Ecclesiology for a Digital Church:
Theological Reflections for a New Normal
By Heidi Campbell
and John Dyer
SCM Press, pp. 224, $64
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Reviewed by John Mason Lock
The opening weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic were for many clergy and laity the first experience of online worship. Churches have been using online tools (websites, email, and various social media) for years, but for the vast majority of Christians, online worship was a novel experience.
A new collection of essays edited by researchers Heidi Campbell and John Dyer seeks to provide a theological perspective on hastily constructed emergency measures. The editors have chosen a dozen or so authors from a range of ecclesiastical backgrounds and locations who represent a diverse spectrum of views and experiences: an African Pentecostal theologian, a Roman Catholic priest, several professors at Protestant seminaries, and a feminist lay preacher in the Catholic Church, among others.
Although this is a new collection written after the pandemic began, each of the authors had conducted research on the effects of digital culture on the Church before the pandemic. Pastors who were thinking and making decisions on the fly, with little or no reflection on the development, have not been included, and this is understandable.
Just as the pandemic saw the rise of an army of lay experts on epidemiology, so in the Church everyone seemed to have a rigid opinion about online worship. I was open to hearing from those who have been wrestling with questions about digital culture and ecclesiology before COVID.
Perhaps the best argument to emerge out of these essays is that the Church has always employed technology to support mission, ministry, and worship. Paul and the apostles wrote letters that involved the technology of writing and scrolls. There was a tension between the presence of the apostle and the mediated form of that presence through a letter, yet the letter was a valid form of the apostle’s presence and voice.
In contemporary times, multiple technologies support mission and worship. From microphones and sound systems to electronic and digital instruments, we use these tools without thinking much about their role as mediating technologies. The categorical rejection of online worship does not square with the history of the Church and its continuous use of various technologies to spread the gospel.
I appreciated the repeated assertion that in-person worship is fundamentally superior to online worship. Most of the authors make the argument that online worship is valid and may even present opportunities not afforded by traditional forms of worship. One wonders how long ago these essays were written — a year? Longer? With the flurry of omicron passed, the moment seems to have shifted. Today the need to justify online worship seems much less urgent than the need to convince the average churchgoer that it is safe and beneficial for most to return to in-person worship.
Some common themes emerge from the essays. For example, a number of authors object to the claim that online worship is less embodied than in-person worship After all, they say, the person engaged in virtual worship is not outside the body, and things like the position of the body while watching online worship express the embodied dimension of online worship. Others suggest that “virtual worship” can be a misleading phrase if it implies something less real than in-person worship.
As the subtitle suggests, the editors believe we’re in a “new normal.” Online worship is not a temporary response to an extraordinary set of circumstances but a threshold into a new epoch of being the Church. One author claims we are entering “Pentecost 4.0,” and the use of digital technology will, like the first Pentecost, cross linguistic barriers as Christians share fellowship across time, space, and even language.
Time will tell whether the forms of worship adopted during COVID were just temporary measures or if, in fact, they represent a new normal or even a new Pentecost. I take issue with those who say things like “Church will never be the same,” and I wonder if such claims do harm in diminishing the comfort and encouragement that the average churchgoer received from worship before the pandemic.
Some of the essays veer off into provocative and what I would consider outlandish visions of worship in the future. Writing from a feminist-liberationist perspective, Kate Ott claims that “maximizing forms of digital media can contribute to liberative ecclesiological practices.” In other words, we need more online worship, not less, to help marginalized voices come to the fore.
Another haunting vision comes from Bala Musa and Boye-Nelson Kiamu, who suggest that digital technology will allow leaders to tailor the worship experience more perfectly in the way Facebook tailors a news feed: “when the spiritual atmosphere of worship or outreach is moderated by a computer algorithm that tells the minister, whether a real person or a robot, what the emotional and spiritual states and needs of the worshipers are, ministry can be curated and calibrated to satisfy those needs.”
Heidi Campbell, one of the editors, makes perhaps the most thought-provoking and provocative argument in the entire volume. During the height of the pandemic, I joked that the slogan for virtual church should be “It’s twice as hard to make and half as good.” What my slogan reveals is that, as Campbell points out, I and many pastors (not to say most Christians) see worship as the production of a worship experience.
Campbell makes the unsettling argument that this is unsustainable and unhealthy: “Churches have primarily become about producing a programmed event rather than building communal interactions and relationships.” I think Campbell is right that people come to church for relationships and a sense of community. Pandemic worship may offer an opportunity to use digital technology to connect members of our churches more profoundly and to recognize that the worship event we’re producing from week to week may not be as attractive and binding as we think.
This collection is thought-provoking, but I would stop short of calling it essential reading. Our current ecclesial moment is too much in flux to build any kind of sustained, convincing argument about the future of digital worship. The essays left me hungry for relevant topics that received little attention. What of hybrid church? It seems to be the way many churches are emerging from the pandemic.
Several authors make the helpful distinction between a broadcast service on Facebook or YouTube and a more interactive platform like Zoom. Broadcast worship has been used for decades by evangelicals and Catholics, but worship that allows interaction between viewers is really novel. Is a hybrid form of worship that includes real interaction between online and in-person participants a possibility? What are the theological and pastoral implications of such a practice?
I wish there had been more reflection and engagement with the now well-documented fact that social media damage young people. Digital church may be a new frontier, but does it risk compromising the gospel if it doesn’t offer a word of judgment about digital culture and its destructive and toxic elements?
The Rev. John Mason Lock is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, Red Bank, New Jersey.