Here I step into the debate raging around the use of technology to create a form of virtual church. The arguments are well developed on both sides and have reached new heights during this season of lockdown and social distancing.
The internet was the only Covid secure environment that allowed churches to continue to meet, using technologies such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, FaceTime, and YouTube or Facebook Live as means of broadcasting worship and teaching. It seemed like a “no-brainer” to step into the new normal of online church and to continue our worship and mission together, often in our slippers sat in our living rooms.
After the initial scramble to establish a new pattern of working, we seemed to settle into this way of being together, at least as a compromise that had some frustrating moments. Those unused to using the internet in this way were most at risk of frustration and a poor experience, but many rose to the challenge and learnt new skills. Alas, some were left behind, partly due to lack of understanding regarding the technology and partly because people couldn’t afford the necessary equipment or data usage.
In short, the big experiment began in March 2020, how will digital church work “en masse” and what will people’s experiences be? After running countless Zoom meetings and talking with my church and other church leaders I offer some reflections on how this experiment has played out for us, and also ask some deeper questions about virtual church in general.
On a surface level our experience of online has been mixed. Some saw it primarily as an opportunity to continue the form and pattern of church we had already enjoyed. Our first venture into virtual worship was clunky and awkward but kept the familiar worship songs, time of sharing and conversation, and some teaching input. For others it was difficult, being too remote and unforgiving, to be on camera, to be highlighted in conversation and equally too easily ignored. The virtual church adventure gradually turned into a bit of an ordeal, being a poor relation to our experience of being present together as church. It seemed to magnify some of the difficulties of being community rather than offer a benign or helpful environment.
On a more positive note, we grew in confidence with using the technology and for those of us who found the online space accessible and inviting we could continue in some sense as a church. This experience also opened us up to the undeniable usefulness of having a greater online presence going forward, for meetings, teaching, and gathering for prayer. But, many of all ages found it difficult, with several disengaging entirely, and interestingly they were the members who were most active on social media and were the youngest amongst us. Overall, the church was longing to meet in person and the “tech” had not been our saviour, nor an environment we thrived in.
Having described our mixed relationship with online church, I must note that other churches within our networks had a more positive experience. It enabled many vulnerable and shielding members to remain connected to their church community, and opened a new space for those with sensory and social sensitivities to engage at a more comfortable distance. These benefits of the online space should not be ignored and we should take seriously how we maintain these new modes of connection going forward, but as I will tentatively explore below, we should not be naïve of the deeper implications of this virtual space.
During our “lockdown” seperation online church had not “set us free”, it had helped keep us together and connected, but at a significant communal cost which no-one wanted to keep paying. We lost something when we went online, it was not the panacea some had advocated it to be. I am also aware that maybe we just needed to do it better. Or maybe, as Jay Kim wonderfully argues in his timely book “Analog Church”, we are just hardwired to be present and in the “real” moment of community and the transcendent, with tech augmenting and supporting, but never replacing the function and medium of embodied church.
In the process of reflecting on this issue I have been drawn to some more philosophical questions concerning the nature of relating in the online space of the internet. As I muse over these questions, I am deeply aware others have done considerably more thinking and wrestling with these issues, so I offer these thoughts with caution and humility.
Jay Kim, in “Analog Church”, repeatedly makes the point that the quality of our experience of each other’s presence and our transcendent encounter with the divine are in some way diluted or refracted by the virtual medium of a screen. I would argue, from our ongoing experience here at Ebbsfleet Community Church, he is right in his cautionary reflections. Technology offers us some wonderful opportunities, and like Kim, I am not advocating a return to the dark ages, but we must be increasingly mindful of its capacity to shift the values, practice, and substance of corporately following Jesus and the relating this requires.
Here lies a long and ongoing philosophical conversation, but despite the obvious complexities, I feel it is incumbent on the church of Jesus Christ to witness to the deepest, most honest, and authentically relational encounter with God and each other. And, that this is most likely to be found in the costly and, in some sense counter-cultural, space of embodied presence as community, indeed as “analog church”.
As I attempt to engage with Charles Taylor’s tome “A Secular Age” (part of my vanity lockdown reading list!) I am also struck by the very urgent need to witness of the transgressive possibilities beyond the “immanent frame” of our western culture, which expresses a modern species of “dissatisfied” materialism. In other words, to openly witness to authentic paths of genuine transcendent significance, Holy Spirit moments of community and encounter that demand, in their most organic and rich sense, for us to be present together, to give (as a gift) our full attention, to be invested in the moment. Some would argue that transcendent experiences are possible within the limits of the virtual, but these are more often than not experiences of individual meditation that produce a sense of transcendence, which is valid in its own way, but I would argue, a different species to that which many in the more charismatic tradition would hope for. An authentic, relational, encounter with God involves my full being, placing me within the created order, with a dependency on the relational framework of that creation, human and otherwise. Transcendent encounter in this sense is a bridging moment, between the divine presence and the individual, it is not disembodied or individualistic, but rather a harmony of God’s loving presence with the body, soul, and spirit of creation, community, and the self. Something of what the Hebrew word “shalom” seeks to express.
