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  1. 1. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman The Word made virtual: some thoughts on mission and ministry in an online world Introduction The Church is dying.1 The 'vicar-shaped ministry' of the last half a century is no longer a successful or sustainable model for today's priests and people. There is a need for radical change, re-shaping, re-modelling, re-thinking, re-energising the Church, its ministry and its existence in order to be re-born for the next generations. To know what one doesn't know is the first step in changing for the better. The decade of evangelism and the increase of 'fresh expressions' of church are beginning to open up avenues for exploration in bringing God back to His people and the people to God. Recognition by the Archbishop of Canterbury in his support of the need for a 'mixed economy' recognises that we are in a period where we must explore many new possibilities for being and doing church in order to respond to the context of our 21st century society. A period where we – remaining mindful of those unwilling to embrace swift change – see the opportunities and rise to the challenges posed by today’s society, and respond in faith. This essay examines arguably the most powerful phenomenon of the modern age – the internet – to consider the impact new technology has had on society and if it can help or hinder the Church. Changes in society England's pre- and post-war society was a stable entity, where one's life could be mapped out with a degree of certainty. Remaining in the village or town where one was born, maintaining a 'job for life', marrying a local boy/girl, bringing up well- disciplined children in a Christian environment, knowing the neighbours, socialising locally with them and with family nearby, quietly respecting the teacher, doctor, policeman and priest. Today's society could hardly be more different. In today's global world we move around, with work, with education, away from family, from friends, moving perhaps a number of times, creating new relationships and networks each time, and attempting to maintain these relationships with a greater or lesser degree of success over time. Moving around loses the groundedness of living somewhere where everyone knows you and your history, everything about your present and can make a good guess about your future; it loses the shared history and experience that characterises strong community, yet facilitates the breaking free from inherited conventions, allowing the reinvention of self as people move and begin afresh in new places. Public and private transport provision means that people travel as a matter of course, to work, to shop and for social intercourse. The birth of the internet exacerbates this, enhances the number, location and type of 1 Well, ok, maybe not all of it, but some of it. Cathedral congregations are on the up and there are some types of church that are thriving, but many in the traditional, and parish environment are not. But that wouldn’t have made quite the same impact, so bear with me here ☺ Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 1
  2. 2. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman communities that we belong to. Similarly it affects the number, location and type of churches that we attend. The Church is dying. It caters to a population who do not know their neighbour, who work 12 hour days plus commute to work, who unthinkingly drive up to 20 miles to see friends, who buy online and get delivery or go to out-of-town shopping outlets for convenience and who travel remarkable distances to attend a church which suits their preferred worship style – if they attend at all. They stay in touch with their friends by social networking, by email and community software. The verb 'to facebook' is catching up with 'to text' in being the medium of connection between friends – but does little but often replace deep and meaningful relationships? The world is available 24/7 to them, and many of them are available 24/7 to the world. This is the congregation the traditional church wishes to bring at an inconveniently set time to an inconveniently cold and draughty building to hear, for some, an inconvenient truth.2 Although many may feel that the internet has done much to kill off real community, this post modern world revolves around technology and the new society that it offers and supports, and it behoves every organisation to learn from it. “I dare to summon the whole Church bravely to cross this new threshold, to put into the deep of the Net, so that now as in the past the great engagement of the Gospel and culture may show to the world 'the glory of God on the face of Christ' (2 Cor 4:6). May the Lord bless all those who work for this aim.” --Pope John Paul II, January 24, 2002 Web 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 – opportunities online Whilst in some areas one might feel that the Church of England is far from the cutting edge of technological change, and the Catholic Church still further behind, the as-ever perceptive comment by the last Pope reminds us that we should not and can not disassociate our faith from the world around us or vice versa. From a small group of researchers successfully connecting their computers together to share results and ideas, the world wide web has become a mainstay of our daily life; today’s younger generation does not recall a world without email. A survey carried out in the United States in 2003 found that “64% of the nation’s 128 million Internet users have done things online that relate to religious or spiritual matters”.3 In 2008, faced with ever declining church congregations and increasing apathy, let us look afresh at the opportunities offered by the online: the internet, social networking, mail lists and discussion fora and virtual worlds. Web 1.0: the internet (static medium) In the nineties a level of computer programming skills were need to create web pages, not so anymore. The web as a publishing medium is vast, any group, 2 Shamelessly adapted from An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s masterpiece on how we look after God’s creation, http://www.aninconvenienttruth.co.uk/ (2006) 3 Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2004 Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 2
