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.