By Pete Phillips, Premier's Head of Digital Theology
I've been away in America for the last two weeks - partly working with some churches on their digital provision, partly setting up new academic partnerships, partly attending a big Conference and attending every session I could around digital church.
What did I learn?
1.It was strange to travel - carbon guilt is a good thing - we need to stop using fossil fuels - but it can be a hindrance to us connecting with people and making things happen. It left me feeling very guilty about flying to America, despite offsetting my carbon (on the conference, flights and accommodation) and using public land transport as much as I could, and travelling with an airline that says that it will be Carbon Neutral by 2030
2. Proximal face to face connections are still important. Meeting people in the same physical space (rather than in a digital face to face setting like Zoom or Facetime) is cool. I noted this when I talked about the Hybrid Synod the Methodist South-East District held last September. Those in the church building had a rich social presence with one another which was not possible for those online (because of limitations placed on their engagement - chat was closed, they couldn't chat with people they knew in the church building, those in the room were too busy chatting with other people in the building). But in our digital age we mustn't stop realising that we are fleshy beings and we've spent literally since the dawn of creation working out how to negotiate proximal relationships, whereas this digital stuff is still quite new to us and we need some more experience about getting social right.
3. We're not doing so well at maintaining digital engagement. I do wonder if the slight downward trend in digital engagement in this latter phase of the COVID pandemic is because we have all grown a little lazy at engaging digitally - remember when we started and made sure to greet those online; when we gave them ways to connect with us for prayer or ministry, when we asked them if they needed something. I am seeing more and more churches where that connection with the online congregation has tended to become less engaged, less warm, less...engaging! Indeed some churches are simply livestreaming what they do in the Church and leave it at that - as if digital church is less important, more about watching than engaging.
4. We need to be pro-active in engagement! Just as I need to be proactive to develop my own learning and my engagement with other academic conversations and what is happening in digital church contexts around the world, so too we need to take time to sit back and ask what we are up to. Let me explain this a bit more below...
5. We still have stuff to learn about doing digital well! I sat through sessions at the conference where people across the world talked of how contemporary church was increasingly both online and onsite. That congregations were engaging more flexibly with "local" church - engaging online when that was what was best for them, engaging onsite when they could get there. But I heard again and again of the growing sense that we needed to make digital church a richer ritual experience: where we affirmed the work of the Spirit online, where we prayed together and broke bread with one another. Wherever we are going with this new experience of church, we need to make Church in all its formats a place to encounter the living God - not just a broadcast of someone else's experience of meeting God. People need to come to every expression of Church ready to engage with the living God - online and onsite!
6. We need more digital natives, digital millennials, Gen Z engaged within the leadership structures of our churches. Too often we leave ministry to old blokes like me. We need to work harder at listening to the voices of the young who spend all their time online and on digital devices. Not that we need to turn church into a gamezone or a TikTok festival or VR experience (although...now you mention it...). But the youngsters know how digital works and how networked society works and how contemporary media works and we need to listen to their voices more and more as the church gets older and older. Why no co-opt them onto your leadership team today - bring them around the table, listen to their voices (within an inclusive leadership including people who are disabled, from different ethnic backgrounds, from different genders and so on...).
What are you doing digitally to reach your local community and new congregations?
7. We have spent ages looking at how we provide church services and discipleship opportunities for the Church during lockdown. But are there new opportunities to reach those who are digital engaged in the local community? One conversation I had in America was with a church exploring digital engagement. Here's a video of Roberts Park Methodist Church in central Indianapolis. It comes from months ago when they were starting their digital engagement but it struck me that so much of this is relevant today.
Revd Dr Andrew Holmes is senior pastor at Roberts Park and a former BBC/theatre creative. When we were talking we began to note that the church's digital provision focussed mostly on keeping the existing congregation going. But what about the newcomers - the digital onlookers, the people sat on the digital comfy sofa at the back of the church? And what about the people who lived within a mile of the church in downtown Indianapolis? Could they be reached through Facebook ads, through their own version of an online service which connected into the live worship for elements of the singing and preaching ministry. In the conversation, we ended up proposing a new congregation, with a new purpose for digital engagement and which sought to reach out into the community rather than just broadcast to the church.
That conversation was breathtaking...God was at work encouraging a church to move forward in mission rather than simply replicate the existing pattern of church for congregation now joining both online and onsite. Would you be interested in that kind of conversation for your church?
Perhaps it's about time I had some more conversations closer to home than jetting off the States? If you're interested in engaging in a kind of consultation on your church's digital provision, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org