During the more than twenty-five years that I served as either a director of family, youth, and young adult ministries or as an adult youth minister, I had a birds-eye view of the cultural shifts influencing parishes and congregations. Since I joined the faculty at the Episcopal Divinity School three years ago, my students have provided me with snapshots of what is happening in contemporary faith communities. I share their enthusiasm, and that of the many parents and church leaders with whom they work, as they articulate their conviction of the importance of faith formation for personal and social transformation. With them, I have mourned the reality that it is growing increasingly difficult to create a context in which faith formation can occur.
One hour on Sunday each week between September and May in children’s Sunday school or adult Christian education has never been enough to fully prepare and support community members who want to live Christian lives. It works only when the Christian message is being repeated and reinforced through a web of relationships across one’s life. Today, instead of seeing faith community members multiple times throughout the week, my students say they feel fortunate when they interact with the same children and adults for two consecutive Sundays. They are confronting the cultural clash between their ministerial formation to proclaim the gospel and “make” Christians and an increasingly fragmented society that is pulling its members in other directions.
Rather than lament the loss of participation1 in established models of church, it is time for us, as church leaders, to reimagine what it means to be church in the twenty-first century and to try new techniques for being in relation with members of our faith communities. Now fully immersed in the digital age, we have new tools to invite potential members into our communities and to give committed Christians access to the resources they need to grow in faith.
Proclaiming the Gospel and Making Christians in a Digital Age
Two sides of the same coin, evangelization and faith formation are essential characteristics of a faith community as expressed in the Markan and Matthean parallels of the Great Commission. The Markan text (16:15–16), with its emphasis on proclamation, hopes to invite all of creation into the story of God’s salvific love. The Matthean text (28:19–20) directs Jesus’s disciples—and us—to go into the world to make disciples. Taken together, these passages define discipleship as the means by which Jesus and his teachings will perpetuate.
Extrapolating from Mark, proclamation is an information-oriented activity. Whether through oral traditions, written letters, or radio and television broadcasts, it is a way of keeping the story of God’s presence alive. Following the Matthean view, the second-century Christian apologist Tertullian claimed that “Christians are made, not born.” This is a formation-oriented—and ideally a transformation-oriented— approach. Tertullian recognized that everything a community says and does converges to “make disciples.” Using an ancient framework, this conceptualization recalls how communities form members through koininia (fellowship and communion), leiturgia (liturgy and worship), kerygma (preaching), didache (teaching), and diakonia (service). Thus, as we hear the Christian message and learn communal mores, we claim a Christian identity and embody its beliefs. When what we believe is reflected in how we live, our witness invites others to join us, and the cycle is renewed. This is reflective of the twentieth-century Canadian media theorist and educator Marshall McLuhan’s oft-quoted mantra, “the medium is the message.”
This is a relational process. Efforts to proclaim the Gospel and make Christians during most of the last century occurred naturally because communal beliefs and practices were embedded in the life of the community, and social norms functioned to support it. As story-keepers, community members function as communal memory containers enabling dynamic interpretation and reinterpretation; as story-makers, they enable new initiates and longtime members to claim, renew, and creatively reimagine foundational and personal narratives. Bound together, adherents grow in their faith primarily by their participation in it.
Once the center of cultural life, the church structure was more than the place to gather for Sunday services. Active church members also met there during the week and on the weekend for fellowship, Bible study and faith sharing, opportunities for prayer, guidance, and healing, as well as time for social and outreach activities. Fashioned within a communal space and supported by fellow members, relationships deepened as individuals in a faith community prayerfully engaged challenging ideas and issues, gained a vision of life greater than themselves, and went out into the world seeking to create and enact it. The whole environment—an ecology of faith—was in operation.
The Ecology Is Broken2
In the twenty-first century, time is short and the ecology is broken. Today faith communities compete with myriad other opportunities that vie for attention, and many who would like to be active in their churches simply cannot be. Adults and youth alike experience the tension of conflicting expectations and values as the work week extends into the late evening and weekend, and school sports are often scheduled on Sunday mornings. Challenged to find one hour to attend Sunday worship, it is unlikely that they will be able to participate in activities interspersed throughout the week. Opportunities to hear the Gospel and learn of Jesus’s way, as well as to share life stories and make meaning of them together through the lens of faith, are lost.
