More from Pastoring in the Digital Parish
We've got some history and some futurism for your digital ministry toolkit. One of the things we've witnessed through the stories shared on Pastoring in the Digital Parish is that digital ministry is not about replacement, it's about accessibility and presence.
Ryan Dunn (00:00): This is Pastoring in the Digital Parish, your resource and point of connection for building digital ministry strategy and bringing your congregation into the digital age.
My name is Ryan Dunn. I’m a digital communicator, church volunteer, ordained clergy-person, host of the this here podcast, and future-of-church enthusiast.
We’re wrapping up another season of Pastoring in the Digital Parish… this is the capstone of season 5… ALREADY. Formerly, I’d used these capstone episodes to sum up some of the things I’d learned through the previous season. But, starting last season, I started using this final episode to square up some unfinished business and sum up some of the recent learnings by providing some ideas of where we’re heading. [End Music]
I’m going to roll in that lane with this final episode for season 5. Specifically, I’m going to keep rolling with the idea that digital is here to stay… for now.
The church has always been shaped, in part, by the culture around it. ALWAYS. So that means, that by virtue of the society in which those of us listening to this podcast live, that church will continue to engage with and occupy digital spaces. Simply because that is what our society does and will continue to do until it simply doesn’t anymore: whether that means it moved on to something else or that the digital is no longer largely available.
Now, I realize it’s a little edgy to say that church has always been shaped by culture. So let me clarify that statement a bit. The nature of the church hasn’t changed all that much. The church, in the beginning, was called to be the collective of disciples of Jesus Christ and enact Christ’s presence in the world. That hasn’t changed… and that is not changed by culture. But the practices of the church have definitely changed according the culture around us.
A lot of the social media work I do is under accounts branded as “Rethink Church.” Every now and then, someone takes exception to that name, claiming that we don’t need to rethink the church. I often have to clarify that the phrase is intended to be invitational and not critical. We’re not calling the church to rethink itself. We’re inviting those outside of the church to consider what church is.
Anyways… one of the naysayers recently commented on a post by saying something like “Rethink Church? No thanks. I’ll stick with my church where we worship just as Jesus taught us 2000 years ago.”
That inspires some creative interpretation. What do you imagine that looks like? I was really caught up in wondering if there is a church in the US that actually worships in a way that would have felt remotely familiar to Jesus. Know what I mean? If first-century Jesus decided to join one of our Sunday morning worship gatherings, would he have any idea what was going on? Even if language wasn’t a factor… probably not.
According to my church history courses, Christian worship, no matter the context, has changed quite a bit over the centuries.
Fore example, the Christians of the second-century were a largely persecuted people. They wouldn’t have had any dedicated meeting spaces or buildings. I doubt they had many large group gatherings on the scale that most of us here in the West long for. 200 hundred people was far too much attention, right? Choirs and praise musicians wouldn’t have been a regular practice. There wasn’t a canonized Bible, so what did sermonizing look like or contain? It was probably much more testimonial or experientially based, right?
We think the Eucharist was still an important part of their gatherings. But did their Eucharist look like ours? Chances are slim that it did.
We know from the writings of people like Cyril of Jerusalem and the nun Egeria what worship in 4th-century Jerusalem looked like. A lot of us would probably note the length: these Christians did not practice the one hour rule. Worship was often a most-of-the-day affair. On special days they had two-a-days. Taking a bit of a break in the middle. Pilgrimage was a large part of their worship gatherings. Their worship moved from sacred locale to sacred locale. Worship here was tied to the tangible place.
For congregations where the setting was not as sacred as Jerusalem, the tangible was still important. They relied on holy artifacts and iconography in their worship practices. These were practices that were vital according to their cultural contexts, but would feel strange for our context today. But at the time, they may very well have been saying to one another; “If we cease using these artifacts or icons, then we’ll cease being who we are as a community.”
Now, fast forward to 21st-century Nashville, or Springfield or wherever… and it’s easy to see that though these cultural practices have changed, the community of church has not ceased to be. However, we experience the same kind of debate that the early Christian practitioners may have expreinced. We feel the anxiety of this argument when we consider the evolving way in which church gathers. This fear is summed up today by saying “If we embrace digital practice, then we’ll lose who are.” The argument might go on to say that we are an embodied people, and by meeting digitally, we lose the embodiment and thereby lose who we are.
I’m not going to make a theological argument either for or against that kind of statement. Although I will lift up that we have heard that argument, probably most explicitly in our season 1 episode with Wil Ranney. I am going to make an ecclesiological argument, though. And that argument stems out of the evidence that I see suggesting that church practice has always been fluid and reactive to cultural change… and those changes have not ultimately destroyed the nature of the church.