  3. 3. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman individual or organisation can maintain a website, publicly and globally available, often for free. Type of use and quality of information ranges widely, but a presence online offers easy access to many answers. At macro level, the Church of England maintains a vast resource at http://www.cofe.anglican.org/, and a good starting place for people enquiring into Anglicanism can be found at ‘Anglicans Online’ (http://anglicansonline.org).4 On a more local level, many softwares exist to help communities represent themselves to their faithful and to visitors by a church website.5 A website might simply be a provision of information which is little more than can be found on the noticeboard in the churchyard, but which is visible to anyone with an internet connection without walking out in the rain. But in the same way that out-of-date, rather damp and dog-eared notices on a peeling noticeboard give an impression of a parish pride past its prime, a website offers you the potential to sell your community as you are. For regulars, it’s an opportunity to check times or dates, for visitors/seekers to find out when the church is open, or what services there are, for a young couple driving past looking for a perfect wedding opportunity the chance to nail a sale…! The flexibility available in web publishing allows you to be who you are. Appendix 2 offers two church websites as examples of what different effects can be created with the same software. Web 1.5: the internet (dynamic medium) To successfully attract repeat visitors on a regular basis, a website needs to change, to update. One of the most exciting developments of the web is from grey, unformatted text to the easy inclusion of rich media. With the addition of RSS (really simple syndication) not only can your website have changing content on it, visitors can subscribe to directly receive updated information from it. This means that sermons can be available online very quickly after a service (in text or in more recent times audio format) – a rich source of information for those not yet brought into the community, or those within who cannot attend services or wish to reflect on the message and engage in a discussion about it which extends beyond the post-service coffee. Appendix 3 shows two exponents of this. Web 2.0: social networking As it became easier to publish to the internet, a new generation of web use and web users grew. Not only is web-publishing easier, but commonplace (not restricted to geeks) and free, so reading and writing to the web is very much in the public domain. the web is no longer a one way transmission of information, but a dynamic and interactive exchange between many users. Chief among the ‘innovations’ of what is often called ‘Web 2.0’ are a myriad of places for social networking to take place. The web has come alive in a rich interactive community online, based around sharing – posting, commenting, supporting, questioning, answering, nurturing, debating, engaging… Social networking is the term given to the way that people spend hours online making connections and developing relationships with friends they have and 4 A screenshot of their ‘Start Here’ questions page can be found as Appendix 1. 5 Church123 (http://www.church123.com) is one such software, which underpins the different websites seen in Appendix 2. In addition to Church123 one can mention Church Director (http://www.churchdirector.com) and the Planning Center (http://planningcenteronline.com/) for the facilitating of service teams and volunteers. Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 3
  4. 4. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman have not met in real life. Blogs (from web-log) are commonplace, anyone can share ideas and invite comments and discussions to engage in asynchronous conversations around the world. Two of the largest social networking sites are MySpace and Facebook. ‘Religious Views’ is one of the standard information entries on social networking profiles and although it invites (especially in Durham) the occasional “excellent from my bedroom”, “yes, right over the cathedral” or “Lindisfarne’s quite pretty”, the religious views field is present on many more profiles than perhaps the current average congregational figures would suggest. Self-identification by groups of people with like interests means that people can come together online through something like Facebook in ways that might not be possible to do face-to-face, or together in the kind of numbers that physical reality prevents. Appendix 4 shows a Facebook profile and a glimpse at the kind of numbers of users who join faith or faith-based groups. Software entrepreneurs are not missing out on this either. MyChurch6, whilst