Editor’s Note: This paper was written by Jonas Kurlberg, Nam Vo and Sara Afshari for the Theology Working Group.

Contents

Introduction
Online Church as Disembodied?
Digital Church and Authentic Community
Worship Online
Communion Online
Local Church Versus Church Universal
Church Leadership in a Digital Age
Ethical Considerations
Missional Opportunities
Conclusion
Questions for consideration
Further Reading


Introduction

Already in the early days of the internet, Christian individuals and groups saw the potential in the technology for fellowship, outreach and evangelism. Digital technology has long been adopted by enthusiasts, but also marginal groups such as those living with disabilities or in hostile areas. In places such as Iran, for example, churches expanded their activities online in order to include individuals and communities who were otherwise difficult to reach. For such people, online churches and communities have become the only means to worship and fellowship.

While churches have used digital technology for decades, the COVID-19 pandemic took digital adaptation to a new level. As the virus spread in many parts of the world during the spring of 2020, churches had to adjust to government imposed lockdowns, restrictions and social distancing measures. In response to this dramatic upheaval churches were forced to alter their practices and activities. For churches with sufficient resources, one of the most tangible ways in which their practices changed during this period was the widespread application of digital technology to worship, pastoral care, discipleship, and missions.

At the beginning of the pandemic, as pastors and ministers rushed to create digital provisions with little time afforded to training and deep reflection, they largely acted in accordance with their theological instincts.[1] While some church leaders felt unease about the concept of being church online, evangelical churches have historically tended towards the utilitarian use of media technology, in which technology is understood as a tool that can extend human capacity and that can be used towards different ends and purposes. This disposition might derive from the Protestant tendency to give prevalence to content (the message of the Bible) over medium (the Church).[2] However, as scholars from media studies and sociology have demonstrated, technology changes the rules of play of human interaction.[3] While not denying human agency, technological artefacts create environments in which certain courses of action are more plausible than others. It is not least because of this non-neutrality of technology that it is imperative for theologians and church leaders to pay attention to the socio-religious shaping of technology and its theological implications.

Digitally mediated Christian practices raise three broad categories of questions: basic questions pertaining to active participation, presence, relationship and embodied practices of worship; design questions; and questions regarding content and translation. It is to these issues that this paper attends. By attentively listening to Scripture and the theological wisdom of the church, as well as aspiring towards digital literacy, we seek to engage with some of the more pressing ecclesiological questions that the use of digital communication technology raises for the church today. The paper does not offer definite answers nor does it seek to define the Lausanne Movement’s Theology Working Group’s position on digital church. Rather it seeks to give impetus to the ongoing negotiations between technology and the life of the church and invite further conversation.

Online Church as Disembodied?

On the basis of the doctrine of creation (Gen. 1:31), affirmed by the incarnation (John 1:14) and Christ’s bodily resurrection (Luke 24:39), historical Christianity understands the human body as something inherently good. This means that when the church comes together for worship, prayer and missions our bodies matter. This positive affirmation of embodiment has led some theologians to question or even reject online expressions of church.[4] This position is based upon the premise that the internet or “cyberspace” constitutes a different dimension that suspends the limitations of our bodily existence or even renders our bodies obsolete. This assumption is reinforced by the use of “virtual” as a designator for digital engagement, which signals that what we do online is not quite “real”. However, others have argued that this fear of a latent Gnosticism (the rejection of or disdain for the body in favour of a supposed higher spiritual nature) rests on a misunderstanding of the nature of digital technology and digital engagement. We do not leave our bodies behind when we engage online. In fact, we remain utterly dependent on our eyes to scan the content of the screen, our fingers to swipe or tap, and our ears to hear audio transmissions. Neither is the internet, or cyberspace, a purely spiritual realm. Like any other technology it is a manipulation of the physical world; of plastics, glass and metals, of electrons and photons.

Nevertheless, the internet does suspend certain bodily limitations and create new ones. It does allow us, for example, to communicate with persons who are not in the same geographical proximity. In other cases, such as bodily physical touch, this technology meets its limitations. Yet this does not make the body obsolete. Fundamentally, all technology serves this purpose; it extends human capacity. Therefore, we argue that there is nothing to suggest that the church should reject digital technology on this basis alone. For example, few churches (if any) will reject the use of speaker systems, which enable more people to hear, as a form of Gnosticism. And yet, this is a mediated form of communication that does not principally differ from that of the internet. This is not to suggest, however, that digital engagement is the same as that which we carry out offline. Online engagement is at the same time both a continuation and disruption of offline communication. It is for this reason that it is paramount for theologians and church leaders to explore its ramifications for the church.

