For the last three weeks, I’ve been struggling to write the definitive post about online church as cross-cultural ministry. After all, that’s the whole point of this blog, to bring reflections from global mission to the life of the church in the UK. However, although I’ve wracked my brains to come up with something useful, I’ve completely failed. I think the problem was that I was asking the wrong question.
Over the last few weeks, churches have struggled with technology to make it possible for their members to participate in online/virtual services. Huge thanks are due to the army of ministers and laypeople who have gone through a massive learning experience to make it possible for us all to meet via Zoom or to watch a live stream on YouTube. Well done! However, while the technology has been (more or less) mastered, we’ve not had a lot of time to reflect theologically on what it means to meet together virtually. If, as some reports are suggesting, some sort of social distancing will be necessary until 2022, it behoves all of us – clergy and laity alike – to think through the implications of our online meetings. To this end, I have been profoundly helped by this blog post by Nay Dawson who works with IFES and this edition of Mortification of Spin a rather quirky Reformed podcast. It will take a while to read the one and listen to the other, but this is important. What I’m going to say is inspired by these two sources, though I wouldn’t want them to take the blame!
So, why couldn’t I come up with a blog post on virtual church as cross-cultural ministry? My problem was that I wasn’t thinking deeply enough. There are lessons to be applied from cross-cultural work, but the bottom line is that online/virtual church is, in many ways, not an authentic gathering of believers.The bottom line is that online/virtual church is, in many ways, not an authentic gathering of believers. Click To Tweet
Let me illustrate this with a practical example before trying to unpack some of the issues. Singing! There is undoubtedly some value in having people in living rooms across town singing the same song at the same time, while they all look at their television or iPad screens. However, this is not – in any meaningful way – congregational singing. We can’t hear each other, we can’t see each other (unless you are using Zoom, where one or two people might appear in a small box next to the lyrics) and we can’t meaningfully interact. This doesn’t mean that it is wrong or sub-standard, but it isn’t congregational singing.
Christianity is a corporeal religion. It isn’t all about disembodied souls communing on some astral plane. It is about the followers of a resurrected saviour who come complete with bodies, souls, minds and emotions. When we meet together, we meet with handshakes, hugs, smiles (sometimes frowns), the chaos of kids running around and the fragility of the old and infirm. All of this is missing online, however hard we try to connect. We are called together; that is the meaning of the Greek word for church, ἐκκλησία. If we are not physically together in the same place – even if we are linked by the wonders of technology – we have a very different type of meeting and we need to reflect theologically on what is going on.
One of the wonders of the Acts of the Apostles (indeed, of the whole New Testament) is that it doesn’t proscribe how the church should go about doing what it does when it meets. Certain basics are set out, teaching, praying, breaking bread, singing and so on, but there are no detailed instructions about how to do these things. This gives us a great deal of freedom and in these unprecedented times, it gives us the possibility of doing things in a very different way. However, I would argue that as we seek to move things online, we have to grapple with the fact that we are not physically meeting together and that this changes everything. As Nay Dawson says:
Perhaps authentically gathering during Covid-19 is simply an impossibility?
Let me push this a bit further. Given the difficulty (I would actually say, the impossibility) of meeting authentically in the current situation, I would suggest that it is unhelpful to try and carry on as if nothing had changed. We may meet together for the same purpose as we always did, but the forms which express that purpose probably need to change. Here, to some extent, is the challenge of cross-cultural ministry. If you are unwilling to change the form of your meeting in a very different context, you have to ask which is the most important to you, the format or the purpose.If you are unwilling to change the form of your meeting in a very different context, you have to ask which is the most important to you, the format or the purpose. Click To Tweet
So, let’s turn back to the example I gave earlier; singing in a virtual church. Having people singing the same song at the same time in different locations may be a good thing, but it is in a different category to all singing together in the same place. This means that we need to reflect on the purpose and the meaning of music in the virtual environment. We can’t simply translate what we do when we meet physically and apply it online. What is the purpose of music in our online gatherings and what is the best way of achieving that goal? Similarly, we need to wrestle with how people actually engage with the music when they are sitting at home on their sofas, not just from a theoretical standpoint, but from the lived experience of church members (which will differ widely).
As a practical suggestion – which may not work in practice – I wonder whether responsive readings of Psalms might be an effective way of engaging people in corporate worship online.We can't simply translate what we do when we meet physically and apply it online. Click To Tweet
If you’ve not done so, please go back and take a look at the resources that I linked to at the start. This is a massively important issue and it warrants serious reflection by all of us. It isn’t going to go away soon.
In follow up posts, I’m going to consider the implications of different technologies for streaming services and I’ll also rush in where angels fear to tread and consider the question of preaching. I don’t for one moment expect that everyone will agree with any conclusions that I reach. However, I do want to stimulate reflection. I’m sure of one thing; the status quo is not an option.