Yesterday, we held our latest webinar supporting the church through the pandemic. We were discussing discipleship online. We had 600 people booked in for the webinar although not quite that number showed up live - always an issue with free webinars but I do hope those who didn't attend live get to see it on replay. Our speakers were John Drane (Theologian in the Wild!), Elaine Lindridge (Evangelism Enabler/Fresh Expressions Mentor), Erin Green (Robotics/AI and Ethics Theologian) and Jonas Kurlberg (Digital Theologian, Centre for Digital Theology, Durham Uni).
I'll put up a link here to the replay when it has been uploaded to the site.
At the beginning of the webinar, as the host, I asked people to list the good things about discipleship in lockdown...the answers kept on coming...what a wonderful list:
church beyond buildings
Monday night bible study group online - a massive blessing for all
housegroup has been a lifeline each week
a sea of hungry fish to catch for Jesus
high attendance at prayer meetings
large numbers of people, large range of resources available
reaching families we've never seen in (the) church (building)
couples with young children able to attend groups together
peer mentoring schemes online
Messy Church at Home, Messy Church in a Bag
discovering an openness to talk about faith with a wider range of people
more young people
a deeper awareness of God's presence + a greater expectancy to see him work
more opportunities to share with others
amazing explosion of praying with people on Zoom/FaceTime
discipleship across usual church boundaries
opportunities for distance learning
1-1 Bible reading on WhatsApp
congregation supporting each other on WhatsApp group
church has become family in a way it wasn't quite there before
extra prayer opportunities with friends online
quiet space at home
chatting with people in Zoom breakout rooms after service
better attendance at meetings both business and devotional
engaging older parishioners through virtual walk from Nazareth to Bethlehem
online Christingle service with kits supplied by church
Alpha - for youth, for more people
toddler groups online
time to read Christian books
The four talks at the event all focussed on discipleship as journeying deeper into our faith, being given the space to engage with Jesus and learn about what following him means, and an increasing opportunity to share the implications of our faith with others. Discipleship online seems to be very much like discipleship pre-pandemic, as Elaine said, "it's just the geography that has changed."
But each of the speakers talked of discipleship online being more open, more accessible both for church members and visitors/enquirers. People felt able to share more deeply and engage more spontaneously. Some of this seems to be about the use of 24/7 apps like WhatsApp for prayer requests and Bible study (esp the phenomenal rise of Lectio 365). These apps provide a rolling commentary for discipleship and a testimony of how others were journeying with Christ. In other words, 24/7 discipleship online means that you can see how others are performing their faith, living out their faith, authenticating their faith by their prayers, actions, witness. Some of this was missing in a one hour a week Bible study group, or worship where you looked at the back of someone else's head. Online has allowed us to be mentored by others in a living example of daily discipleship.
In other words, 24/7 discipleship online means that you can see how others are performing their faith, living out their faith, authenticating their faith by their prayers, actions, witness.
In my book on the Bible and Social Media, I wrote about Abby Day's argument that faith is more easily embraced through its performance rather than in its creeds; or as Mia Lövheim argues in an academic response to the book:
the content of belief becomes meaningful only in relation to how beliefs are practiced and felt in social relations and fundamentally shaped by the material, social, and historical conditions in which people live their daily lives...
Later in that response written long before the pandemic but prefiguring some of the comments on increased engagement online above, Lövheim talks of how we need to explore how 24/7 social media engagement might allow Christians to demonstrate their own performed belief:
Many of the examples described in the book seem to assume that belief is mediated only through face-to-face relations. But what does it mean for the idea of belief as performative and social that in today’s digital world close relationships for many people are mediated through e-mail, Skype, text messages, and social network sites such as Facebook and YouTube?
I'm intrigued and delighted that here in this webinar, we found such an outpouring of ways in which ordinary Christians were performing faith online, in how those present felt that their discipleship had grown and developed during lockdown. Indeed, there is even that hint that the most important sign of God's blessing in lockdown is not the number of people who attend our online worship but how deep and wide and broad our discipleship has grown. We seem to be performing our journey with Jesus so much more in this new 24/7 performance of faith. Just so, Barna's recent survey on lockdown church found much the same: 71% of American churchgoers said their faith had grown during the pandemic.
Our next webinar is on Repentance and our speakers will be Archbishop Angaelos (Coptic Archbishop of London), Dawn Edge (Prof of Pastoral Counselling, Diversity Lead, Manchester Uni), Seline Stone (Lecturer, St Mellitus College), and Mike Royale (Cinnamon Network). You can sign up for the lecture here: http://premierdigital.info/join