Digital Church and Authentic Community

A further area that demands theological consideration is that of online community. Social networking sites such as Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, have at least on the surface rekindled our interest in community and renewed our quest for meaningful connection. Yet, the quest for a true community remains elusive. What, then, is true community? And is a church that meets online an expression of an authentic Christian community? Such questions are particularly important for those grappling with the ecclesial validity of the use of digital technology. In the New Testament, the word for “church” is ekklesia, which means a gathering, assembly, or town-hall meeting of citizens. The notion of church as gathering is further emphasised by Jesus’ saying: “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matt. 18:20). This suggests that the church is a gathering of disciples under the authority of Jesus (see Eph. 4:15, 23-24).

It is important to note that there is a biblical precedent to the kind of virtual communion that we can experience through digital means today. Paul used the media technology of letter writing to stay connected with churches across Asia Minor. In his letter to the church in Colossae, he writes that, “For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how disciplined you are and how firm your faith in Christ is” (Col. 2:5).[5] Even though he was not physically present, he still engaged with these churches in worship practices, discipleship and church discipline. Thus, in Paul’s view, geographical separation didn’t hinder his participation in the churches he engaged with. This illustrates how being present with one another does not per se depend upon geographic proximity. From this point of view it is quite conceivable that a church community that meets online and gathers in Christ’s name can claim some ecclesial legitimacy.[6] However, the biblical ideal of church goes beyond merely gathering. Acts 2:43-47 describes the church as koinonia, an intimate community. The Pauline image of the Body of Christ speaks of the strong bonds and mutual dependence between members in a Chrisitan community. The question concerning digital church, then, is not only whether it can gather in the name of Christ, but also what the quality and nature of the relations between those gathered online is.

Social media platforms provide spaces in which likely and unlikely friendships can be formed and developed. For example, digital technology gives us creative and dynamic cross-generational ways to connect with, care for and reach out to young people immersed in cyberspace. The online domain can be a space in which believers can learn more about youth, since there the youth often freely share their lives. There is the potential for adults to befriend young people in online spaces, where the generation gap seems to be smaller.[7] In this way, social media can, despite its potential for the opposite, provide a means to deepen friendships, thereby following the One who calls us friends (John 15:15). Further, digital communications technology offers church members opportunities to stay in touch with one another throughout the week despite being geographically separated. For a community to be authentic, the presence of its members is required. In this regard, online chat and video-conferencing services such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Zoom, enable Christians to communicate and in some sense be present with one another in everyday life despite being separated by space.

Online community and fellowship of course have their limitations. While Paul firmly believed that he had fellowship with churches through his letters, he still expressed his longing to be present with them (e.g. Phil 1:8). To gather online is not the same as to meet a friend for a coffee or meal. Sensory experiences such as smell and physical contact are absent online. Further, communicating online requires intentionality. Some scholars have pointed to the “context collapse” that can transpire through online interaction.[8] In most social contexts such as work, family celebrations, or religious gatherings, we have some shared understanding of how to behave and interact. It is this shared understanding that enables people to grasp what is being communicated. Context collapse can happen in offline settings such as cross-cultural encounters, but is particularly prevalent on social media platforms such as Twitter, where we often lack context for the writers and readers of tweets. Misunderstandings and misinterpretations are therefore common. This means that greater care has to be given to providing context; for example, by being more explicit about one’s own positionality.

However, it is also true that an onsite church can be idealised in ways that do not match reality. Meeting in a church building does not automatically generate the kind of supportive, close-knit community that Paul advocated for. An individual can remain a passive, isolated consumer of worship after years of attending services at a large church. Traditional churches also face the same challenge of consumerism and individualism as digital churches, and this has long plagued discipleship.

Ultimately, and as suggested by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, church community is defined and established by Christ.[9] It is through sharing life in sacrifice, intercession, and confession that people encounter the living Christ. An authentic church community is a community of people who are in relationship with Christ and with one another. Therefore, digital technology can provide “connective spaces” where people can make and sustain transforming relationships with God and one another. Church can exist within these spaces and spiritual friendships can be embedded into everyday life. Thus, an authentic Christian fellowship is one in which people are welcomed to redemptive relationships and engage one another with the hope of the Gospel, whether online or offline. Whilst individual experiences might differ, the internet does not prevent us from intimate community and from loving others unselfishly.

