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online yellow 246Evangelism in a digital age - 4

I recently listened in to an online discussion on evangelism in a digital age hosted by Fresh Expressions. Each guest presented some of their reflections on The Mission of God In A Digital Age. These have been captured in a book - Missio Dei in a Digital Age.

The previous reflection is here.

Let's hear from Maggi Dawn - Professor of Theology, Principal of St Mary’s College, and Assistant Director of the Centre for Poetry and Poetics at Durham University:

What does church life, works and mission look like post-pandemic? There's been a huge amount of comment all over the media about how we can't go back. And of course overuse of that dreaded phrase, the new normal. But the idea that you can't go back is absolutely the trajectory of Christian theology. The idea of Christian destiny is not to go back to the garden or round and round in circles, but onward to a city, again onward to something that was better than before.

One of the biggest and most exciting possibilities I think, is that institutions that previously were very slow to engage in online platforms have just been pushed into it by necessity. I've seen it in a huge number of churches who've been in touch with me to say, "Quick, we've got to do this. We don't know how. Please help me." For many people, it really has been brand new territory. And they've had to learn it in a big hurry.

Rather than criticise those attempts, I just want to take my hat off to people who have been on a very steep learning curve and just trying to at least have a go. Everything during this pandemic in life and in work is 30% harder than it normally is. If you're tired and weary, there's a good reason why. It's because you're carrying extra burdens. And if you've been doing new stuff online, well done. Bravo.

One of the things I've talked about with various church groups over recent months is how to navigate online platforms as a space or a place rather than just a means of broadcasting. It's really noticeable to me where church has gone well or not so well. That it doesn't work quite as well when it's engaged simply as a temporary means of picking up a familiar experience and kind of putting a camera in the room and try to transfer that into living rooms everywhere, pending the time we can all get back to 'normal'. But it really does work, when online space is understood as a different kind of space from the usual space, and time is taken to make the worship or events site-specific.

I just want to throw in an important qualifier here because people jump to the conclusion that what I mean is, that you have a life that's divided into online and offline. That's not what I'm talking about here. You have one life. A consistent life. If you think about it, you constantly flow between different spaces all the time. For instance in my kitchen, I cook and eat and relax with my family and friends, laugh a lot, say silly things. In my studio, here, I paint, I create music and I write stuff. And at work I have professional boundaries around what I talk about, not the same as in my kitchen. In my study, I introvert completely while I read and write. And I'm the same person in every space. I'm not five different people but a different part of myself comes to the fore in each of those cases and each space can help me function better as an artist, friend, cook, teacher, musician, etc.

The success of online church depends on understanding online platforms as a particular kind of space, rather than merely a means of projecting my church into your living room. Understanding space really matters for church wherever you are and whatever kind of worship or event you're putting on. If you set up a series of events in perhaps a Cathedral, the garden, the back room of a pub and the living room, then the success of each of those largely depends on making them specific. Making the most of the ambience, the acoustics, the backdrop, the atmosphere of the place. The relative sense in that specific place of either perhaps transcendent or intimate encounter. Different in a Cathedral from a living room. Different in a garden from a beach. And the potential that there may be for interaction and participation in any of those places.

And the prevalence of online Church during lockdown has made it more glaringly obvious than ever, that understanding place and space completely affect our experience. An example. There is a Cathedral less than a mile from where I live. They have done very little in the past by way of broadcasting worship except for things like BBC shows. Some of the clergy there asked me to help them think about ideas. We talked about stuff like where do you put the camera so that your face is in the screen. And how do you consciously talk to the people who are in the online room so that they don't feel like they're watching you far away but they are with you in the moment, and acknowledging them in introductions and prayer, speaking their language. Also comment based responses and requests.

That was just enough to get them off the starting blocks and they then brilliantly began to develop their own online space adding all their own ideas and figuring out what works. And the result was something like this. Before lockdown, their morning prayer was attended every day of the year by those who live in and around the Cathedral. The clergy, musicians and just a few locals who would show up day by day. But very rarely more than about 10 people in total on any given day. The very same morning prayer, same time of day, same set of people initiating it, after a few months of lockdown and online worship, is now consistently attended by between 130 and 150 people.

They are joining worship from all over the world. As a response to that, the Cathedral has now set up a global online prayer community. Physically based at the Cathedral and supported by their staff and resources operating worldwide and operating in online space. Around 200 people now belong to this community that simply didn't exist before.

It's now interpersonal conversation consistently between churches all over the world. If I'd tried to travel there in one month, I just couldn't have done it. But in each of those spaces, there was a much bigger concept of who we are as church and the community has stretched. I hope we don't lose that. I really hope we don't lose that.

It's also true that there are hundreds, thousands of people everywhere who are just desperate to get back to physical in-person meeting. They have recognised that although online connection is brilliant and real, it is different qualitatively from in-person contact. It's not a bad thing. It's just a different thing. It's a different space and a different experience.

My hope is that we might have learned not only a few things about how to do online church better but also learn that online and offline space really do function differently.

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An online discussion hosted by Fresh Expressions, 04/05/2021

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