We’ve heard from the likes of Andrew Root and Jeffrey Mahan through this podcast. If you haven’t listened to their episodes, it’ll be worth to go back to when you have time. They’ve made cases in support of seeing the church as a series of contextual experiments. I love that idea. Because somewhere along the way, we lost the experimental value of being church. Somehow, we put more weight into the voice of the past that says “we’ve always done it this way” and discredited the voice that suggests there’s something new yet to discover. But, looking historically, we see that the church has always been in a mode of adaptation and innovation.
And this innovation is often driven by seismic cultural change–which we are experiencing today thanks to the digital revolution and the changing ways in which people interact with one another. But history has more to say to us here, as we are not the first generation of the church to experience seismic cultural change. Nor are we the first generation to face declining participation numbers. During the early colonial period in America, church simply wasn’t accessible and, therefore, not well-engaged for much of the population. If you think a bit creatively about the situation, it is not that different from ours. Today we have, in a sense, an increasingly remote population–now separated spatially by the reliance on technology. The response may not be all that dissimilar to what it was then: put the church where the people are.
In our Methodist system, this system was embodied in circuit riders–specially ordained individuals who traveled to remote places to preach and organize the church. These circuit riders used the technology of the day–in most cases, horseback–to meet the people where they were.
And, historically, the church at large has been good at embracing new technologies to continue to meet to people where they were. But not without the same reservations that many hold today.
Did you know that when radio was becoming widespread, there was resistance to broadcasting services on the airwaves? The thought is a familiar one: if we broadcast services to people’s homes, they will stop attending in-person. That, obviously, didn’t happen. The American church hit its climatic point of involvement well after the introduction of radio.
The same reservations were expressed when television became widespread and some suggested broadcasting worship service there, as well.
I wonder if these reservations were expressed in earlier times, as well. Were we afraid that preachers would fall by the way side when the printing press, translations and education made Bibles accessible to a greater number of people?
I don’t know.
Here’s what we can learn through this historical snapshot–at least, here’s where I land–accessibility and replacement are two quite different things. And when we talk about digital ministry or digital church, we are not talking about replacement. Instead, we’re talking about accessibility.
So let’s talk for a moment about what accessibility looks like in today’s environment. We are in a culture of on-demand. I can get nearly whatever media entertainment I want whenever I want. Product orders that once took 4-6 weeks now take 3-5 business days. I work a full-time job in my home, yet I’m still instantly connected to my company of over 70 people. In this environment, accessibility is bound by neither time nor place. Remember, if I want to watch the latest Avengers movie while waiting for a ring back for my virtual doctor’s appointment, I can do that.
Accessibility for the church means opening up the presence of the church in a way that is not-so-much bound by specific time and specific place. This is why digital is here to stay, for now. Because digital presence allows us the accessibility to be the church alongside people in an on-demand society.
I think that is more exciting than it is scary. And it’s especially exciting when we consider that the church in the United States has been in decline in terms of involvement since well before this period of normalization for streaming worship. I mean, that’s not exciting… what’s exciting is that we see an avenue for the church to claim a historical tradition of moving to where people in order to invite them into the activity of discipleship.
And we’ve witnessed all of that through the stories we’ve shared in this past season. We heard about how Oikon Church leveraged digital presence to become an embodied congregation. We heard how Birmingham First UMC leveraged TikTok to grow their congregation. Anne Bosarge and The Chapel Online used weekly prayer streams to build connections worldwide. And we heard in New Wineskins’ story how that community provided connection for spiritual wanderers.
There are so many more stories to share! And so we’ll be back with another season of Pastoring in the Digital Parish in May of 2023. I’ve already got some episodes set: we’re going to participate in VR church in an episode. We’re going to do a crossover gaming stream. We’re going to share the story of a congregation that’s being built online for spiritual nomads.
That’s going to put a wrap on this session of Pastoring in the Digital Parish!
I just gave you a bunch of episodes to follow up this one. OR, if you haven’t already, go back to season one and collect some of the history. Then, leave a rating and/or review. Please/Thank you.
Again, I’m Ryan Dunn. I’d like to thank ResourceUMC.org, the online destination for leaders throughout The United Methodist Church. They make this podcast possible. And of course, they host our website: pastoringinthedigitalparish.com, where you can find more online resources for ministry.
If you want to connect: check out our Pastoring in the Digital Parish group on Facebook. You can also send me questions and ideas for future sessions at [email protected]
Ryan Dunn (00:00):
This is Pastoring in the Digital Parish, your resource and point of connection for building digital ministry strategy and bringing your congregation into the digital age.
On this episode
Our proctor/host is the Rev. Ryan Dunn, a Minister of Online Engagement for United Methodist Communications. Ryan manages the digital brand presence of Rethink Church, co-hosts and produces the Compass Podcast, manages his personal brand, and obsesses with finding ways to offer new expression of grace.