Worship Online

Perhaps the most noticeable change in church practices during the pandemic was the turn to online platforms for worship. It reminds us of the fact that the church’s ecclesiology and practice of worship are shaped by context, influenced by social and cultural developments, and steeped in the signs of the times. As the pandemic pushed the church to adopt online formats, church leaders were forced to revisit age-old questions and re-negotiate their theological understanding of concepts such as space, presence (embodiment), participation, community, and engagement with God and with one another in worship.

The use of media technology is not in and of itself novel, as worship has throughout history been mediated through technology. Think about the architecture of a cathedral for example, or musical instruments, stained glass windows, hymn books, video projectors, sound systems or even language. In some ways digital technology is simply a continuation of this tradition of using technology for worship.

A helpful way of thinking about the role of technology in worship is to use the term liturgy. It is worth pointing out that liturgy, understood as patterns and forms of worship, does emerge and develop in all church traditions whether formalised or not. Within such patterns, technology as liturgical objects serve to direct worshippers’ attention to God. Part of what we need to reflect on is how new liturgical practices are formed through digital technology and in online environments. As discussed above, theories in media studies suggest that both the message and the behaviour of the communicator and receiver are conditioned by the medium. Approaching live-streamed services from a liturgical lens, then, invites us to reflect on how forms of digitally mediated worship shape the worship itself and the experience of the worshipper.[10]

What liturgical affordances do online platforms present and what are some of the limitations? The majority of live-streamed services during the pandemic merely consisted of churches projecting their offline services on digital platforms. Through such practice, most of the sensory experiences of liturgy are lost, resulting in passive consumption rather than participation. No wonder that some have dismissed online worship as pandering to a consumerist spirit. However, such streaming is a poor replication that does not utilise the liturgical potential of digital media and culture. There are also aspects of our traditional forms of worship that simply don’t translate well online. For instance, due to time-lag, corporate singing falls rather flat when attempted synchronously through video-conferencing platforms.

Yet in the context of a service, digital technology affords new possibilities for engaging the congregation. A good example of this is the comments field provided by most live streaming platforms. The possibility of posting questions and comments about the sermon, or words of prayer and praise, enables greater participation  -  more so than most local gatherings  -  and thus builds community. Some care naturally has to be given to which platforms are used for what purposes. Streaming a pre-recorded sermon on YouTube permits for less interaction than a synchronous gathering on platforms such as Zoom.

Liturgical practices, however mediated, have developed over time, while online forms of worship have only existed at best for a few decades. No doubt liturgy in online environments will see further creative development in the coming months and years. Just as cathedral worship is a multimedia experience, with its stained-glass windows, prayer book recitations, sermons, choral praise, incense and vibrations created by the deep tones of the organ, so can online worship make the most of the possibilities that digital technology offers. It is true that not all of the sensory media of offline worship can be recreated in an online environment, but there are plenty of alternatives. It might be difficult to simulate the sense of awe one feels when walking into a cathedral through images on a screen, but it is possible to create sensory experiences, such as the intimacy of a chapel, through close up shots, for example. Can the symbolism and imagery representations of shared memes iconically point us towards the Triune God and the mystery of faith? Like the biblical motives in stained-glass windows are projected onto our physical bodies in a sun-filled chapel, can immersive creations of biblical narratives experienced through VR goggles allow us to feel part of these stories? Can the kinetic responses used in gaming enable us to be moved by divine presence?

Communion Online

Beyond gathering, most Christian traditions have viewed the administration of sacraments as constitutive ecclesial practices. To date there are few churches that have administered online baptism whether through live-streaming or representatives of avatars. No doubt this is a debate that will gain momentum in the years to come. We here choose to focus on online communion as this has been a central contention during the pandemic and has received plenty of attention amongst theologians and church leaders. The discussion is limited to a few examples.

Churches’ doctrinal positions on the nature of the Lord’s supper tend to correlate with their stances on online communion. For churches that adhere to transubstantiation, consubstantiation or real presence, celebrations of the Eucharist online are more likely to be rejected. During the pandemic related lockdowns, the Roman Catholic Church accordingly adopted spiritual communion, in which the priest takes communion on behalf of the people, as the standard practice. It recommended “eucharistic fast” as a further possibility. This has also been the official position of the Church of England.[11] Arguments against online communion tend to centre on the need to be geographically gathered in the same place, the lack of full sensory experience online, and the inherently incarnational nature of the Eucharistic meal. A further argument is that the consecration of the bread and wine demands the laying of hands by an ordained minister. Apart from a few historical exceptions, the church has always “broken bread” in the same geographical proximity.