Without occasions to meet, relationships diminish. This has an unintended consequence: growing rosters of inactive members. Estimates suggest that 30 to 40 percent of those who have been baptized no longer practice their faith. Among the variety of reasons reported, the three most common include lack of assimilation or connection with a community, feeling rejected by a community, and lack of support when dealing with a life crisis.3 At a time when community members could most likely benefit from the support and care of a faith community, there is less ability for them to receive such support. The church—as individuals and as a corporate body—suffers when its members are not able to be
Many church leaders are recognizing the seismic shifts taking place in contemporary culture and are looking outward, beyond the church walls, to identify creative ways to meet the needs of God’s people. In response to the loss of a coalescing community center where members meet physically and support each other spiritually and emotionally, they are reevaluating their stance toward new forms of interactive technology. Rather than assume that all activities will occur in physical places, these communities are exploring the potential of virtual spaces.
Churches initially used computer and Internet-mediated technology more to proclaim the Good News and share information than to make Christians. Beginning in the early 1980s, publications like the Christian Computing Magazine, Church Computer, and Using Personal Computers in the Church helped church leaders decipher how computers could be used in parish settings. Desktop publishing enabled church leaders to create beautiful church bulletins and promote church events as well as manage data, including membership rolls, pledge tracking, and church budgets.
Paralleling the shift from personal computers to personal communications, technological advances that enabled computers to be networked facilitated Christians’ exploration of online relationships and evalu
ations of a computer’s usefulness for ministerial purposes. More than simply a tool to distribute information to anyone, anywhere (Web 1.0), today the Internet is developing into a platform for participation and interaction (Web 2.0 and beyond).
The fall 2008 edition of this magazine focused on “The New Connectivity: How Internet Innovations Are Changing the Way We Do Church.” It offered some excellent strategies for asynchronous tools, including text-based listserv use, e-mail management, and the blogsphere, along with video tools like YouTube and synchronous ones like SecondLife’s virtual churches. It also hinted at the potential of crossover applications like Facebook, which enables posting of messages (asynchronous) and live (synchronous) text-based interaction as “a new venue for spiritual interaction, worship, and learning.” Most importantly, it recognized that faith communities cannot ignore these new technologies and the Interactive Age within which we operate without risk of becoming irrelevant.
To take advantage of these tools, church leaders need greater direction in how to determine which new technologies they should integrate into their ecology of faith.
Questions to Ask
One way of identifying the broad array of elements operative in an ecology of faith is to consider three integrated axes: message, method, and media. For most faith communities, message correlates with a church’s mission and delineates personal and communal goals; method refers to passive, active, and interactive processes for ensuring the message is proclaimed and embodied; and media refers to the personal, communal, or communicative medium chosen.
This order is significant: message, method, then media. Each medium has characteristics that make it ideal in some communicative situations and not in others and may include interpersonal (one-to-one), broadcast (one-to-many), or interactive (many-to-many) technologies. By first identifying message and method, the choice of medium becomes more obvious, and church leaders can ensure continuity between beliefs and practices. They can also avoid being distracted by the latest new application or digital tool.
With the hope of developing sustainable models for proclaiming the good news and making Christians, some faith communities are developing hybrid or blended models of community life that incorporate both face-to-face interaction and online interaction. For them, ensuring access to the social, spiritual, emotional, educational, and outreach-oriented resources of a faith community is essential, and their primary question is, “What must be done face-to-face, and what could be done in a mediated environment?”
Blending Physical Places and Virtual Spaces
Using an ecological perspective, we can recognize the contributions of both place (tangible, finite, physical) and space (intangible, infinite, virtual) in informing, forming, and transforming Christians. Although personal witness is still recognized as a primary medium for life-converting affiliations, research indicates that online relationships can be a site of inspiration and support that enable interior change and social transformation.
Designed for interactive communication with anyone, anytime, anywhere, the Internet inherently surmounts limits of time and space and supports multidirectional sharing of voice, video, and data. This relatively “new” medium can help us to evangelize—to reach out to potential members, find them wherever they go online (home, work, school, vacation, coffee house), and invite them to participate with the believing community. Correlatively, it can extend relationships initiated in a face-to-face context and assist the process of informing, forming, and transforming new members and longtime adherents. These virtual spaces could include but are not limited to the following:
- A live Web-cam relaying the daily movement within the community’s gathering space.