As Taylor infers in his dense volume, authentic transcendence has increasing missional currency, but we must be careful what we demonstrate to be an authentic encounter with God, as we will reap what we sow. Jesus never made discipleship easy, he invited people to imitate him in his poverty and self-giving, teaching that Kingdom authority and power was only possible in our mortal surrender and acknowledged weakness. Jesus never lowered the bar of discipleship, he desired that our fullness as citizens of the Kingdom would be realised, to bear “fruit that will last”, and that we would know the transcendent relationship with the Father just as Jesus knew his Father (John 15:14-17). The bar is still set where Jesus left it, we must be self-aware and vigilant to resist the temptation to settle for less in our disciple making efforts (within ourselves and with others) whether online or as embodied church. As I think through all this, I would cautiously argue that the missional space where we need to be particularly vigilant is online.
The screen, the mediating surface, the distance of representation, doesn’t necessarily prevent a transcendent and real experience of the Holy Spirit. I have heard testimonies that make this point very well, but it is more a mark of God’s immutable voice rather than a reason to advocate for the full and unproblematic adoption of virtual church.
Taking the context of the charismatic tradition a little further, I would maintain that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are most healthily expressed as a gathered embodied church. That isn’t to say they are not possible in a virtual context, indeed there are Biblical accounts of distance healing together with the prophetic potency of the humble letter, but I would still argue that the normative and vigorous communal life with the Holy Spirit is best expressed in the embodied present gathering, where embrace and touch are possible, and the sense of presence is palpable, interrelated, and in some sense interdependent.
I acknowledge it is tempting to settle with the surface of the screen, and the limited frame of the camera which hides the metaphorical pyjamas, and the unseen spectacle of a child silently mouthing out of shot, that they want to open a new packet of biscuits. Embodied presence is not perfect, but it demands a bit more of us, to be fully dressed at least, and makes the demands of overlapping attention less likely.
We should not be duped by the myth of human progress, that a continual shift towards the online space is a progressive inevitability, there is something much deeper that counters that fiction, our thirst for the real, for the presence of God and the encounter of Him in and through each other as embodied creations.
Another question that nags for my attention asks how do we relate to each within these virtual spaces? Since, how our relationships are structured and experienced is deeply influenced by the medium we employ in facilitating our communication. Whether it be the handwritten letter, the phone call, an email, or a video call, each influences the complex manner in which we understand ourselves and the “other” to whom we are communicating. As McLuhan and others have famously argued, “the medium is the message”, and the online environment exemplifies this conundrum with increasing subtly and powerful effect.
The perceived presence of an audience alters and enhances the orientation and exposure of the self, the ego. The self no longer has the security, honesty, and challenge of another present “self” whose immediacy actively participates in the moment, making dishonesty and avoidance more difficult to maintain. Instead, the audience is a disembodied fiction of the self who is free to play out their insecurities, inflate dishonest projections or masks, and can avoid healthy challenge. Within the digital world we are ever creating and expanding our audiences, and to give these creations credibility I believe we mistakenly identify them as communities.
The representation of our image and voice in the particular forms that the online world offers us become a message, a statement, a sign, as a function of the platform before it’s a true reflection of ourselves. The age-old problem of publishing one’s “self” always creating a certain fiction. Again, much has been written about this over the years, but as a church leader this question is an urgent and essential one which I need to continue to wrestle with, since the relationship to self, each other, and God is at the core of everything.
To be sure, elements of healthy community and relating exist in the digital world, but they have a proclivity to imitate the “performer towards the audience” dynamic, ultimately reflecting something of our human condition. Of course, elements of these negative characteristics infect all our communication and relationships to some degree, but in the virtual world they seem to be enhanced and exaggerated, as a function of the medium, the freedom of disembodied spaces and the seduction of being observed as a construct of ourselves.
The experiment of virtual church will continue, it will open up missional space, it will support and enrich aspects of our life together as church, but we must continue to challenge the assumption that it comes with no strings attached, no distorting danger, or no diluting effect. Our culture increasingly demands a form of domestication and the unthinking adoption of its values and direction of travel, as if it alone is the arbiter of truth and “progress”. We need to be “shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves” when it comes to navigating and occupying the virtual world, it is too pervasive and useful to ever ignore, but it comes with its own very real challenges.