The Methodist Conference (UK) in 2015 rejected online communion as it argued that it “would compromise the integrity of the sacrament.” The conference report in particular alludes to the symbolism of unity implied in the breaking of bread. Such physical breaking of the same loaf of bread in a local gathering would be lost in “remote communion”.[12] The Methodist Church in the UK therefore advised against online communion in the early days of the pandemic (the Methodist Church in Singapore followed this direction). This position was softened in a 2021 conference report and the denomination is now trialling online communion until 2024 in response to the experience of “deprivation” during the pandemic.[13] It suggests that online communion is limited as a concession during exceptional circumstances. The Presbyterian Church (USA) took a similar position arguing that “pastoral needs” in times of emergency warrant practices that would in typical circumstances not be the norm.[14] The split within the United Methodist Church (USA) between ministers and bishops who held that online communion is consistent with the Methodist tradition and those who opposed it, exemplifies just how difficult it is to navigate this issue for some churches.[15]

For churches that view communion as a symbolic act of remembrance in which Christ is present, online communion has proved to be less problematic. For example, affirming a memorialist view, Baptist theologian Paul Fiddes argues that if administered by a minister and in real-time on a video-conference platform where the faces of those gathered can be seen, online communion can even present renewed opportunities to make the body of Christ visible. He suggests that if the Lord’s supper makes Christ’s presence visible amongst those visibly gathered, platforms such as Zoom can even have advantages over a dim chapel in which it is difficult to see the faces of those gathered together. As such, the “screen offers a new possibility for the face of Christ to be ‘re-membered’ in the faces on display there.”[16]

For others holding a memorialist view, however, there are grounds for caution. Some theologians have pointed out that we may lose some of the deep symbolism of the breaking of bread and wine through online communion. Coming from a low-church evangelical tradition, Andy Byers argues that some of the sensory experiences of the “ancient media practices”, such as the “crunching of the unleavened bread, the taste of consecrated wine” might be lost in the use of contemporary media technology.[17] Such a position would reject celebrating the Lord’s supper in virtual reality spaces in which individuals participate in VR environments through avatars, but presumably still permit “remote communion”; a more common form of online communion in which each participant supplies their own physical elements whilst watching a celebrant carry out the proceedings on a live-stream. This illustrates that questions concerning online communion are not merely about its permissibility, but under which forms it is valid.

Local Church Versus Church Universal

One implication of suspending the demand for geographical proximity in the digital “gathering” of the church is that it might undermine a sense of loyalty to the local church. After all, access to the internet opens up endless possibilities for individuals to find alternative community groups or worship services beyond the local church. However, there are suggestions that this might not lead to members leaving the local congregation altogether. In his ethnographic study of online church, Tim Hutchings found that most of the individuals who engaged with online communities (with no offline gatherings) were also active in traditional offline churches.[18] His study suggests that digital church can be supplementary to local church. Nevertheless, one implication of the networked logic of the internet is that individuals are likely to draw upon a number of different groups and resources for discipleship and spiritual formation.

The jury is still out on the long term impact of digital technology on the local church. However, the potential for enhancing the universal church is more apparent. There is then a sense in which the universal church has always been sustained virtually. Several theologians have pointed to the example of Paul’s use of letters to remain in fellowship with the growing network of churches throughout the Roman Empire.[19] In this way, communication technology served to connect local churches with the wider body of Christ throughout the Mediterranean world. In a similar vein to Paul’s letter writing, the digital permits for closer relationships between churches in different parts of the world. A good case in point would be the webinars organised by churches and parachurch organisations over the last few years. At a low cost, digital platforms allow leaders and laity from all over the world to engage and listen to each other in ways that are mutually enriching.[20] This technology can then serve to strengthen the spiritual communion of the universal church.

