Thursday, 16 October 2008

"Better than Church?"

During the past few weeks I've been reflecting on the link between blogging and church. This has partly been sparked off by conversations with people in churches that I've visited who were asking for new ways to create networks and share information. I've also been monitoring my visitor numbers and was struck that the daily chart of unique visitors looks remarkable similar to the attendance record at St Laurence in Slough - the church I looked after for eighteen months as a curate. The only difference is that the visitors are daily rather than weekly, but there is the same pattern of community - roughly 20 to 40 each "event" with occasional spikes of 60 0r 70 on special occassions....

A friend of mine (who is probably reading this) also commented that reading the blog was "better than going to church" - which I do take as a compliment, but it does raise some interesting questions. To what extent can the blogsphere provide opportunities to "be" church?

A few years ago, I was quite interested in the idea of on-line church and a few of us began to think about how to do it. We started with cell church methodology and looked at ways to do this. I even bought the "cybercell" url (and still own it). When the diocese put money into cutting edge ministries and launched iChurch I was seriously tempted to apply for the job (which unfortunatley was part-time). It's been interesting to watch iChurch develop in similar directions to CyberCell - which never got off the ground because I didn't have enough time to invest in it...

In the meantime the web has moved on and we now have (through various web 2.0 innovations) the joy of Facebook, blogging, wikis and ediatble sites like Webjammer. Facebook (and other social networking sites) have been brilliant for creating a sense of community with people who you don't see every day - and with people you see a lot too! Blogging has proven a really interesting tool for people like me who have lots of people they want to communicate with - but may only see every few months or so... It's also had important spin offs in terms of accountability, deeper discussion and every-extending community. I began this blog in June 2007 as an attempt to record what I did workwise as an attempt to monitor and assess my working patterns. It's now a valuable tool for personal reflection, conversation and community. I may only give it a few minutes each day but these are never wasted minutes...

In the meantime I do have some questions about blogging and "being church". Is blogging a personal project - emerging out of what a person is? Is blogging a mission project - a conscious attempt to achieve something? Is Christian blogging is a fresh expression - a way of being church which is accesible to those who don't currently attend trad church? Is it ever simply a way of being church - a way of exercising our call to be Christian community?

These are interesting questions and I'd like to look at them using the criteria I often use with churches and groups - based on Acts 2:

Opportunity to engage with the word: I don't think I often use my blog to quote scripture or attempt to do bible teaching (it wouldn't feel hugely appropriate), but I am aware that I (and many other Christian bloggers) do use blogging to comment on contemporary issues. In many ways I feel that public blogging encourages us to conect real life with faith and scriptures - in a way that may not always seem appropriate in a church service. Blogging is the 21st century equivalent of discussing life with a newspaper in one hand and the bible in the other. And it is a discussion with opportunity for comments and continuing discussion - unlike traditional "preaching".

Mutually Supportive Relationships: These do seem to be developing and growing through things like Facebook and I love following some of the strands of conversation and comment that follow updates and photos. It's also been great to continue to feel connected to some of our young people as they head off on their university adventures. Bloggong does provide some opportunity for this and I loved one of Tim Leeson's recent entries about his Dad. The problem is that blogging can be more of a spectator sport - although mutual reading of blogs can be a powerful tool for community. I have wondered from time to time if we could create a group of "covenanted bloggers" who would commit to read each others blogs on a regular basis and comment - this would be one way of creating an on-line cell group. The blogs could be password protected if people wanted to keep their thoughts to themself. Church should be a mutually supportive, learning community - this is very hard on Sunday morning, but easy to do on-line.

Breaking Bread together: Hard to do on-line but iChurch and others do manage online worship. On the other hand there is something in the concept of the Christian Eucharist which is about taking the ordinary things of life and allowing God to transform them in the context of our community. Our online lives may not involve a litoral process of breaking bread and pouring out wine but they can provide us with opportunities to link ordinary life with God's reality - our online lives can have a sacramental element in some way...

