decade. But when we have sent invitations to colleges, dioceses, circuits and training insitutions, we have generally had a relatively low response. In the last few weeks, lots of former students who have taken the course over the years have written back to tell us how much it has enabled them to minister in difficult times and to adapt to online expressions of Church. We are grateful to have been of some help. But there was so much we could have done and could still do to prepare the Church on a much wider scale.
What do we know about Online Church?
1. It has been going for a while
Tim Hutchings has mapped the historical work in his book Creating Church Online (2017) and gives test cases back into the last century. The early work was done by Heidi Campbell and others in her New Media and Religion network in the States and beyond, in books like When Religion Meetings New Media (2010) and by Debbie Herring in the UK (“Towards Sacraments in Cyber Space”, Epworth Review 2008). Heidi has just released two new overviews of her two decades of research in this area that is well worth reading. But the roots of Online Church also lie within the Alt-Worship movements of the 1990s and continue on through to digital expressions of worship at Cathedrals, Churches and Festivals to this day. Online Church should not be seen as a new thing at all. It has just taken a long time to become mainstream!
2. It is a form of contextual mission
Ever since Vincent O’Donovan wrote Christianity Rediscovered (and for a long time before), the Church knew that the Gospel had to be translated for every new culture (Lamin Sanneh said it so well), and not just for every new language group. Christianity tends to find a fresh expression of itself within a new host culture. As such, Digital Culture is just the latest context for which we need to create a new expression of Christianity.
But Digital Culture has been here for ages. Bex Lewis, Kate Bruce and I explored the possibilities in 2013 in “Digital Communication, the Church and Mission” for the Resourcing Mission Bulletin in 2013, and I explored it within a Methodist Context in a lecture, then expanded to “Wesley’s Parish and the Digital Age” in Holiness Journal in 2016. In 2017, our work was featured in a BBC Futures article written by Chris Stokel-Walker, “How smartphones and social media are changing religion”. In the present day, my colleague Jonas Kurlberg and I are editing a collection of essays at the moment on Missio Dei for the Digital Age. Digital is the culture we all need to be addressing because of its pervasive influence across both the Global North and South.
3. It’s real and it is Church
Just as Welsh Church or Chinese Church are bona fide cultural expressions of Church, so too Online Church is a culturally embedded form of Church, making use of the affordances and opportunities offered by digital technology. We have had ministers/pastors engaged in digital church for some time. In 2015, Pam Smith wrote up her own extensive experience as a member of the digital clergy in Online Ministry and Mission — a great book exploring online ministry within the Diocese of Oxford i-Church. Of course, online sacraments are a big issue for Online Church, but with six important discussion papers released across the world on this subject in the last week, this is probably the basis for a different medium...
4. It’s about community
One of the key aspects of contemporary expressions of online Church has been the need for the local church to focus more on community development and enrichment than on being broadcast quality or broadcast culture driven. It is community that matters not performance. It is about Church not celebrities! So, my recent posting on http://facebook.com/premierdigi, where I have been doing most of my engagement in a public facing digital space: “Community, Community, Community”. But this is nothing new! Douglas Estes wrote all about the need for community development in his 2008 book, SimChurch and in a relatively recent talk at an academic conference on the subject: “The One Thing That Makes or Breaks Online Church”.
5. It connects church to those in need
At last year’s Premier Digital Conference in London, Tanya Marlow, a long time sufferer of ME, presented from her home in Oxford about her own ministry to the Online Church and her joy of engaging in Online Church, when she as well enough to do so. In a stunning book on this subject, a Lutheran Professor/Pastor in the States, Deanna Thompson, has written movingly of how she found the Church community when she was diagnosed with cancer. The Virtual Body of the Suffering Christ(2016) explores the potential for Online Church to embrace those in need who are necessarily and practically unable to come to physical expressions of Church. She argues strongly for the Church to embrace online expressions (and online communion) to reach out to those in need.
The Church being online during the COVID19 lockdown may be a new experience both for secular and religious people in the UK. But for those of us engaged for at least the last 30 years, there is nothing new under the sun! Don’t look for us in the empty stone building for the time being, look online!
Please see my colleague Jonas Kurlberg’s theological exploration of the Church Online during the crisis.
The Centre for Digital Theology now runs the MA in Digital Theology at Durham University and is currently recruiting for a new cohort of students. Currently, we have students from the UK, Hong Kong, the United States, and Ghana. We have a satellite course running in the Ukraine and good links with Singapore and the USA. We are also encouraging applications for PhD research in Digital Church. We are part of the Global Network of Digital Theology operating across the world.