Facebook and MySpace allows to you develop relationships with people outside your local area, encourages the same potential within a church community, allowing each member of the community to create an individual profile with photos and personal information as well as jointly contributing to event planning, calendars and discussions. It may begin to recreate some of the ‘everyone knowing everything about you’ that we feel has been lost since the post-war generation, but it may be only a subset of the congregation who would use this type of website. On the one hand, creating community in a Facebook scenario allows you to be some sort of presence – salt and light – in the world, MyChurch is good for deepening the existing ties within the local community. Instinctively one feels they may serve different purposes, but it is entirely possible that a MySpace/Facebook style accessibility may speak to the younger people not already in the church community. We should not try to encourage them to leave the former for MyChurch accounts, as no doubt they will want to keep their free choice of personal space, and indeed an aim of spreading the Kingdom is not going to be achieved by drawing a boundary and separating those who are ‘in’ from those who are not. Web 2.01: online communities A fully-fledged MyChurch space using all of its functionality, or a website which includes rich opportunity for engaging in discussion, whether that be in forums for general topics or life studies, or in blogs written by different members of the lay and clerical teams which tempt and encourage reaction and reflection is becoming truly an online community. Online communities have existed since the earliest days of the internet (and before) and there are many well-established groups and mail lists still going strong. Heidi Campbell gives an in-depth examination of how email community developed in Exploring Religious Community Online.7 Although not existing separate 6 Appendix 4.3, Screen shot from MyChurch, http://www.mychurch.com. 7 Campbell, H. (2005) Exploring Religious Community Online. New York: Peter Lang Publishing Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 4
  5. 5. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman to each other, it is interesting to note Campbell defines ‘social networks’ and ‘spiritual networks’.8 Campbell’s in-depth and authoritative examination of religious communities online provides assurance that such communities can be formed and can successfully create close nurturing relationships; this is borne out by another Pew survey which discovered that over 70% of internet users “engage in email exchanges with other online group members several times a week”.9 Web 2.02: online churches For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. --Matthew, 18:20 This essay is not the place to discuss what makes a ‘church’. But it would seem that much of what Campbell experienced in her involvement in the Anglicans Online discussion forums could very well be today described as online church. Perhaps to be a church one requires some level of hierarchical organisation – some leader or responsable above and beyond the list admin? Appendix 5 shows the different faces of two online churches. These combine many aspects of web 1.0 and 2.0, incorporating discussion forums and chat rooms, offering fellowship, worship and ministry together. iChurch10 connects the virtual with reality, employing part-time priests as ‘web pastors’, paid for by the Diocese of Oxford which backs iChurch. St Pixels11 is interesting because they began with a 3D virtual church, but have since changed to a discussion/chat format. St Pixels is sponsored by the Methodist Church, so both these examples exist within and are extensions of our established church, however they both have a wide and ecumenical community from around the world.12 That they are both UK-based does not face us with the cultural question of “yes, but that’s American, w/couldn’t happen here” – it can and is happening here. (Do not fear, the Americans are doing it as well, Lifechurch.tv13 streams services through their ‘internet campus’, where those at a physical distance can take part online via chat rooms and pre-prepared content along with a live webcast of a choice of pastor and worship band.) Perhaps the difference between online Christian community and online church is also a question of the structured delivery of worship. Worship is discussed more 8 My emphasis. Careful discussion of each/both would represent another paper, but it is interesting to keep the ‘distinction’ – if distinction it is – whilst reading the rest of this essay. It is not quite possible to equate ‘social network’ with ‘fellowship’ and ‘spiritual network’ with ‘ministry’ or ‘worship’, nor to define here whether one can exist without the other or whether both are needed to ‘succeed’… 9 Horrigan, John B. ‘Online communities. Networks that nurture long-distance relationships and local ties’. Pew Internet & American Life Project. 2001. [retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/47/report_display.asp Jan 21st, 2008] 10 iChurch: http://i-church.co.uk/ 11 St Pixels: http://www.stpixels.com/ Appendix 5.3 shows screenshots of the St Pixels virtual church; brief answers to some questions can be found about the virtual church at http://www.churchoffools.com/got-questions/index.html and a more detailed history at http://www.stpixels.com/view_page.cgi?page=discover-tour-community 12 See the iChurch map http://www.phil-wright.net/ichurch/map.jpg for where iChurch’s congregation are from. 13 http://www.lifechurch.tv/ Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 5
