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Transforming the communities of Essex & East London through Christ’s presence

Ancient truth in a new world

August 2020

A blog post from Revd Alan Moss, curate at Collier Row St James and St John, Havering-atte-Bower.

Alan has spent time in recent months researching how our parishes have been using digital communications whilst our church buildings were closed and looking at recent studies into online church and the coronavirus pandemic.

Alan offers his thoughts on what are the next steps for parishes, sharing the story of the gospel in a new digital world.

 

Toby: If... If we were gonna try this. What would be the plan?

Josh: We give the President and Leo the name. We bring Christopher Mulready in. We bring Lang back in. Hopefully the two of them woo the pants off the President, and he agrees to the deal without noticing he's standing in the gaze of history, pantless.

“The Supremes,” Episode 17 of Season 5 of The West Wing – March 2004

 

This quote is taken from the award-winning American T.V series, The West Wing. It’s a conversation between two high ranking presidential senior staff members and their crazy idea for the President to make history by appointing the first ever female Chief Justice to the United States Supreme Court; a historical landmark still never achieved in reality to this day. The episode itself is inspiring but it is this small quote that keeps popping to mind as we enter the next greatest, enduring and paradigm shifting transformation of the church since the arrival of the printing press; the digital/physical hybrid church. As our generation stands at the precipice of this new era we must press forward boldly whilst trying not to notice that we are “standing in the gaze of history, pantless.” It will be the choices we make over the next couple of generations that will shape the church's presence in our digitally enabled and mediated future world. As exciting as this statement may be for some, it also emphasises the weight on our shoulders and exposes our vulnerabilities and fear of change.

Jesus was not unfamiliar with the concept of radical change and standing in the gaze of history. Jesus did not fit the mould of His day when it came to what was expected of a rabbi or even a saviour for that matter. Rather than revolution Jesus brought revelation and rather than salvation through the law He brought salvation through love and self-sacrifice. From the beginning Jesus shook the establishment with His talk of God’s kingdom being ‘here’ and ‘present’. Jesus spoke to the culture He inhabited in new and innovative ways establishing a new kind of faith community that was both a fulfilment of the old law whilst also being a radical departure from the old system and ushered in a new Way. Jesus made ancient truths relevant for a new world and a modern culture and His followers have been doing the same ever since.

So often when beginning new church initiatives, we use phrases like, “we just want to be an Acts 2 church”. The sentiment is a valid and important one, but its reality is often misunderstood when we begin our new church plants or develop our church vision or mission strategies. Acts 2 records the beginning of a radical departure from what had been the consistent ‘norm’ for Gods people for generations. The message of Jesus Christ wasn’t just for a select group of people, as the previous Mosaic law had been, and the love and grace of God was about to break down racial, cultural, geographical and even gender based barriers and a ‘new way’ was needed to spread the good news! A true Acts shaped church takes into account the chapters beyond 2 and observes the spread and contextualisation of the gospel and how the early disciples used various means to make the gospel known and relevant wherever they found themselves. Acts 17:16-34 is a great example of Paul using the culture around him to share the good news of Jesus. In a digitally mediated world we must learn to communicate the truth of Christ to the digital natives of our culture.  

We are in the midst of a new and emerging digital world and it has never been more important for God's people to be adaptable and contextual in order to transform the culture with the gospel witness. The next step for the 21st century body of Christ is a giant leap in to the unknown of the emerging hybrid church, a merging of physical, spiritual and digital faith expression. What is imperative for the leaders of this hinge moment in history is to not allow ourselves to fall backwards into the security and comfort of what we have always done but rather to forge new pathways and strategies that reveal ancient truth in contemporary culture. A hybrid approach will allow the church to emerge from the shadows of potential cultural insignificance and pave the way for a new expression of God’s love.