- A virtual chapel sharing not only audio and video clips of some of the sermons and other worship experiences but also extending it through the daily posting of images, songs, meditations, inspirational stories, prayers of the people, and online worship exercises.
- A calendar of events with locations, times, and descriptions, with Web-streamed audio and video recordings of select offerings.
- Themed “gathering spaces” for synchronous and asynchronous interaction, including live text-based chat and live audio/video conferences, threaded discussion, collected blog links, self-paced tutorials on a range of topics, etc. These areas may be devoted to intellectual, spiritual, pastoral, or other concerns.
- A community directory that includes “home pages” with pictures, contact information, and other self-determined personal information. Each individual could include more of his or her personal dreams, goals, and activities through statements or interactive blogs.
- A library pod with access to e-journals, e-books, archived streaming video of speakers and events, a clearinghouse-type collection of links to resources (such as sermon tools, pastoral care referral directories, denominational and interfaith links), and other Internet-mediated resources.
- A ministry opportunity clearinghouse for local, national, and international internships, volunteer opportunities, and jobs.
Significant in this mix is how faith communities are attentive to the whole ecology of faith and how we design and structure opportunities for spontaneous and intentional interaction. Ideally, these physical gathering places and interactive spaces provide at least five interrelated dimensions that result in personal and social formation and transformation:
- First, they function as sites of hospitability, welcoming a variety of diverse members, content, and interpretation.
- Second, they are environments of story-keeping and for story-making, enabling new initiates and longtime members to claim, renew, and reenergize the community of which they are a part.
- Third, they provide “a holding environment”—a safe space to find support as operative understandings of faith and life are challenged and transformed.
- Fourth, they are sites of sustained, intentional interactions and genuine dialogue that promote understanding across difference and lead to personal and communal transformation.
- Finally, they encourage participation by and between critically reflective, actively engaged individuals not only in the church but also in the world.
I Cannot Do It All, But We Can
Despite the obvious potential of reaching anyone anywhere, church leaders have been slow to implement technologically mediated models. There are complex arrays of questions impeding their application: How can we build community without a physical place? How can we break bread and share the cup virtually? How can we come to know one another without body language? How can we protect one another from false personas online?
Additionally, many church leaders fear they do not have adequate theological grounding, pedagogical awareness, and technological finesse to integrate message, method, and media. Overwhelmed by the pressures that exist in their area of expertise—whether their role is pastor, Christian educator, parent, or Sunday school teacher—they generally are impeded by their sense of the limits of their time and energy to embark on something new.
While these and other questions and fears are relevant and deserve ample consideration, they should not prevent us from exploring virtual frontiers. By working together as the body of Christ, we can share individual expertise in particular areas to augment deficits in another. When we start with clearly identifying o
ur messages and goals, we can more readily recognize the best methods or processes and media to communicate and attain them.
1. Churches are not the only site of declining participation. In Bowling Alone (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000), Robert D. Putnam documents how employment cycles, economic forces, generational shifts, geographic location, technological progress, expanding roles for women, and other factors have led to the loss of active members in civic and social organizations.
2. Episcopal priest and religious educator John Westerhoff first heralded the implications of a broken ecology in his 1976 book, Will Our Children Have Faith? (New York: Seabury Press, 1976), revised edition (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2000).
3. There are striking parallels across denominations with respect to why baptized members become inactive. This data was collected from Southern Baptist, Evanglical Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and United Methodist sources while I was a consultant to Saint Anthony Messenger Press in 2000. I designed and helped launch OnceCatholic.com.
Questions for Reflection
- This article differentiates between the Markan view of proclamation and the Matthean view of making Christians. How would you articulate your faith community’s understanding of the Great Commission?
- Do you think congregations differentiate between a Christian spirituality (knowing about Jesus Christ) and being a Christian (living a Christian lifestyle)?
- Has your community experienced the cultural shifts which make it more difficult for active members to participate in the life of the community? If yes, how has the community responded?
- Are there any aspects of communal life that you would change by considering them through the axes of message, method, then media? Who should be the catalyst to initiate a change?
- Have you or your community considered developing a hybrid model of physical place and virtual space interaction? Have you discussed what must be done face to face and what could be done online? What would you list in each category?
- Have you considered the theological grounding, pedagogical awareness, and technological skill necessary to proclaim the gospel and make Christians in your context? How would you begin to identify the people in your community available to develop and enact your vision in this digital age?