Church Leadership in a Digital Age

The nature of interaction permitted through digital communication technology has meant that some commentators have suggested that we have moved towards a “network society”.[21] This means that the social structure of a society or community is made up of networks which are in turn shaped/reshaped and powered by social dynamics (individuals’ lives and work) and the design of (social) media networks. This has implications for the relational dynamics within church communities, suggesting a shift towards a new understanding of (or less) hierarchical modes of church.[22]

This leads to questions of authority and leadership in a digital culture. There are trends that suggest that the internet poses a challenge to the authority of Christian leaders. Much has been made of the flattening of hierarchies through the interactivity of web 2.0. In contrast to traditional mass media such as TV, radio or printed material where communication is unidirectional, social media permits a two-way interaction in which “consumers” can respond and challenge the content of the “producer”. Further, the endless possibilities offered online mean that pastors and ministers have less control over the spiritual and theological formation of their members today. Individual Christians can listen to sermons by pastors from all over the world, drop in on the online services of other churches, create their own Bible studies with friends, and listen to worship music that is more to their liking than that offered in their local church. Finally, the internet is a new source of information and for some, church leaders are no longer seen to be needed for consultation for answers to theological questions. Through a simple google search on a smartphone, sermons can easily be “fact checked” live by sceptical attendees. Gone is the time when church members will passively accept the views of their leaders.

However, this is only one side of the coin and there are ways in which digital media may strengthen traditional church authority. Digital tools such as messaging apps and social media mean that church leaders can be more involved in the everyday lives of community members and thereby extend their reach. By keeping in touch with members through sending messages and engaging on social media, pastors can be more present in the lives of their members. Pauline Hope Cheong suggests that the fact that the congregation is more educated and aware of theological views through their online engagement can be an advantage for religious leaders as it provides them with an opportunity to demonstrate their own knowledge, thereby asserting their authority. Whether the digital challenges or strengthens the possibility of Church leadership is therefore ambiguous, and we can probably see these two trends at play simultaneously.[23]

What is clear is that digital culture does suggest that given leadership models and structures need to be revised. This can be seen in the rise of new Christian leaders and “authorities” that understand the logic of social media, modelling a different sort of leadership. The authority of the leader is in this context less based on titles and positions established by institutions, and more on the charisma of the individual. On the negative side this can lead to the temptation of Christian leaders to build their own social media empires. However, on the positive side social media does create a measure of accountability as cases of power abuse can more readily be exposed. The character and integrity of the leader has always been an essential feature of Christian leadership; however, the importance of character in a digital age is for these reasons accentuated. The temptations of self-promotion and arrogance are greater as are the risks of exposure of character flaws.

Leadership is also required in guiding Christians in how to discerningly use and engage with the array of sources, and often conflicting and at times damaging theologies and spiritualities found online. Whilst there are many positive resources that church leaders can draw upon that will enable discipleship and spiritual growth, there is an increasing demand for digital literacy through which the sources of content can be critically assessed. This perhaps poses the greatest challenge for church leaders in the digital age.

Ethical Considerations

The emergence of the internet and the increasing ubiquity of digital technology leads to new ethical challenges for the church. According to the latest report by We Are Social, today 59.5% of the global population can be categorised as “internet users”.[24] Despite the rapid growth of internet access, a pressing issue is still the digital divide which – either due to a lack of resources or know-how – excludes a large proportion of the global population. This has created issues for churches around the world as they have been forced to rely more on digital technology during the pandemic. The ideal that the church is an inclusive community consisting of people of all walks and demographics is deeply ingrained in Pauline ecclesiology (e.g. 1 Cor. 11:17-33). When it comes to the digital mediation of church the issue of the digital divide therefore cannot be ignored. Some churches have shown great entrepreneurship during the pandemic by taking a multimedia approach using printed texts, distributing low data audio recordings, and using phone calls for pastoral ministry to reach their members. Others have offered assistance to elderly members so that they can get online. It should also be recognised, though, that digital technology is inclusive towards those who have previously been excluded from worship and gatherings in church buildings. This includes people who are homebound due to disability and poor health, those with social phobias, and Christians in countries in which security threats make gathering dangerous and so forth. In this sense the ancient technology of incessible church buildings can act in exclusionary ways.