  6. 6. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman below. Certainly it is clear that ministry is happening, virtually tangible around the world. Web 3.0: virtual worlds Online church – virtual church? Online is real, people are in communion with each other. Virtual is only the medium. What’s next? The next thing in online technology is virtual worlds, where sophisticated virtual reality softwares construct a 3D environment – landscapes, buildings, weather, scenery, furniture, possessions – in which cartoon or life-like characters (avatars) interact. In ordinary computer games there are a set of pre-defined rules within which one ‘plays’; in a virtual world there are none such. All the world’s a stage and each avatar (or, more correctly stated, each avatar’s human animator) plays its own part in conducting the action and creating the ‘reality’, moving around the environment and communicating via text chat. World of Warcraft14 is perhaps one of the best known virtual worlds, although more specifically is a world for role-play – a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), within which there are goals to achieve and rules to play by, rather than a world simply to exist and wander about in. Previously – and still – popular are The Sims,15 a virtual world of characters where you can truly ‘play God’ to organise how your Sims live and interact with each other. Other incarnations include Habbo Hotel, 16 a teenage environment that the NSPCC 17 and Drugs Awareness18 campaigns use for effective mission, but in which there are no churches or chapels. However the most popular virtual world today is Second Life. Web 3.01: Second Life Virtual worlds are increasingly in use by educationalists, providing a wealth of opportunities for students. One of the most famous creations in Second Life is for nursing students who can enter a sim (simulated environment) which takes over their avatar and shows you what it is like to have schizophrenia. It’s a very powerful, not to mention disturbingly real [learning] experience. The educational benefits of Second Life are only a tiny part of the current usage. Twelve and a half million people log in to hang out, to go dancing, to attend talks or visit virtual exhibitions, to explore recreated wonders of the world, world-famous buildings or even step inside paintings (such as Van Gogh’s Starry Night). Second Life has its seedier side too. An adults-only environment, among its highest-hitting sites are sleazy nightclubs and strip joints. The world in microcosm, it cannot but be considered a rich field of opportunity for mission and ministry. Second Life is an interesting mixture of surreal accommodations and minutely detailed replicas of real buildings,19 often located right next to each other. The 14 http://www.worldofwarcraft.com/ 15 http://thesims.ea.com/ 16 http://www.habbo.co.uk/ 17 See http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/6404231.stm for more information. 18 See http://www.talktofrank.com/article.aspx?id=254 for more information. 19 See Appendix 6 for pictures of the Sistine Chapel in Second Life. Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 6
  7. 7. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman Anglican Cathedral (here is not the place to take its builder to task on the definition of a cathedral) is a beautifully impressive gothic granite, perched atop a plateau on an island all of its own. Not a direct copy of any cathedral in particular but similar to many, it is this church which has become home to the Anglicans in Second Life community.20 Here there are now 5 services and 2 bible studies each week, and a growing community of believers from around the Anglican Communion. As well as the copying of reality to its infinite detail, Second Life also allows the builder to be free. Normal real life rules of engineering and gravity do not apply, it isn’t cold and it doesn’t rain (though you can put down a beautiful layer of snow and have sparkling snowflakes). At the Danske Folkekirke,21 the prayer room/chapel is an airy, part open space in a magically peaceful and prayerful corner of a lush garden, with cushions instead of pews or chairs. As important as the ‘church’, and similar to real life, there is also a lovely space for fellowship, in this case an open air café area with a table dispensing seasonal goodies – coffee and delicious cake in summer or hot rum toddies in winter. New to the church island recently is a cosy room with two big armchairs and a notice telling you if the priest is online for a chat. Pellegrina, the priest, is a priest in real life too. The care with which this space has been created whilst making the most of the virtual potential is incredible, and the serenity of it very moving. 