 

A new strategy

The emergence of the digital world has been taking place for several decades but the invention and rise of the Internet, accredited to CERN researcher Tim Berners-Lee in 1990, not only significantly advanced technology's impact on day to day life but was the catalyst for a whole new way of existence that would usher in a new digital era. As the internet grew, social media developed, and smart technology evolved and in just a few short decades this Triple Digital revolution quietly became a new global way of life. Early on some churches saw the shift coming and began to experiment with online expressions of church all with varying levels of success. But in early 2020 with the arrival of a worldwide pandemic, Covid 19, the digital world proved its true worth and potential by offering a universal medium for connection when social distancing and isolation became everyday terms in our lives.

For many church leaders 2020 has been the year for learning how new technologies can support their efforts to build and maintain community in a world where physical gathering has been banned. The pandemic has meant for many a crash course in social media, live streaming and technologically mediated meetings and gatherings. With urgency church leaders rushed to move their services online and hold the church together and all should be commended for their hard work and efforts. Yet as we begin to move from reaction to being pro-active there needs to be a time of reflection on the best and worst of what we have learned and a new longer-term strategy must emerge.

Thankfully, there are some visionaries among us who have been studying, experimenting, and documenting the rise of digital technology and online church since its earliest days and through the pandemic have been laying some solid foundations for the world wide church to build upon.  One such visionary is Heidi A Campbell who, in the early stages of Covid 19, brought together and edited ‘The Distanced Church: Reflections on Doing Church Online’ which is a more in-depth look at the worldwide church’s digital response through the pandemic. At the start of the pandemic Heidi noticed an increase in faith communities streaming online which led her to start a worldwide conversation across  denominations and different expressions of Worshipping Communities. The theological reflections alone in the Distanced Church paper offer a wealth of insight and depth we should take notice of not to mention the faithful testimonies of church leaders around the world who are embracing technology in order to transform their communities.

 

Transference, Translation and Transformation

Perhaps the most helpful insight comes from Heidi Campbell, she notes three dominant approaches emerging as ministry leaders seek to do church online and these can help us to frame our long-term conversations as to how we take that giant leap into the next stage of the emerging hybrid church whilst standing in the gaze of history.

These three methodologies are Transference, Translation and Transformation.

  • Transference is the approach most ministries are adopting which involves simply taking what is being done offline and doing it online. Facebook and YouTube are the favourite platforms for this strategy as they allow leaders to do what they have always done with the same traditional, familiar structure but streamed or pre-recorded.
  • Translation is the continuation of offline strategies but adapted to better suit an online audience. The leader becomes more like a host who interviews others and leads people through a type of service.  The aim is to replicate core aspects of traditional church such as sung worship, scripture reading and teaching, but to become more digitally friendly in expression.
  • Transformation asks, “what is the essence of ‘church’ in the first place?” Those who seek to digitally transform ask what people need and then adjust their actions appropriately. This often takes the shape of honest discussions (often online) and are relational and vulnerable in their approach. The person(s) leading this process adopts an attitude of encouragement and seeks interaction from the people watching rather than allowing for passive consumption. They take into account both the digital and the physical life of a person and make appropriate changes to serve both. This approach may involve the complete abandonment of service structures as we know them and require an entirely new approach towards discipleship, faith development and community gathering.  

Many of our churches have naturally turned to Transfer or Translate models in order to sustain the life of their congregations and communities through turbulent times.  This is understandable especially considering the new barriers we face when accessing digital communication with a lack of digital experience and know how.  So, the challenge is now to educate and equip ourselves for the new world we inhabit. This will include the need to explore again the foundations of our faith and even our theology in light of what we are discovering in this new world.

Yet whilst we seek to transfer and translate our services and structures, we must not exclude the third and perhaps most frightening of the strategies, transformation. The early church knew that it wasn’t able to spread a new message with the old mediums, so they transformed into something new and evolved. The message was the same but the medium shifted and as it is often said the medium is the message. And that is even more true for us today, how we choose to communicate says as much about God's people as what we want to communicate does. The world has changed around us and there is a need to transform into something new. This transformation has been taking place for a few decades with the growth of Fresh Expressions and Pioneering ministry and in a digital world filled increasingly with digital natives, those who have grown up with technology never knowing a time without it and are therefore digital native speakers, we must evolve and once again relate an ancient truth to a new world.



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