Friday, May 01, 2009

The Mandarine/Emily Interview Part IV

Finally, today, we get to the third question from Mandarine.

Third question: same with preaching. Does the internet give pastors new ways of interacting with their flock? Church blogs, sermons as podcasts, etc. and what do you think this could improve?

It's interesting. When thinking about the first two questions that dealt with publishing and education, although I am aware that the Internet could be used in both of those fields in ways that would have negative impacts, I mainly think only in terms of the positive. That was my initial reaction to this question, too, but I began second-guessing it as I began to write this blog post in my head.

When Bob and I were making plans to move to Lancaster County, I can remember talking to him about how the church ought to have a blog, that it ought to have a truly interactive web site, that all his sermons ought to be available online, that maybe church services ought to be videotaped and put online. I actually emailed our Clerk of Session to see if she thought a blog might be a good idea. She wasn't exactly overenthusiastic about the idea. Then we got here, and well, those ideas kind of died on the vine.

Why? First of all, they take an awful lot of work, and we'd really need to have some sort of full-time techie/PR person to handle them. I thought about doing the blog myself. I then decided against it, because, for once, I listened to the little voice inside my head that said, "Are you crazy? You have enough to do without tying yourself down to that!" Since we are not one of those mega churches (or "box churches," if you prefer), we don't have the money to hire someone for this job. If we had money for more staff, we'd put it towards someone who could help Bob in more important ways, like with pastoral visits and conducting funerals.

Secondly, there was a reason our clerk was not overly enthusiastic about a blog. We have plenty of people in our congregation who don't even know what a blog is. In fact, we have plenty of people in our congregation who don't even have basic computer skills. One example: last week, we had the "celebration of gifts of women" service, which is a service run completely by women of the church. I had written all these pieces for different women to read during various points throughout the service. When I asked one woman for her email address, so I could email her reading to her, her response was, "You've got to be kidding." Another woman said, "Could you just stick it in the mail for me?" Granted, these are older women, but they're still part of the congregation, and I would hate to have some aspect of our church, especially if it became a key component, which I would hope a blog would be, that many congregants would never see. Not only would the elderly be affected, but also the poor.

This is not to say that I don't think there is HUGE potential for churches when it comes to online opportunities. The other extreme from the woman in our church who doesn't have email, was one of the young "twenty-somethings" Bob has been working with, trying to figure out ways to attract more young people to the church. His response was, "I wish I could just download a church service onto my iPod and watch it whenever I wanted instead of having to get up on Sunday morning." (Well, we won't be offering such downloads to twenty-somethings, but we are taking a cue from the Catholics and will soon be testing out a more contemporary sort of service to be offered on Saturday evenings for those who like to sleep in on Sunday mornings.) However, it would be nice if people could attend church whenever they felt like it instead of being tied to one particular morning (or evening) every week, wouldn't it?

You and your wife mentioned, Mandarine, while visiting, that you've been having trouble finding a church that fits your needs and desires. Bob and I had the same problem when we were first married and moved to a new hometown after attending a church where we heard such great and inspiring sermons that we spent almost every Sunday afternoon discussing them at great length. That had been a wonderful, large church that had offered all sorts of interesting lectures from the likes of William Sloane Coffin, Jr. (on the subject of gay ordination) and study groups on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We couldn't find anything to compare when we moved from that city to what was basically a village. Finally, we settled for the church that had the friendliest congregation, and it worked out fine for us, but it took us about five years to make that decision. Meanwhile, I missed those great services and lectures from our old church and the discussions they inspired.

This problem would be resolved if people could keep attending their old church from a distance, which is certainly possible given today's technology. Not only could they view videos of services, but they could also attend study groups, etc. via webinar technology. Churches could set up social networks of their own, so members could correspond with each other and carry on conversations. I get excited thinking that not only could a church retain members who move out of the area, but it could also open itself up to finding members from all over the country, much the way smart corporations are aware that with telecommuting capabilities, they are no longer limited only to those prospective employees who live within commuting distance. It would be especially beneficial to those of us who are progressive Christians, helping us to get the word out that "Christian" does not necessarily mean "evangelical," in the way that term has now come to be defined in our country. People who aren't attending church because they've come to associate it with a place full of "dos and don'ts," a place full of condemnation with a focus on personal salvation and saving others' souls could be introduced to something entirely different.