22 Here you can find out about the Danish Church, talk to the priest if she is online, chat companionably to others, or just admire the view with a coffee. Here though, incontestably, you feel the presence of God. The Danish Church is a perfect place for Second Life residents, Danish or otherwise, to come and find some peace and refreshment if they do not wish to set foot in a real life church.23 However, Pellegrina’s increased presence at the site begins to open up more avenues for ministry. Identity, anonymity and ethics – problems posed online Ubiquitous though technology may be for the younger generation, many people still fear the internet, from ignorance, or with very good reason. The previous sections of this essay have shown some of the ways that the web may be used; however all of these areas have shadows to be taken into account as well. Some issues that must be considered when using the web, social networking and virtual worlds follow. There are, in general, no answers, it is a case of simply being mindful of them. 20 See Appendix 7 for illustrations of the Anglican Cathedral in Second Life. 21 See Appendix 8 for illustrations of the Danish Folkekirke in Second Life. 22 Second Life can have its uses for more apparently mundane yet important things. Building unconstrained means that you can try different things out and get a feel for how they work – not just removing a roof that is impossible in real life but to experiment with layouts, with chairs/pews/scatter-cushions, with moving virtual walls, altars, or creating small group rooms within a larger space. The kind of mental play that a vicar wanting to renew worship in a parish may lie awake at nights dreaming of. 23 According to Pellegrina Shepherd, the Danish priest, there is, seemingly, much disillusionment with the Church of Denmark at present and many people have turned their back on attending. Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 7
  8. 8. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman The internet as an information medium is perfect for unchurched ‘seekers’ or followers of another religion who are curious or studious to search for answers or ask questions in a safe and anonymous fashion. However, whether they receive ‘right’ answers or not is a matter of judgement and evaluation: the internet is a publishing medium open to all and a religious enquirer must use their own faculties to distinguish between reliable information and twisted or biased content. Many novice or inexperienced users of the internet find it difficult to judge whether a website is a professional, reliable source of information; with the read-write web a sense of authority has diminished. Thus alongside the excellent resources provided by the Church of England and Anglicans Online, one finds www.demonbuster.com.24 This example demonstrates why one would probably prefer that a seeker of information or support from faith might take their questions to a real person. One might prefer it, but there may be a chasm of personal history, context or location that prevents them doing so in the flesh. Is there scope for online personal contact, ministry and/or mission to bridge this gap? What damage is done to those who find themselves at demonbuster.com, and what can be done to un-do that damage? With church websites, we note that first impression was everything. The church website allows would-be visitors to gain a feel for the community they are entering, and to perhaps feel a little more comfortable in unfamiliar surroundings and traditions. Again, one hopes that this provision of information would lead to a real meeting, that people will be drawn in to the community. However, the webmaster must be on his guard, for remiss it may be not to have a site at all, what damage does a bad site do? The consumer-driven society of today does not linger on a bad website, but moves to another – a factor which should be taken into account. How clear, how careful, how ‘real’ is the message sent out by your website? If a visitor reads your website, decides your community is not for them, are they selecting on an untrue reflection of you? Would they think differently if the website had not existed and they had had to visit the church itself – would they have then reacted differently? But then would they have actually visited the church itself? Does the website draw in more than it puts off? Does the church draw in more than it puts off? From the home pages of the two churches shown in Appendix 2, what do they say about the tradition, the people, the community, the values, the faith expressed there? Social networking communities have much to offer, these spaces can surely develop bonds of community and strengthen existing networks; but they may as easily appear as a closed group of people to an outsider as an open and welcoming group. Might a concept of ‘too much information’ here in fact not put a seeker at ease, but create a perception of being visibly the stranger in the group if they turned up in person? And again, does the image projected reflect the reality of the community? At the same time as saying it is almost unfathomable for a church not to have a web presence, basic or interactive, context is everything: 24 No comment need realistically made beyond what one may assume from the address of this page. I would not like to spoil the surprise waiting for an unwitting visitor, save to say that it is worth visiting to display all that is potentially harmful about the internet… (and beware your volume levels). Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 8