Another area that demands consideration relates to churches’ implicit support of big tech’s unethical business models in using their platforms.[25] There has been much debate about the social, emotional and political damage that these platforms cause. The platforms are designed to trigger emotional hooks that keep users engaged for longer creating close to addiction-like dependencies. The algorithms of some of the large social media platforms privilege content that creates emotional reactions. Such content is after all more likely to keep users engaged. However, the consequence is that it is extreme voices that are privileged, fueling division and polarisation. The use of micro-targeted ads for financial or political ends raises further concerns. With the collection of thousands of data points actors can target users with personalised content in order to manipulate their thought or action with eerie precision. Thus, in using social media platforms for worship, churches are consigning their members to confer their personal data to these companies in order to participate. One can also foresee a scenario in which algorithms can detect a user’s religious affiliation without the user themself explicitly posting this on their feeds. In countries where Christians suffer from state sponsored persecution this has a potential to put Christians at risk.

For these reasons some care needs to be given to decision-making regarding how and which platforms churches choose to adopt. There are platforms that have been designed specifically with church ministry in mind, but the trade off is that they are less likely to reach non-members and require greater effort for members to learn how to navigate them.

If digital technology is a potential tool for manipulation then church leaders need to take some care in how they use it themselves. The use of digital platforms for worship, fellowship and pastoral care does lead to the potential of church members’ data being collected. Thus, the question that pastors need to reflect on is how to correctly use this data without it becoming a further means of control and power.

Missional Opportunities

Understandably, many church leaders are hesitant to continue with the level of digital provisions offered during the pandemic now that restrictions have been lifted in many countries. However, there are compelling missional arguments for maintaining a strong online presence. One of the headlines from the church’s time online during the COVID-19 pandemic is the increased reach that streaming services online in many cases led to. This is one of the findings of the project CONTOC, the largest international study on pastors’ and ministers’ experiences during the pandemic to date. For instance, 85.1% of ministers in the Church of Sweden said that their online services were reaching people whom their onsite services would normally not reach.[26] The equivalent figure in the UK was 63.7% and in Switzerland, 57.5%.[27] A survey conducted by a team at Durham University in July-September 2020 found that over one in four of the UK population engaged in organised online worship during the first lockdown. This figure is many times higher than the usual average church attendance. Further, half of the country’s young people (18-34) said that they regularly engaged in online faith-related activity, including regular prayer and online worship, during the pandemic.[28] It is interesting to note that even churches who traditionally have not been missionally-minded have seen new opportunities through their forced online ministry in the wake of lock-downs.[29] Online worship became a less intimidating window into church life for those who normally wouldn’t come to a church building. This suggests that churches might want to consider some form of online service even as church buildings are open for public worship yet again.

Even before the pandemic, churches and para-church organisations have for years worked actively to utilise the internet as a tool for evangelism. For example, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association claims that through their website Search for Jesus the number of “decisions for Christ” has grown exponentially.[30] While such references to numbers need to be handled with care as they cannot say much about the life and experiences of the individuals behind the data, this nevertheless does give an indication of the potential of online evangelism, and today churches are heavily investing in online outreach. Other organisations such as Indigenous (an offspring of Cru International) seek to create shareable evangelistic content and forums that invite spiritual conversations. Similarly, Christian Vision focuses on creating high quality short videos that they encourage Christians to share online. They have also created apps that serve to boost the confidence of Christians in being more proactive in evangelism and chat bots that can through basic AI engage with individuals’ questions.

Beyond the strategic work of such mission organisations, today millions of individual Christians share from their everyday lives on social media. Particularly in parts of the world where Christians are a minority or where secularisation has taken ​​its toll, ordinary people rarely encounter Christianity. British sociologist of religion, Steve Bruce, who sees secularisation in the West as inevitable and irreversible, argues that ordinary people simply don’t encounter religion in any meaningful ways in secular societies. He nevertheless notes that social media is one space where such “bumping into religion” does happen. He further suggests that social media allows for the kind of intimacy that is conducive for religious conversion.[31]

Conclusion

This paper is an invitation to reflect on the implications of the use of digital technology in church practice. While we do make certain assumptions and take positions on some of the topics explored, the aim of the paper is not to offer a prescriptive blueprint for how to use digital media and tools. Rather, we hope to have offered a starting point for further reflection that invites contextual applications. We hope to have illustrated that for the church to stay faithful in a digital age, informed reflection on the affordance of technology is vital. This task needs to move beyond the two extremes of pure utilitarianism, which sees technology as a mere tool, and a determinism which neglects human agency altogether. Further, online forms of church are often pitted against onsite, offline church as if there is a choice that church leaders have to make between analog or digital.[32] However, we suggest this is a false dichotomy. Churches can and do choose discriminately which technology to incorporate, and when and how to do so. Heidi Campbell has suggested that religious communities have agency and do actively negotiate how to use, adapt or reject technology.[33] For instance, a church could offer its midweek small groups on platforms such as Zoom and yet decide against live-streaming their Sunday services. Decisions such as these will depend on factors like the demographics within the congregation, their digital literacy and connectivity, and particularities in ecclesiology and traditions.

