So I got involved in this Presbyterian church online thing.
Let me be clear up front: I’m not 100% sold on this thing myself, mostly because we’re not 100% sure what “it” IS yet. This is a project, and should be understood as such — it hasn’t fully developed yet. Heck, it doesn’t even have a name yet. Right now, we have more questions than answers.
But do I think it’s worthwhile to explore it? Heck. Yes.
Speaking of questions, I know what you want to ask: Why even do this? Why do everything online? What about the sacraments? Isn’t this inherently classist? How can a tweet or status update or instant message possibly ever hope to replace a handshake, a look, or a hug? How is that community? Also, why did you stop blogging last year? (Hint: I’m ignoring your last question)
Okay, now that you’re done ranting (in your head), hear me out: it’s different than you think. Let me try to answer some of those questions as they appeared…
Why even do this?
This is an excellent question with LOTS of answers.
Short answer: Bruce roped me into it. Blame him.
Longer, truer answer: To be honest, I think the “why” varies per person. For some, an online church is just a supplement for a “Sunday” church. For others, being disabled or shut-in or socially outcast (e.g., shunned by others due to race, gender, sexuality, politics, etc.) means an online church might be the most practical and “real” kind of community they can entertain being a regular “member” of. Still others cite mainline protestantism’s obsessions with buildings, thinking the virtual world to be a far less complicated (not to mention cheaper) vehicle through which to form a community. Some just think the whole thing is “cool.”
As for me, I think it’s all of the above…and that it’s about time.
Why do everything online?
See above and below. Also, notice that we’re “a church that meets online” as opposed to “an online church.” The difference is key: people will probably still meet face-to-face, it just won’t look like the kind of Sunday-to-Sunday building-based community most of us are used to. Moreover, to those that can’t meet in person, geography will no longer be a barrier to Christian community.
What about the sacraments?
See above. This is a concern of mine as well. File this under “work in progress.”
Isn’t this inherently classist?
This is the question that bothers me to most. Obviously, people who own a computer/have a savvy understanding of social/new media probably belong to a specific socio-economic status (i.e., richer) than those that don’t (i.e., poorer). Just as building a church in Beverly Hills means catering mostly to a specific (wealthy) group, so too does an online community largely gear itself to those who can afford technology.
That said, I would point out that the class divide is less than we think. Anywhere from 70-80% of the planet currently owns a cell phone, and while many people don’t own computers, many more have access to them. (e.g, libraries, shelters, etc.) Moreover, despite appearances, the homeless are actually some of the most avid users of social media. In fact, I’ve had several friends who work in homeless ministries tell me that couldn’t run their programs without social media — it’s the only way they can reach certain people.
All this is to say: yes, technology can sometimes fence people out — this is a serious concern. However, geography can be just as much as exclusionary of a force (again, think of churches in well-to-do communities, miles away from poverty, etc.), and, again, the divide between the digitally connected and the digitally unconnected is far smaller/more complicated than you might think.
How can a tweet or status update or instant message possibly ever hope to replace a handshake, a look, or a hug? How is this community?
Simple answer: it doesn’t replace those things, but that misses the point.
Longer answer: Let me tell you a story about a friend of mine. Keep in mind: this isn’t a story about some teenager or social-media maven. This is a story about a smart, college-and-seminary-educated pastor-to-be who just so happens to use Facebook — just like everybody else. She doesn’t even blog.
See, my friend was in a tricky spot. She was headed to a committee meeting (as Presbyterians do) she knew was going to be heated and contentious, but there was nothing she could do about it. She had resigned herself to answering whatever questions people asked her, but she would answer them honestly — meaning she was going to say things she knew the committee didn’t want to hear. She was walking into the lion’s den, and she couldn’t see a way out.
My friend, in short, was scared.
Desperate for support, she did what so many people of my generation do: she updated her Facebook status, asking for prayers.
The responses poured in. Person after person “liked” and “commented” on my friend’s status, lauding her with prayers of adoration, love, and celebration. They thanked her for who she was, urging her to remember how many people she had standing behind her.
My friend stared at the computer screen in tears, overcome with gratitude. Their digital support helped, and — despite the “distant” and “fleeting” trappings of social media — she could feel their love.
Suddenly, my friend had an idea. Just hours before her meeting, she took out a pen, rolled up her sleeves, and started writing. One by one, she covered her arms and forearms with the posts from her Facebook wall, taking care to write the names of the authors.
Words of praise. Words of encouragement. Words of community.
She wrote them all.
When it came time for meeting, she rolled down her sleeves, took a deep breath, and marched into the conference room more confident than she had ever been in her life. She still speaks of how strong, shielded, and protected she felt in that moment, her arms emblazened with the support of her brothers and sisters in Christ from half a world away, burning with the warmth of community.
In spite of all the supposed “limitations” of technology, the Body of Christ was with her.
See, this is the thing about “online” stuff. We talk a lot about how digital things “separate” us, how they “distance” us from one another — and yes, sometimes this is true. But the tools of this new millennium have also proven themselves capable of doing just the opposite; Anyone who watched thousands upon thousands of people flood into the streets of the Arab world to fight for freedom knows the power of social/new media to bring people together. Anyone who’s gotten that unexpected tweet or friendly blog comment of support from a total stranger knows what it’s like to see community happen online. Technology is a powerful force, yes, but it’s often a force for creating community, not destroying it.
See we can decry the idea of online community all day long, but the reality is this: community happens whether we want it to or not, and it’s already happening online.
Go ahead, visit our Facebook page. You’ll find people praying for each other and supporting each other and caring for each other in a way that, well…feels a lot like church…
…And we haven’t even started yet.
Look, I know this is very, very new. There are a lot of things to work out, and we’re desperately trying to get a bead on it ourselves. But rest assured: no matter what happens, the Body of Christ is still bound together, and the Holy Spirit is still flowing. Yes, I know this is uncharted territory, but that certainly never stopped Paul. If Matthew 28 tells us anything, it’s that the resurrection blows past every hill, every canyon, and every mile of fiber optic cable.
Ours is a God that knows no physical, mental, or spiritual boundaries, much less digital ones.
Our God is big enough for this.
Finally, feel free to also check out posts by my co-leaders:
Mihee Kim-Kort: A Church Online | Beta What’s the Point?
Bruce Reyes-Chow: 10 Reflections and 1 Invitation After the First Week of the New Church Plant
Stephen Salyards: Where Two or Three Are Gathered
Derrick Weston: A Church Online?
(props to Adam Walk Cleveland for the top image. We’re cool, right bro?)