  9. 9. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman “I think one of the reasons our church (HarmonyGreenville.com) is so "2.0" is because we have to be: we're in a college town that is progressive when it comes to technology. We have city-wide wi-fi in the downtown area, and our university, of course, has campus-wide wi-fi. There are macs everywhere, and everyone knows the ins and outs of Youtube, mySpace, Facebook, and Twitter. Flickr is huge. Last.fm is huge. In fact, I installed Flock just so I could keep up with all the tools our people use. That being said: if I were in a different cultural context, say rural South Dakota, I would not have to involve technology (especially web tech) with our church on the level we do now.”25 In social networking, as well as with online communities, there is an interesting tension between thinking relationships are developed to a depth not necessarily found in today’s society, and the fact that although perceived to be deep, these relationships are also as likely to be broader but only surface deep. It is common for close friends to think that the person portrayed in a social networking/online environment is very much the person that they know; often this is because they do know the person so well that they impose their knowledge of the person onto the persona that they are portraying. Identity is the biggest uncertainty online. Who are these people you communicate with? Are they as they seem in real life? We reflected at the beginning of this essay that the frequency of travel and moving creates the possibility for people to effectively re-invent themselves – are they re- inventing themselves when they leave a small community where everyone knows them and spread their wings – dye their hair pink, get studs/tattoos, turn Goth, come out as gay… – or are we then seeing the real them that they have become? How do we ever really know what is real? Do we connect with the real people via the online medium, or do we connect with the person someone really wants to be (or fancifully feels like being)? Do we create a persona online deliberately, or accidentally? Or is the persona we display online simply a different reflection of our personality anyway, just as your work colleagues might perceive you differently from your friends. Of course we connect with real people – there is a real person typing a forum response, acting behind an avatar. There may be the potential for people to dispense harmful advice or information because you cannot see that they do not wear a collar in real life – but do you ever really know who you are dealing with in real life too? There is a good discussion in understandable language on the psychology of cyberspace at www-usr.rider.edu/~suler/psycyber/disinhibit.html which implies that one needs to pay the greatest of attention to much existing knowledge and research before even attempting to answer – or even consider in depth – the questions just posed here. One fear about providing church and community online is: is it enough? Does it fulfil a need for some people which then stops them coming to real life church? This 25 Derek Brown, posted Nov 24, 2007 in a Facebook discussion topic entitled ‘Remembering Cultural Context When Thinking Technology’ Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 9
  10. 10. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman question should say ‘which stops them physically coming to church, or being part of their local community? No-one proposes that online church could or should replace meeting physically face-to-face. Services and sermons on the web let you connect with at least some of the what you are missing, and for people who cannot or perhaps are not yet ready or willing to come physically to church they can be a gentle way back. Heidi Campbell found in her research that the community was very real, but someone gave an example of where the online community fails: “[…]recounted the story of a family she knew who lost their home and a child in a fire. At that moment emailing words of encouragement was not enough. “They needed people who could physically put their arms around them and cry with them”. While grateful people around the world were praying for them, “When you’ve just lost a child, it’s hard to be comforted online.”26 This is a tragic and perhaps extreme example, however some comfort – support – ministry is easily given and received online. On a social networking site like Facebook many people regularly update their ‘status’, giving an instantly visible feed to friends or other users. It is surprisingly easy to get a sense of the general well-being of people, and easy to respond with a sympathetic gesture or message. “[…]current status … a very interesting observation was that I changed my status one day to … Really busy, leave me a message to cheer me up …. And wow lots of people did, I got audio, text and videos. This was really surprising it is indicates the status could be a very subtle tool, perhaps even acting as a replacement for body language / mood indicates. In other words the people behaving (sic)in the virtual as they do in physical networks.”27 Is it possible to minister to someone without being face-to-face?28 Ministry can and does clearly happen online. Some people find that unburdening themselves to a complete stranger easier than to someone who knows something of them, or in a situation where they cannot hear or see pity, incomprehension or judgement in their hearer’s voice or face. Either way one should be able to expect a genuine empathy from your listener. That you can successfully build and develop trusting and fruitful fellowship is evidenced by the success of online churches iChurch and St Pixels. But in general we must still be cautious about the potential harm done to vulnerable people by engaging with someone who you do not really know, not know who or what they are, or their own agendas. Mission can also clearly happen online through these communities and fellowships. In exploring the potential, it is also clear that worship happens online. Worship was not explicitly mentioned in the title of this essay, but it is necessary to discuss it. 26 Campbell, H. (2005) Exploring Religious Community Online. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, p. 163 27 From Andy Ramsden’s blog: http://andyramsden.blogs.ilrt.org/2007/09/13/facebook-1-week-in-some-thoughts/ 28 Indeed it is. Take the reference to Paul (Romans 1:11) in a sermon from the St Pixels virtual church, full text appears as Appendix 9. Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 10