This all sounds great, so why do I have that red warning light flashing in my brain? Basically, it's because I have a feeling those sorts of churches described in my last sentence of the previous paragraph would be the ones that thrived online. Mainline churches, those that tend to embrace progressive Christianity, are dying in our society. My guess is that they would probably be somewhat dead online, as well, because they just don't have the sort of money the mega churches do (after all, we don't happen to have a "Crossbucks" coffee shop -- I kid you not -- in our church facility the way one of the local mega churches here does). I find it hard these days not to make comparisons between churches and businesses. Mega churches are like the huge, greedy, extremely superficial corporations (buying and selling souls), and the rest of us are struggling little independents, hoping to give people a place to think and to thrive spiritually. I would hate to see what those mega churches could accomplish online (televangelism to the nth degree).

This is all to say that, yes, I do see potential for churches, but I think we would need to proceed with caution. My guess (I haven't checked) is that there are already mega churches out there beginning to make good use of online resources. (I mean, if there's a Crossbucks, I'm sure there's probably a Fishbook somewhere). That makes proceeding with caution a little hard for progressive churches, if we're going to beat them to the punch, but ultimately, being all-inclusive (even to those who don't have computers) and getting out the message of love, community, and peace that Christ taught and that true Christianity embraces is more important than winning a competition.


Rebecca H. said...

Very interesting. I suspect you're right about the megachurches being the ones to most fully exploit the internet, and that's too bad. The whole topic makes me feel a bit uncomfortable though -- in my case because I'm having a hard time disassociating the idea of church with a place. I have no trouble thinking of classes as extending beyond geographical boundaries, but I balk at doing the same with churches. It's a little bit of conservatism coming out in me, I guess. I just associate churches with things like potluck meals and making visits to hospitals -- things you can't do online.

Emily Barton said...

Dorr, you are absolutely right, and it's something I didn't want to get into, because I thought it would be way too long, but that sense of community, of being together for things like knitting prayer shawls, and Sunday school classes in which we, on Sundays, debate the "immigration issue" but then gather at each others' houses for dinner, would be lost. And no question that if you "attended" church online, and then wound up in a hospital thousands of miles away, who would come visit you? Who would bring casseroles to your family? I struggle with this, because I absolutely feel I have fantastic friends whom I love that I've met only through the blogosphere, some of whom I feel are as close to me as some of my real life friends. However, I have to admit that my relationship with them is based on my assumption that because I love them so much, we WILL eventually meet in person (I mean, look at me. As soon as I found you and Hobs were so close when I lived in CT, I practically pounced on you). When talking about religion, the "real life" aspect comes even more into play for me. I can't imagine having a true "spiritual moment" (whatever that might be to someone) via a computer.

Stefanie said...

You wouldn't have to hire someone to do the online stuff, you could tap the tech savviness of those young people you want to get involved in the church but who might be recluctant to hang out with the "old" folks. Someone could provide montioring and oversite, but allow them to create a online church social networking community and don't worry about reaching out to everyone at this point. That could come later when parents and grandparents get used to the idea.

Anne Camille said...

Interesting post, Emily. We have a young, 30-ish, newly ordained priest at my church. When he mentioned at a planning meeting that we needed some sort of viral advertising, you should have seen the puzzeled looks around the table. (Good thing that we all have great senses of humor.)

He went on to explain that we needed to be on facebook, post sermons on Youtube, have a more interactive website. He is right- online is where young people live and if we are going to make the church a place that they want to be associated with we need to adapt.

But, I can't see this replacing regular services. One of things that this energized young preacher does is post FB statuses with the topic of his sermons, sometimes just thoughts about what he is thinking about in trying to write his sermons. Usually they're pretty witty. Do they help? I don't know, but it's fun and it provides a connection I think to some. Does it bring new people into the church? Maybe not, but it might make new people feel a little more at ease.

We also post mp3s of sermons online. I wish we had text versions as I'd prefer to read rather than listen a second time, yet I like having the ability to revisit the sermon, even if it isn't my prefered mode.

I'm not sure that I agree with your 'proceed with caution'. Using new media to 'do church', replacing tradition church services is not appropriate and can't really 'replace' it. It can be gimmicky and lacks personal connection. But, on the other hand, I think that churchs need to move forward and use various means of communication, realizing that different people receive info in differnt ways and that it is a way to help build community & communication within that community.

knitseashore said...

I'm late to this post, but have to comment, as Chris and I are experiencing this now.

Though we moved two years ago, we still attend our old church, which is now an hour's drive away. Sunday mornings are fine, but we do miss out on the mid-week meetings and services. When it snows (or one of us is sick), we can watch the videotaped sermons online through the church's website. I like this option, because though I wouldn't chose it in place of attending in person, it's better than not attending church at all that week.

The internet can't replace the human interaction that Dorothy described, but for certain circumstances, it helps. It also gives the appearance of modern life, which can make the difference for younger generations, who may perceive the church is too old-fashioned for them. If finding a church or pastor on the internet then draws them into a service or youth group, then I think it's a good idea.