So, let’s be honest. Many clergy are fearful of digital church. Some may wrap up their objections in theological protestations – but most of these, as far as I can see, are ill-thought through and carry little or no weight. Indeed, most of the theological protestations have nothing to do with digital church at all – they are merely the same old arguments about theological matters that have divided us for centuries – but merely applied to a new context e.g. sacramental validity, incarnation, the role of a priest, ‘presence’, pneumatology, the nature of human identity, the definition of ecclesial community etc. All of these are important issues. But let’s not imagine for one moment that they arise solely as a result of the new digital era in which we find ourselves. They are the same old issues but in a new context.
The basic problem, for many, is fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of what the wholesale acceptance of digital church will mean for our sense of vocation and ministerial practice.
I am not surprised and I am not unsympathetic. Every time there have been new technological innovations – the printing press, radio, television, the internet and so forth – Bishops and priests have queued up to denounce these new-fangled pieces of machinery as being to the detriment of the Gospel. Why would it be any different with digital church? (And we haven’t even mentioned Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and the Metaverse yet!).
What I long for most of all is an open and honest conversation about the limits and potential of digital church. Not just a conceptual, philosophical conversation; but a conversation that will lead to real change and a courageous reshaping of the Church. I do not believe that digital church will replace in-building church – I do not think for one moment that this would be desirable, let alone possible. There will always be the need for communities of faith to gaher in one space. But that does not mean there is not an equal need for – and equal validity to – digital church. The polarised positions that are being taken by so many are unhelpful and, I suggest, driven by fear. If we can go to the heart of what is driving this fear, perhaps the conversation can develop with more honesty and creativity.
Whilst this is far from an exhaustive list, I would like to suggest four motivators of fear, with specific regard not to digital church per se but to online worship.
First, online worship encourages conversation above proclamation.
When I lead an in-building service, I stand at the front of the church and deliver a liturgy with pre-set responses. I then preach a 10-15 minute sermon that the congregation politely listen to (or seem to; perhaps they are making mental lists of what they need to do that day – who knows?). I pray a Eucharistic Prayer, the congregation come to receive the elements when told to, I pronounce the Blessing and they leave. A fundamentally unidirectional event has occurred. However, when I lead a service on Facebook Live, there is interaction through the comments feed. People ask questions, they make prayer requests, they joke, they chat together, they let me know what they think of the content, they take ‘the conversation’ where they want it to go, not where I necessarily think it should be going. If they are bored, they simply log off. Through online worship, a bidirectional event has occurred. I am not in control of an online worship event. To be sure, I may give it shape through the way in which I am structuring the content. But I cannot control whether or not the online congregation choose to engage with it or whether they want to take the service in a completely different direction.
I have experienced the latter situation on quite a number of occasions now. I have had a particular themed service planned but the comments in the Facebook Feed have clearly shown that something else is on the corporate mind of the congregation – so I have had to pivot mid-service and jettison my material to meet their spiritual needs. That is an uncomfortable situation in which to find oneself as a priest/service leader. Yes, it can even be a fearful experience. But it seems to me that it demands an intense listening to the prompting of the Holy Spirit that is not demanded of me in the same way as, for example, when I am leading an 8.00am BCP Communion Service.
Second, online worship is not an event that occurs only during a controlled moment in time but one which continues beyond my ‘leading’.
When I lead a 9.00am Sunday Eucharist Service in-building, it concludes at 10.00am and people go home. The event is done. However, when I lead a 10.30am Facebook Live Eucharist Service, I may be joined by 40 households when it is ‘Live’ – but then by another 20-30 households on ‘catch-up’ at a time of their choosing, either later that day or on another day altogether. Inevitably, the comments continue and the conversation continues – but I am not physically ‘there’ to keep it on track. The worship experience has become completely democratized.
Again, this feels like a strange experience as a worship leader. The key points that I wanted to accentuate during the service may not be what the congregants are commenting on. Furthermore, because they are engaging on ‘catch-up’, the day has moved on and their comments/conversation may seem dislocated from the original intent of the service. And I have to be OK with that because it is not ‘my service’; I am merely facilitating their interaction with God and with each other. That challenges my deeply ingrained understanding of what it means to be a priest leading worship.
After 30 years of doing it one way, I am having to learn that the community expectation of my role has changed. And I need to humbly accept that and adapt.
Third, online worship – if it is to be truly effective – has to engage new media forms that communicate in an unpredictably emotive way.
Whilst I am not denigrating the practice in the slightest, putting a camcorder in the chancel to stream a service that is taking place in a building is not truly engaging with the full potential (or definition) of online worship: instead, it’s using a screen to say, “This is what you could be experiencing if you were able to get to the building.” There is certainly a place for this, especially during a pandemic such as we have recently experienced. However, online worship, to be effective in the long-term as a missional strategy, must utilize similar formats to what people expect from other screen-based experiences; changing images, innovative sound and music, videos, interviews, cutaway editing, differing camera angles and so forth. But in utilizing a range of media, the power to influence emotive response no longer remains in the hands of the service leader to the same extent. The experience becomes much more personal and internalized.