Time and Space for prayer: Prayer usually begins with knowledge. Only when I am expossed to issues or needs am I driven to pray. Only when I begin to see things from God's point of view do I know what to pray for. The joy of reading other people's blogs, or reading facebook updates, is that I have a new mechanism for this. I am also able to post information on my blog that (I hope) will be picked up by other people who will join me in prayer. In fact, I think I often finish a blog entry by inviting people to pray for particular individuals or situations. Observant readers will have spotted a "please pray for" widget in the side bar. I'm not sure if anyone every notices it, but it seems like the right thing to do. Scripture Union also has a prayer application - which is very clever but I've never really got into it.

Helping one another to see God at work in the world: This is another joy of blogging and Facebook, Not only can I tell people what God's been doing in my life, I can also see it in others. I've never been a great fan of formal "testimonies" since I think they can become formulaic or self-obsesed, but I love reading some of the things that people write about their lives or churches. These have been some of the most moving experiences I've had over the past year and I'm thankful for those who've had the courage to psot their stories, images and experiences. They have enriched my journey and have been sources of real wisdom and wonder.

Members share who they have and what they are with one another: As I've already said, I think this does happen through blogs and facebook updates in a way that is very challenging in a Sunday morning "seeker sensitive" service. Many of us know it can happen well through cells or small groups, but it's proven really hard to help people set aside time for this. Online community, however, happens in its own time and seems more sustainable - in today's frantic world.

Chruch members have an opportunity to give to those in need: Mission is the purpose of church but I am aware that this is not neccesarily a priority in blogging - although many of us do use up megabytes of personal space talking about it. On the other hand it is possible to give to good causes on-line, although this can feel like an impersonal financial transaction. I'm more impressed by some of the Facebook innovations which I would love to promote. Superbadger is a fab idea that Tearfund have set up. It's basically a mechanism for co-ordinating online campaigns equivalent to the postcards that many of us send. Only last night I received a Superbadger request to "badger" the government not to give up their commitment to dealing with climate change even though the economy is in crisis. I was able to send off a quick message in seconds that the relevant minister will have received before his meeting today. I think this is absolutely brilliant and I really recomend that you check this application out if you use Facebook. There are a few other clever devices that people have cooked up - including Lil Green Patch which generates money from sponsors to buy up acres of amazonian rain forest for conservation. OUr on-line endevours can actually make a difference in the real world!

Meeting together for worship, prayer and celebration: Well... possibly... certainly there are around twent repeat visitors on my blog each day and Facebook speaks for itself...

Experiencing Growth as a result of God's grace: This is a fairly subjective thing although I do feel that I have been growing as a result of my blogging experiment. It's been a great way of creating a personal journal which has helped me to reflect on my life and connect my thoughts with others. In a more objective way I think it would be correct to say that our collective expereiments with blogging, Facebook, etc... have mushroomed and become steadily more significant. Is this a sign of God at work?

So, following these basic criteria, there is something "church-like" going on in the blogsphere, but what kind of church is it?

Liquid Church: Pete Ward coined the phrase "liquid church" a few years ago to refer to forms of church which were fluid and not contained within traditional buildings or structures. Church happens, he says, whenever people come together and do/be it. Church on the blogspehere is a bit like this...

Fresh Expressions: Fresh expressions are forms of church created for those who are not currently members and take on forms which are appropriate to the culture of those people. I think (in a very liquid way) this happens through blogs and social networks. Those of us who "do" church in a public way on-line are continually inviting others to share the journey with us, whether they belong to a specific church or not.

Bishops of the blogsphere: Like many people I love reading bishop Alan's blog. It strikes me that this has given him a new mechanism to be a bishop. His blog entries enable him to speak out on issues that are important to the Church. He also builds links and connections, enabling us to see what's going on in the wider world/church. In a funny way, I feel more connected to my bishop now than I ever have before - and I know he reads my blog so it's a two way thing... This may not be significant to all people reading this blog, but as an anglican minister, it's fairly imporatant to me.

In conclussion, is blogging a way of being church? Well, yes, sort of... But not in the way we're used to thinking about church.

1 comment:

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