Online Missional Church

I’m doing a unit at the moment called Missional Spirituality, and the readings for this week have got me thinking. It’s all about engaging in the world using the tools that are available – and in a sense, the tools that are at the forefront of the world. When the Christian Church started to develop, it wouldn’t have spread so fast was it not for the network of roads and, in a sense, the post network of the Roman Empire that allowed Peter and Paul and others to send pastoral letters to encourage the new communities of faith. When the printing press was invented, it allowed the bible to be mass-produced for the first time and people could have a copy in their homes. When TV came along, so did Television evangelists. But today, when the internet, and social networking is so entrenched in our society, is the church really as effective at using this method of communication as we could be?

Likewise, our styles of learning has changed. No longer does the lecture from the pulpit work for many people – particularly those outside of the church, the ones that we want to reach out to and save – yet how many of our churches are still based around this same model that has been the norm for hundreds of years. A standard worship service on a Sunday – when broken down to its basic elements – looks remarkably similar across the board: Music, Prayer, (Kids spot if they have one), Some more music, Offering, Bible Reading, Sermon, Song (and Communion if a part of that tradition). Sure they might be moved around, but effectively our service outline hasn’t changed in a long time – possibly since reformation, and maybe even earlier. Now, there is some significant value in that tradition – don’t get me wrong. Personally, I’m a big fan of the liturgy as it is. However, I don’t want to be content with doing something just because that’s the way it’s always been done, particularly when there’s evidence that it might not be working as well as we would hope.

For example, while there are pockets of growth around the world, many would agree with the general statement that as a whole, the Christian Church is in a period of decline. One website lists the percentage of the population that attends a church service at least once weekly with a weighted average of about 26%. The Guardian reported in 2008 a report that indicated that Church of England attendances would drop by 90% from their 2008 levels by 2050. While the Church of England disputed this report, it’s still a worrying sign.

Another example is research into how the current generations learn and respond most effectively. While a lecture might have worked in the past, these days society wants to be involved. We have an infinite number of ways to create and share our own thoughts and opinions (Facebook, YouTube, Blogs, even things like TED are opening up many more people who are able to share their ideas to a wide audience like never before), but do we allow this sort of thing within the church service? More often than not, it’s a one way stream. You’ve got the person up on the platform, or on the pulpit, sharing the (dare I say, secret) knowledge that he or she has learned from studying the ancient text (or if they’re rushed that week, Textweek), with the congregation expected to sit quietly and listen for anywhere between 10 minutes to an hour or more, with no room for questions, for exploring thoughts, for engaging and actually learning. Then the person on the pulpit places his cards on the table, asks for a response, week after week, after week, and sees nothing change in the lives of those that they are caring most for. After all, what is the point of a sermon, if it doesn’t have an effect of somebody’s life?

The lecture notes that I had today cite Tex Sample, who says that those born after 1945 (ie, after World War 2) have a whole different way of experiencing the world. It involves images that convey meaning, sound conveyed as beat, and visualisation. You can see how it’s been implemented in society – the mass explosion of rock music, of television, and even more recently, YouTube. By using these techniques, society builds identity, community, stories to live by, ethics and worship. Sample says that while these things are important, and the church needs to embrace them, we shouldn’t in essence throw the baby out with the bath water. Use of the lectionary and the traditional patterns of worship are still necessary and an integral part of the church’s identity.

We also had a table shared, which compared the different types of worship.

Print Broadcast Digital
Leader credibility credentials charisma connection
Worship program ordered/liturgical crowd/entertaining personal/experience
Music style hymns praise & worship faith stories
Symbol a pulpit a stage a chair
Discipling head knowledge head & emotion holistic
Danger intellectualism experience superficiality

If we kind of think of this as roughly pre-1945, post-1945, and where we should be today, then we can see that our services need a bit of a change. But, as noted in the last line, we have to be wary of promoting something that is overly superficial. Not only will people not get what we desire out of it, but those we are trying to reach will see straight through it, and it will do more damage than good.

So what do we do?

We need to find a new way to reach people. But what that is will very much depend on the situation and context of the group that is trying to be reached. And I think that there could be many different ways of doing it.

What I’ve got in mind is a sort of online community where we can discuss our faith experiences, our understandings of scripture, and encourage each other to engage our community in a missional way. How that comes together in reality, I’m not all that certain yet.

So here’s my questions for you: If you regularly attend church, what aspects do you get the most spiritual fulfillment from? In your church community, what, if anything, encourages you to engage with the wider community. If you were involved in a community such as I’ve described here, what would you like to see included in it?

If you don’t attend church, whether for not liking the church or for not believing in Christ, what do you think of what I’ve proposed here, and would you find it confronting, or comforting, to be able to discuss and engage with others about faith experiences?

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Author: Ben Clapton

I'm an Officer in The Salvation Army, currently appointed with my wife as Corps Officers at the Rochester Corps in country Victoria (20 minutes out of Echuca). I play violin and guitar, amongst many others, and love golf and running.

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