  11. 11. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman Mission, ministry and worship This essay offers a very brief glance at many of the potential uses of the online world in which we live. There are also many challenges, but there are challenges in all of life and life is about weighing those risks and stepping out in faith. This essay is entitled some thoughts on mission and ministry. It should more rightly be entitled thoughts on mission, ministry and worship, because of the difficulty of defining and separating them. Christopher Moody’s Eccentric Ministry29 makes it clear that you cannot separate mission and ministry – the one does not exist without aspects of the other. Offering pastoral care is an element of mission, even to an already-committed Christian. Taking the Word out onto the street, into a pub is showing, offering, sharing God’s love in ministry. This happens in many of the examples of internet use touched on in this essay, a combination of mission and pastoral ministry. But ministry encompasses more than pastoral care, it also implies the performative, and it is not possible to examine potential value and challenges online without also discussing the more public performance of ministry in worship. Is it possible to enact worship online? In exploring this, it is clear that online potential extends beyond social networks to spiritual networks as well. Fellowship exists within online communities and they do come together in worship. Not in all worship. Cultural or denominational differences begin to split people’s views. For LifeChurch.tv, their service/worship is wholly centred on the pastor talking for 40 minutes, after a praise band opening and the collection of monies. This can be relatively easily translated – streamed – onto the web (and indeed also Second Life). Nothing is necessarily missed out of this worship experience, and although it may not be entirely correct to assume the spiritual experience to be the same as being present in a physical campus, nothing is ‘missing’ from the virtual campus. Move to an Anglican setting, however, and the full experience can not be shared. Here the participants gladly come to a morning prayer service or to Compline, but there is no Eucharist. People come together virtually into the fellowship of Christ but they simply cannot share in the one bread and one cup. Sacramental worship does not take place at iChurch or St Pixels, nor in Second Life.30 One might expect it more likely to be discussed about churches in Second Life, where the visual appearance offers a quite different experience to services held through text chat windows. But would even asking the questions out loud be just bad taste, or should scholars, theologians, ministers, online congregations and would-be online communicants look to wrestle with the concept?31 It is common to identify with the avatar whose actions you direct; many people take their avatars to sit quietly in a church for a few 29 Moody, C. (1992). Eccentric Ministry. London: Darton,Longman & Todd Ltd 30 There has been a thread discussing virtual symbols and sacraments on the St Pixels website over the recent weeks. Appendix 10 brings together those comments posted particularly about online communion, from http://www.stpixels.com/view_page.cgi?page=discuss-reflect-rtchurch-rites. 31 St Pixels have, see previous note. Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 11
  12. 12. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman minutes’ peace in a busy day, perhaps to pray, perhaps to say prayer during the day or perhaps just for the sense of stillness that tends to come over you looking at a screen where your avatar is peaceful.32 Is it un-theological, sinful, incomprehensible to ask how people would feel about lining their avatars up to receive virtual communion? Would it just be the avatars partaking, or would something more profound happen? Is it too deep a psycho-social question of how people relate to their avatars, or is it just deeply blasphemous and offensive, for many belittling the sacrament? Prayerfully and sensitively done, might it in some small way offer a powerfully poignant moment for someone who for whatever reason cannot or will not go to a ‘real life’ church, a moment that might open a rich vein of much needed pastoral ministry and healing? Or does it risk making physical attendance at a real life church even at least for sacramental worship an optional factor in being a Christian, reducing the mystery of the Eucharist to ducking in online in between answering emails and considering that sufficient ‘duty and service that we owe’? It may seem that we are far from such a concept as online communion, especially for ourselves and not our avatars, and yet this is exactly what has been happening courtesy of Revd. Gregory S. Neal since 2003.33 His articulate defence,34 grown out of his own incapacity and attendant sense of loss in not being able to partake in communion services is, if not wholly persuasive, at least merits discussion.35 It is a theological discussion. How far does the grace of God reach? Must the host be under the hands of the president at consecration (the argument of additional chalices/plates for use at differing