It’s certainly been a bit of a year…
With churches uncertain about what services will look like for the rest of this year, how can we minister to each other and the world while we are in various states of lockdown?
How we answer this question will depend on many factors. The impact the pandemic has had on ourselves, our families and churches will certainly inform our outlook. More keenly, perhaps, our answer will depend on our own ease and comfort with online church and technology generally.
What of faith in the pandemic?
Irrespective of our own comfort levels with live-streamed services, the pandemic has certainly seen a rise in interest in spiritual matters amongst the general population. Reporting in *Premier Christian News, a Savanta ComRes poll showed that 1 in 4 UK nationals had engaged in some form of online worship at least once a month during July and August. Surprisingly maybe, it was 18-34 year-olds leading the way, with half of this age group reportedly involved in some kind of act of faith-related activity, including prayer.
Downloads of a top English language bible app increased by an additional 2 million more downloads in March alone.*
It was these kinds of stats that prompted me to attend the Premier Christian Digital conference* in early November this year. We were encouraged to reimagine church for the digital age and it was certainly exciting to hear about the huge wave of interest in and engagement with faith online, despite the physical church doors being closed.
Digital engagement in faith matters
Many of the encouraging stories about the state of faith online came from Methodist minister Calvin T Samuel who, although not a digital native, has gradually embraced the digital space.
Operating from a place of ‘leaving no-one behind’ his Sunday services are produced in triplicate – online, as a written transcript which can be posted, and by audio – accessible by phone.
In terms of reach, too, he has noticed that a far greater number and a wider range of people have been attending his online services than have ever come to church. One man has even joined their Zoom prayer group as a result of viewing his sermons online first. This man has lived across the road from the church for years but has never been inside. Wanting to build on such engagement, Calvin and his wife recently led an anti-racism reading group across two different Methodist circuits on Zoom, generating interest from many he would have struggled to reach via traditional church means.
He also read an excerpt from a letter sent by a Christian lady who wrote that while she didn’t know where her husband’s heart was, her own heart was full of thankfulness as her husband sat beside her in their own house each week, ‘attending’ church together for the first time ever.
Despite all of these heart-warming stories, many of us mourn the loss of ‘how things were’ and many more of us hold the internet at arm’s length; it is not for us, we feel. Maybe we dismiss social media as a toxic influence on society.
The internet can certainly be a dark place, but Chris Lee (@RevChris7), vicar and Christian Instagram influencer who engages online with the spiritually curious, suggested we think again. Leading a seminar on engaging through Instagram at the Digital conference, Chris maintained there is a huge conversation happening online about spirituality, God and meaning. These conversations are taking place whether Christians are involved or not. It is far better, he argued, to be part of that conversation.
Will the ‘hype’ live up to expectations, though? After all, what if online church simply fuels a more consumerist, non-committal, pick-and-mix kind of faith without any depth or servant-hearted Christianity? And what about discipleship and accountability on our walk with Jesus?
I don’t know that anyone has all the answers yet. Certainly, nobody at the conference was arguing for online over conventional church. Rather, the case was made for a hybrid model, with a call for creativity in how we do church and how we might have more meaningful encounters with people and communities outside of the usual Sunday gathering.
What are the implications?
The Premier Digital conference has certainly got me thinking about how I as a Christian may need to adapt. Also, what does it mean for Christian TEFL, where we seek to train people to teach English for outreach? Do we need to ‘join in’ the conversation online more? Should we be encouraging our trainees to think in new and creative ways about reaching communities through English teaching?
Possibly. However, from what I know of many of our trainees, they are already being creative in outreach, particularly in these strange times, using the church as a springboard but not necessarily as a venue.
Many are already learning new technical skills, so that in the face of restrictions they can continue to deliver classes on Zoom, Skype or WhatsApp. They are fully committed to the marginalised and instead of shutting down in lockdown, they have found new ways to connect and show the love of Jesus. I can’t tell you how encouraging their stories are to us here at Christian TEFL. And no matter what future challenges and opportunities await us in 2021, as we move deeper into digital possibilities, I am sure we will continue to adapt.
Whatever our own perspectives of church life in 2020, clearly God has and will continue to work out His purposes to build and grow His people.
It just might not be in the way we thought when we were hanging up the Christmas decorations last year.
Director of Studies, Christian TEFL
* Premier Digital: https://www.premierdigital.info/