In the coming years, as the number of digital natives (youth and children) grow, it might be that we will see a greater migration towards pure online church communities such as Bishop DJ Soto’s VR-Church, in which Christians gather as avatars in virtual reality environments.[34] However, to date such expressions of church have had little traction. Rather, the trend is that digital technology is becoming more embedded into everyday life. As some countries are coming to the end of the pandemic, churches have explored hybrid forms of church as the way forward into the immediate future.[35] Thus, rather than seeing digital communications technology as competition it can be used to supplement and augment existing church practices. If used well, it can in fact fulfil the priesthood of all believers by facilitating greater participation by all members of the body of Christ. Groups on messaging apps often double up as prayer groups and allow for regular and ongoing support throughout the week; video-conferencing can enable busy members to join prayer meetings that they would otherwise not be able to attend; live-streaming services can enable members who are homebound to participate in services; and through the use of online polling, comments can become part of the onsite service to enhance wider participation.

Regardless of the choices made concerning the application of digital technology in the life of the church, we are witnessing radical cultural changes in the wake of the digital revolution. There are, as such, larger contextual questions of how faith is shaped and communicated in societies saturated by technology.[36] How to remain a faithful witness in a digital age is something that the church will have to continue to grapple with in the years to come.

Questions for Consideration

  1. What theological considerations did your church make when adopting digital technology during the COVID-19 pandemic?
  2. How did your church reason about online communion/worship during the pandemic? What were some of the arguments for or alternatively against it?
  3. What learnings from your use of technology during the pandemic do you wish to take with you into the future?
  4. Can you think of historical examples of how the church has negotiated new technology in the past? What were the main points of consideration on these occasions?
  5. How can we use digital communication technology to build community? Under which conditions does it further fellowship and when does it become an obstacle?
  6. Many churches have seen new opportunities in reaching people they would normally not reach through digital media. What have been your experiences of this?
  7. As digital natives (youth and children) are growing, what should be the role of the church in improving digital literacy?

Further Reading

Burridge, Richard A., Holy Communion in Contagious Times (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2022).

Byers, Andy, TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age (Cambridge: Lutterworth, 2014).

Campbell, Heidi and Dyer, John (eds.), Ecclesiology for a Digital Church: Theological Reflections on a New Normal (London: SCM Press, 2022).

Campbell, Heidi and Garner, Stephen, Networked Theology: Negotiating Faith in Digital Culture (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016).

Kim, Jay Y., Analog Church: Why We Need Real People, Places, and Things in the Digital Age (Downer Grove: IVP, 2020).

Kurlberg, Jonas and Phillips, Peter M. (eds), Missio Dei in a Digital Age (London: SCM Press, 2020).

Phillips, Peter M., Hybrid Church: Blending Online and Offline Community, (Cambridge: Grove Booklets, 2021).

Thompson, Deanna, The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World (Nashville: Abingdon, 2016).