We may (rightly) argue that this is not too dissimilar to what happens during in-building worship. We cannot tell what part of the liturgy, what line from a hymn, what sentence from the sermon, will hit home for an individual. But given the fact that online worship engages the senses in a more holistic way, the situation is more acute. Online worship has the ability to speak more personally and profoundly than most in-building worship.
Fourth – the mission can become confused with the method.
The mission of the Church is clear. We want to bring people into a living faith with God the Father, facilitated through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and lived out in the power of the Holy Spirit. That has always been the mission and it always will be.
However, for many centuries now, the method of achieving that has primarily been to integrate individuals within the physical community of the local church. Attendance at church – and engagement with related activities such as Bible Study Groups, Prayer Meetings, bringing people into the sacramental life of the local church and so on – has been the measurement of missional success. It would not be a generalisation to say that, for many, the method and the mission have become inextricably intertwined through the years. Success – or otherwise – of the method reflects on success – or otherwise – of the mission.
Most would intellectually agree that it is a mistake to confuse the mission with the method. But emotionally, the situation is very different. I know that I have often felt ‘a failure’ as a priest when my congregational attendances have declined at church services or related activities. When my methods have not borne the results I had hoped for, I have been temped to believe that I am failing in the mission. It is a natural fear for any priest to feel.
However, with digital church – and online worship in particular – the sense of anxiety is exacerbated by the fact that the parish priest may fear a perpetual falling of attendances at in-building worship events as online worship creates ‘competition’ with that traditional methodology. The method that has become inextricably intertwined with the mission is no longer competing on a level-playing field in the opinion of some. Therefore, digital church and online worship are viewed as antithetical to a tried-and-tested (and perhaps comfortable) methodology.
What is required is a recovery of the differentiation between the mission and the methodology. Only the mission truly matters. The methodology should be adaptable at any given moment in time to better achieve the mission. This can be painful, and a fearful thing to do, but we must never lose sight of the mission. This is something that I admit to struggling with myself. Pre-pandemic, the church that I serve as priest had a weekly pattern of one midweek Eucharist and two Sunday Eucharists. We now have 15 services per week, 11 of which are online. Our in-building attendances have dropped considerably – but our overall weekly attendances have increased by approximately 70%. People now come to church – either online or in-building – at a time of thier choosing; either joining in ‘live’ or on catch-up. The methodology is radically different, but I believe the mission is being strengthened. As a parish priest, I have felt deep discomfort at times and fearful of whether this has been the right way to go. But, hand on heart, I believe the methodology has had to change to better embrace the mission.
So for these four reasons at least – and I am sure there are many others – there is enough to instil discomfort – and perhaps fear – in a clergyperson for the simple reason that we are no longer able to influence (or control) the worship event in the way that we have become used to. (Yes, I know the Holy Spirit is ultimately in control, but let’s not muddy the waters by turning this into a pneumatological debate rather than a sociological one). We are being challenged by changing cultural expectations and having to seriously consider adopting new methodologies in order to better facilitate the mission of the church. That is not an easy thing for any of us to do. It is understandable that many clergy feel anxiety, inadequacy and a sense of fear.
The history of Christian worship events is underpinned by the reality that, on a sociological level, the power of influence/control has always been vested in the priest/minister. At its most fundamental level, online worship strips that power away, which may result in the priest/minister feeling powerless at best, redundant at worst. For many, this loss of power is the beginning of a falling set of dominos. If we can no longer ‘control’ the worship event, how can we possibly influence community beliefs, community behaviour? How can we be sure that our congregants will even want to attend anymore? For many, digital church not only creates an undesirable democratization of worship, it strikes at the very raison d’etre of ministerial vocation and customary practice. Let’s face it – there’s not much we can do as clergy that other professionals cannot do far better than us: bereavement counselling, marriage counselling, school assemblies, youth work, chairing meetings and so on. If we cede control of worship to a democratized and empowered gathering of lay people who may not be in the same room, same city or even on the same Continent as us, what do we have left?
Whilst this may sound a somewhat bleak analysis, I don’t think it is. What is needed at this time is an honest and open debate about the future of digital church and online worship. In order for that to happen, we simply must address all the elephants in the room. Much of the conversation thus far has focused on the technology itself, nuances of incarnational theology, the limits of pneumatological activity, the nature of sacraments, and the relationship between innovation and pre-existing Canon Law. These are all important conversations to be had, of course. But let us also acknowledge our own sense of vulnerability in the face of fast-developing digital technologies.
The truth is that digital church – and online worship – is here to stay. It is the future as well as the today. We try to ignore it or ‘theologize-it-away’ at our peril. If we can address – or at least acknowledge – our fears, we will surely be better placed to have a constructive conversation about the place of digital church in the ongoing mission of God’s church.