So much of the current conversation around ‘how we should do church’ is fundamentally a conversation about connectedness. The debate, as it currently stands, is not least about whether one needs to be in a building with others to experience connectedness, or whether that can be achieved online.
The conversation will continue for months and years to come, I am sure. And, to a large extent, that saddens me. The Church of England is too good at focusing on minutiae long after everyone else has moved on. Straining at gnats, as it were. If we have learnt anything through the last couple of years of Lockdown and Covid-restrictions, it is the self-evident truth that communities have been able to remain connected online. Indeed, many communities have been strengthened through online activity. Why we should still be debating this most obvious of points is a mystery to me…We may like it or we may wish it were not so. But that is not the point. The evidence has proven the abilitiy of online church to sustain community connectedness. Accept it. Move on.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, the Church is both a sociological and a theological institution. The former supports, and gives coherence to, the latter. But we must never lose sight of the fact that our theological, teleological aim is the Pursuit of Meaning. All the while we argue and disagree over the manner in which that is achieved, we are prioritising the Pursuit of Method over that of Meaning. At its most basic, that has been the source of all major ecclesiological divisions throughout history; disagreement over Method rather than Meaning. Technological advances in the 21st-century are such that the history of humanity is about to be re-written in the most dramatic of ways. As a Church, we can continue our age-old practice of debating whether or not we like the Method. Or we can accept it for what it is is, and utilize it for the furtherance of the Gospel. And that will be a good thing. As we engage with the New Reformation, we must be sure that the Pursuit of Meaning triumphs over the Pursuit of Method. If we are not seeking deeper connection, then we are not seeking the Gospel at all.
For reasons that have been – or will be explored – in other posts on this blog, I am not keen on the use of certain terms such as ‘online church’, ‘church online’, ‘in-person church’ and ‘mixed ecology’. I won’t go over the arguments again here: you can read them in other blogs I have written (or blogs that will be forthcoming). I prefer terms such as ‘in-building church’, ‘hybrid church’ or ‘digital church’ where appropriate. However, I am keenest of all to use the phrase ‘connected church’.
By referring to ‘connected church’, we are focusing not so much on a methodology but on a missiological aim. The purpose of church is to create connection: deeper within ourselves, outwardly to God, the created order and other people. Fundamentally, the Christian journey is one of multi-dimensional connectedness.
To use terminology that is aim-oriented rather than methodology-oriented seems to me to be a far healthier way to remain missiologically-focused.
However, I can hear a cry from some quarters: “But if church is all about connection, then in-building church is already seeking to do that. How can we differentiate it from digital church?” My response to that is quite simple: when it comes to missiology, I don’t want to differentiate between the two! Church is Church is Church…whether it happens in-building or digitally. I long for us to reach the stage – and much sooner rather than later – of recognizing that the methodology should not be at the heart of our missiological debate. Both in-building and digital are equally valid methods that underpin our missiological aim, which is Connection.
The growth in digital church during the Covid-19 Lockdown periods has dispelled once and for all the myth that connection can only happen for us when we are gathered in the same physical space. We have imbibed a new truth, a new way of viewing the world, a new and deeper understanding of connection.
As the church emerges from its Lockdown experience, we must learn many lessons for the future; too many for one blog post. But today, I want to reflect only on the notion of connectedness as a church family.
As congregations return to a more regular pattern of buildings-based worship, we must not fall into the trap of believing that a connectedness temporarily lost will necessarily be reforged as a foregone conclusion.
Likewise, we must not be fooled into believing that the connectedness of digital church is any less valid – any less ‘real’ – than that of congregational meeting in one sacred place.
We must not assume the existence of connection. We must work hard to achieve it. Whether brought together by Wi-Fi or connected by physical space, we must still work hard at building relationships, being family together.
It is, of course, buried deep within the DNA of Christian communities to pursue connection. That is because we are on a journey of becoming the image of God, who models connectivity and relationship to us and wants us to imitate him in that.
God the Father has connected with us through the very act of creation: the primeval connection, the primary connection, between the Creator and the Created. As God imagined this world – and us – into being, so he forged the most profound connection that we will ever experience.
God the Son has connected with us, primarily through the very act of incarnation: the Word becoming Flesh and dwelling among us. That connection has been strengthened through his great act of salvation on the cross and the fulfilment of our salvation through his resurrection and glorious ascension into heaven.
God the Holy Spirit has connected with us since the creation of the world, of course, but perfectly revealed in the post-Pentecost world. This Spirit of God, this Spirit of Life, moves amongst us and dwells within us; God’s continuing act of connection on a moment-by-moment basis in everything that has life, and breath and being. The Holy Spirit brings life and love, energy and compassion. The Holy Spirit inspires courage where there is fear, faith where there is doubt, forgiveness where there is only hardness of heart. Profound and meaningful connection.
God the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who is the ultimate example of connectedness as Three in One – wants to transform each one of us and take us on a journey into deeper connectedness.
For us to become more deeply connected with one another.
For us to become more deeply connected with his beautiful world.
For us to become more deeply connected within ourselves.
For us to become more deeply connected with him, as our Lord and Saviour.
It’s all about transformation through connection.
As we become more deeply embraced within this journey of connection, so our lives will be transformed and the experience of the Holy Spirit within us will overflow to those around us.
That is what Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, calls the Fruit of the Spirit: “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”. These are the characteristics that the Holy Spirit places within us. These are the fruit that overflow from us the more connected we become with the world, with others, with ourselves and with God.
And not just the Fruit of God’s Holy Spirit, but his gifts also. The Holy Spirit gives us gifts – different from our natural talents – that we can use to encourage one another, support one another and show love towards one another and the wider world.
So, the church wants to become more deeply connected: to the world, to one another, to ourselves and to God. It is the Holy Spirit dwelling within us who enables that to happen through the Fruit and the Gifts that he bestows upon us.
But it will not happen automatically. It will not happen as if by right. It will not happen just because we all share the same space together, whether in a building or through Wi-Fi. We need to work hard on the journey towards connectedness, not relying on our own strength, but on the experience of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
Neither can that experience of connectedness be limited, or extinguished, by a digital methodology. The Holy Spirit, who transcends time and space, geographical particularity and the strictures of time, is evidence and actualization of the possibility of ‘God at work’ in the digital sphere. (This is an idea that I shall develop in a future post).
The church is on a journey: a journey into connectedness. Our desire and our prayer is for a deep outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit to nourish us and enable us for that journey.
Connected church is the missiological aim. In-building and digital are merely the methodologies, drawing on incarnation and pneumatology.
Let us not lose the mission as we seek to reconcile the methods.