Endnotes

  1. See Alexander Chow, and Jonas Kurlberg, “Two or Three Gathered Online: Asian and European Responses to COVID-19 and the Digital Church”, Studies in World Christianity, 26:3 (2020).
  2. This point has been made by Chase Mitchell (“Explaining the Word: The Bible Project’s Digital Theology”, in Cursor_ Zeitschrift Für Explorative Theologie, 2021, https://cursor.pubpub.org/pub/4rb3l22w).
  3. See for example, Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (Fiore: Quentin, 1967); Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Vintage Books, 1964); Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2002).
  4. A recent example of this disposition can be seen in Oliver O’Donovan, Trevor Hart & David Jasper, “Learning from the pandemic”, International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church, (2022), DOI: 10.1080/1474225X.2021.2013525.
  5. See also, 1 Cor. 5:3-5
  6. Douglas Estes, SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World (Grand Rapids: MI: Zondervan, 2019).
  7. Nam Vo, “What is Good about Digital Technology in Discipling Youth”, Religion and Social Communication, 18:2 (2020).
  8. M. Wesch, “YouTube and You: Experiences of self-awareness in the context collapse of the recording webcam”, Explorations in Media Ecology, 8:2 (2009), pp. 19–34.
  9. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (London: SCM Press, 1963), 11.
  10. Jonas Kurlberg, “Liturgy as Persuasive Technology”, in Heidi A. Campbell and John Dyer (eds.), Ecclesiology for a Digital Church: Theological Reflections on a New Normal (London: SCM Press, 2022).
  11. For a discussion on the official Anglican position see Richard A. Burridge, Holy Communion in Contagious Times (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2022), Introduction.
  12. The Methodist Church, “Conference Reports 2015: Communion Mediated through Social Media”, https://www.methodist.org.uk/downloads/conf-2015-37-Communion-Mediated-through-Social-Media.pdf, accessed on 22 May 2020.
  13. The Methodist Church, “Holy Communion: Responding Pastorally in the light of Covid”, https://www.methodist.org.uk/media/17977/f-and-o-holy-communion-responding-pastorally-covid-19-100720.pdf, accessed 23 March 2022.
  14. Prebyterian Church (USA), “Advisory Opinion Communion in an Emergency/Pandemic”, on the PCUSA website, https://oga.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/oga/pdf/advisory_opinion_communion_in_an_emergency_or_pandemic.pdf, accessed 23 May 2022.
  15. Sam Hodges, “Both Green Light, Red Light for Online Communion”, on the UM News website, published 30 April 2020, https://www.umnews.org/en/news/both-green-light-red-light-for-online-communion-2, accessed 27 May 2022.
  16. Paul Fiddes, “Zoom ecclesiology: the Church scattered and gathered”, on the Baptist Together website, https://www.baptist.org.uk/Articles/592958/Zoom_ecclesiology_the.aspx, accessed 15 May 2022.
  17. Andy Byers, TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age (Cambridge: Lutterworth, 2014).
  18. Tim Hutchings, Creating Church Online: Ritual, Community and New Media (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017).
  19. Deanna Thompson, The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World (Nashville: Abingdon, 2016).
  20. See Jonas Kurlberg and Rei Lemuel Crizaldo, “Inclusion in a Networked Society: Digital Theological Perspectives”, in Nina Kurlberg and Madleina Daehnhardt (eds.), Theologies and Practices of Inclusion (London: SCM Press, 2021).
  21. See Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, 2nd edn (Chichester: Blackwell, 2010); Philip R. Meadows, “Mission and Discipleship in a Digital Culture,” Mission Studies, 29: 2 (2012), pp. 163–182, https://doi.org/10.1163/15733831-12341235.
  22. Heidi Campbell and Stephen Garner, Networked Theology: Negotiating Faith in Digital Culture (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016).
  23. Pauline Hope Cheung, “Authority”, in Heidi Campbell and Ruth Tsuria (eds.), Religion Religion, 2nd edn (London: Routledge, 2022), pp. 87-102.
  24. We Are Digital, “Digital 2021”, https://wearesocial.com/uk/blog/2021/01/digital-2021-uk/, accessed 28th January 2022.
  25. See Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (London: Profile Books, 2019).
  26. Sara Fransson, Stefan Gelfgren and Pernilla Jonsson, Svenska kyrkan online: Att ställa om, ställa in eller fortsätta som vanligt under corona pandemin (Uppsala: Svenska Kyrkan, 2021).
  27. These figures will be published later in 2022. See contoc.org for further details.
  28. https://www.dur.ac.uk/resources/digitaltheology/PressReleasereOnlineChurch.pdf, accessed 3 February 2022.
  29. Alexander Chow and Jonas Kurlberg, “Two or Three Gathered Online: Asian and European Responses to COVID-19 and the Digital Church”, Studies in World Christianity, 26:4 (2020).
  30. https://www.billygraham.ca/about/eternal-results/, accessed 3 February 2022.
  31. Steve Bruce, British Gods: Religion in Modern Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).267-8
  32. Cf. Jay Y. Kim, Analog Church: Why We Need Real People, Places, and Things in the Digital Age (Downer Grove: IVP, 2020).
  33. Heidi Campbell, When Religion Meets New Media (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010), 57–63.
  34. https://www.vrchurch.org
  35. Peter M. Phillips, Hybrid Church: Blending Online and Offline Community (Cambridge: Grove Booklets, 2021).
  36. An interesting example of contextual digital theology is Agana-Nsiire Agana, “Rethinking African Theology in Light of Emerging Digital Culture,” Studies in World Christianity, 28:2 (2022), pp. 87-109.