IT HAS been fascinating to watch long-running debates about the use of technology go mainstream. There have been heated online discussions about the importance of church buildings. Alongside weekly services, weddings and ordinations have been cancelled, funerals can be attended only by a few, and ministerial licensings are conducted on Zoom.
Theological questions have been raised. Are “holy spaces” places that have been consecrated for worship, or simply wherever people gather (including online)? Are “holy people” required to be physically present for specific liturgies, or can more be translated online?
The extent to which technology is now so embedded in our lives was evident in the way in which many churches were able to “pivot” so quickly to putting services online. My digital spaces were full of ministers turning to each other to pass on tips and insights. Many church members were confident and ready to benefit immediately.
A survey published last month by Tearfund stated that 24 per cent of UK adults had engaged with a religious service since lockdown, rising to 76 per cent for regular churchgoers (News, 8 May). Uptake of the Alpha Course, which had never considered providing an online version, trebled. There are questions about what the numbers mean in the long term — and, indeed, who that “audience” is — but they also encourage us to think about whether our weekly offline provision has been meeting people’s needs.
Ninety-six per cent of the UK population are online. People may think that they do not use technology much, but data is collected in many daily interactions. Algorithms make decisions that affect us in banking, travel, health care, and most aspects of our lives. Google is the default search engine for most: its knowledge is shaped by means of human-written code (and largely reflects and amplifies the rich-white-male privilege that exists offline).
THE lockdown has underlined how wide the digital divide remains: even registering as a shielding household had to be done online. A good 1.9 million households have no internet access at all; millions more are reliant on limited and expensive pay-as-you-go services. It often takes a push to encourage first-time engagement with digital. The pandemic provided this for many: families have invested in basic devices, such as Facebook Portal, to enable older members to connect. Facebook itself provided more than 2000 Portal devices to care homes.
Organisations need to remain clear about their purpose, and how digital may bring new opportunities. Despite the notion that digital is “free” and “easy”, it takes resource to prepare and use it well. Digital can reach globally, but churches and schools remain locally grounded, especially around the parish system: digital provides a hyper-local layer.
We need to take our surroundings into account. In richer areas with good broadband, it is easy to suggest interactive options. In more deprived areas, families might share older devices, and have no access to facilities. Parental or carer working patterns, capacity for support, and pre-existing forms of digital literacy make a huge difference. Sermons and lectures are “performances” that translate easily to an online medium, but digital offers new opportunities, particularly interactivity in real time, potential for 24/7 connection, and access to a wider range of voices.
Content can be less bound by time and location. People are taking the opportunity to join online services outside their own parishes, including the new national service. I have enjoyed hearing how my mum has run Messy Church on Facebook. My niece, 200 miles away, enjoys being able to join her grandma there. Despite living in Manchester, I have rejoined my Durham house group. What will this mean for participation in church life when the buildings open again?
AT THE start of the crisis, some churches considered screening “more professional” content from other churches, which were “better-resourced”. It became clear, however, that churchgoers appreciated the familiarity of their own minister. The content might have been less polished, but, for many, it emphasised that “We are all in this together.”
Those of us who are ahead of the game digitally are keen to pass on our expertise: I was one of 30 practitioners and academics to contribute to a book collated by Heidi Campbell in the early stages of the lockdown to help churches to think more widely about the possibilities. The media, as ever, highlight concerns about “excessive screen time” while children are stuck indoors while their parents are attempting to work. I jumped in early to recommend a focus on the quality of the online content rather than the time spent.
Even when church buildings are open, many people see the Church as irrelevant to them. Our personal online presence may be some people’s only window on to the life of faith. The Message translation of the Bible calls people to take their “everyday, ordinary life . . . [placing] it before God as an offering”, while not becoming “so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking” (Romans 12.1-2). As Pam Smith wrote in Online Mission and Ministry, church moves beyond membership to “encouraging those who attend to live full lives of discipleship, seeking to bring people back to their connection with God by encouragement and example”. I have particularly loved Joanne Cox-Darling’s regular chalk-boards of encouragement: a physical medium, shared digitally.
LIVING with incurable cancer, I have, like many disabled Christians, been given access, as a result of the pandemic, to more church content than has been available to me for years. When the pandemic was declared, I was in New Zealand and unsure when and how I would get back to the UK. “Encouragement and example” were provided by my online community. Friends old and new, geographically close and distant, sent me messages overnight. Memes were shared in a new online group. Good WiFi meant that daily FaceTime calls helped to maintain my mental health.
This was combined with practical help in negotiating with my UK oncologist, getting my car through its MOT, and ensuring that I had food in the cupboard on my return. True community is listening, engaging, and making a commitment, not just broadcasting. Using the digital enables the congregation of my church to remain engaged with, and contribute to, its more formal community activities, such as foodbanks, social-justice campaigns, and, at Levenshulme Inspire, meals for the vulnerable, and online ukulele lessons.
LIKE every aspect of life, digital is not risk-free. Most digital enthusiasts are not arguing for digital to replace all in-person activities (hugs and communal singing are much missed in lockdown), but looking to identify the opportunities, while being very aware of the challenges.
In my book Raising Children in a Digital Age, which I am currently rewriting, I highlight how to manage issues such as cyberbullying, childhood privacy, sexting, and “screen over-use”, the core of which is ongoing communication.
Corporately, churches need to be clear on their policies for congregations, especially young and vulnerable members, including digital. This could include agreement on what different digital spaces are used for, and clear consent on content for streaming services (or an area clearly defined for those who do not want to appear).
As individuals, we can think about how we protect others, asking for permission before sharing, and taking care not to overshare. We can question what the “fruits of the Spirit” look like online: what it means to be patient, gentle, and self-controlled in our online interactions, which can be challenging an environment that is often fierce, harsh, and divided.
There is no one way to do digital church. Let’s talk about what is, and is not, working. Let’s focus on the purpose of church, and think about how this plays out in our particular circumstance. Then we can find ways to do and be church, community, and humanity better.
- Despite the notion that digital is “free” and “easy”, it takes resources to prepare and use it well: the digital often provides a hyper-local layer.
- The media focus on the negative aspects of digital, but there are opportunities to rethink how we “do church” here, without losing who we are as a Church.
- Church leaders can give a lead in encouraging us to think about how the online functions, and how we interact online. What and how do we challenge aspects of it, corporately and individually?
Dr Bex Lewis is Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University. She has written on digital discipleship, children in a digital age, and the official history of “Keep Calm and Carry On”.
Read the articles in our special post-pandemic issue here.
The Distanced Church: Reflections on doing church online by Heidi A. Campbell (TAMU, 2020).
Networked Theology: Negotiating faith in digital culture by Heidi A. Campbell and Stephen Gardner (Baker Academic, 2016).
So Everyone can hear: Communicating Church in a digital culture by Mark Crosby (SPCK, 2019).
Online Mission and Ministry by Pam Smith (SPCK, 2015).