communion stations of a large building)? How much of the Eucharist requires some performative involvement? Must the concept simply be rejected out of hand depending on where you stand on transubstantiation? Hasn’t this discussion been happening since the beginning of televised/radio broadcast religious services – what if you bring your piece of bread near to the TV/radio/PC? What if you have not just bread and wine but pre-consecrated and pre- packaged wafer and wine (so-called “sip’n’dips”36)? Does this remove the question of consecration, but still leave a bad taste in the mouth? In this case, is it not preferable – to someone house- or hospital-bound – to be able to engage in the pretence of partaking with a multitude of others, albeit in a different location, rather than on one’s own? Obviously, many more questions than answers, and as the discussion at St Pixels made clear, many many individuals with their own thoughts, beliefs and sensitivities. 32 This may be religious, or may not. See Appendix 11 for some examples. 33 Online Communion: http://www.revneal.org/media/video/holycommunion2.ram 34 “Online Communion Theology” http://www.revneal.org/Writings/onlinecommunionremarks.html 35 Interestingly, Revd. Neal is a Methodist minister, so should perhaps refer back to A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion (http://www.gbod.org/worship/thisholymystery/), “Both "self-service" Communion, where people help themselves, and "drop-in" Communion, where the elements are available over a period of time, are contrary to the communal nature of the sacrament, which is the celebration of the gathered community of faith” at http://www.gbod.org/worship/thisholymystery/communityextends.html and further at http://www.gbod.org/worship/thisholymystery/elements.html 36 http://www.lifewaystores.com/lwstore/product.asp?isbn=0805471197 Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 12
  13. 13. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman Conclusions These last questions have brought us far from the need for a basic web page. The range of opportunities for being and doing church – engaging in mission, ministry and worship online is vast; almost as wide as in ‘real’ life. Indeed there are issues: with mission, the integrity of the message; with ministry, the integrity of the personalities (on both sides of the exchange); with worship, the integrity of the theology, the practical working out of sacramental ministry. The ‘Fresh Expressions’ initiative37 includes many people looking to revitalise the church experience – luckily not a few of them are engaging with being and doing church online. Revitalising the church experience. We may still wish to live out our model of being church by holding Sunday morning services, but what are we doing to mitigate the inconveniently cold Truth at the inconvenient time? Frost and Hirsch make it clear that to survive – and hopefully find how to prosper again – we must move from an attractional model to an incarnational one.38 Instead of continuing the fading status quo, to bring Christ back to His people, and the people back to Him, we have to take Him to the people. To get out there and engage with the way that they live today; the way that they work, form communities, network, organise their lives and want to worship. We have to realign the Church of today with society of today; show that we still exist for and with the people in the real world, even when the ‘real’ world is the ‘virtual’ one. By engaging in the asynchronous chats and social networking and investing in the skills that can put community events direct into people’s Outlook calendars, we can get back not just into their consciousness but into their lives too. The attractional model of expecting them to come to us on our terms at our times has failed. By joining the 24/7-available population, we become available 24/7 to them in a way that Church has not been for many years. By allowing and encouraging blogs and prayer discussions we can perhaps learn a little more about the individuals in our communities that otherwise we might be able to, and this is no less likely to be the ‘real’ them than they present in person. We have so many possibilities to connect online, to move towards being truly incarnational: • to bring Church back to the centre of a community • to encourage sharing and deepening of relationships • to encourage people to get to know eachother and care for their neighbours again • to use asynchronous means to engage more people • to try and put the building back in common/community use • to bring the young people back (to host bands, perhaps!39) • to share favours/jobs/freecycling/babysitting • to widen the community beyond the village/parish borders, by blogs (reading and linking) and podcasts • to keep open and available prayer boards, for all people as well as the Sunday congregation, allowing anonymous requests 37 http://www.freshexpressions.org.uk/ 38 Frost, M. & Hirsch, A.. (2003). The shaping of things to come: innovation and mission for the 21st century church. Peabody MA.: Hendrickson Publishers. 39 Reach the YouTube generation through YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6OKhMSauxD4 Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 13
  14. 14. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman • to open a discussion about options for being and doing church today… We move ever forwards. The world has changed. Society has undergone phenomenal change in the last fifty years. The Church has not kept up or kept its place in that society. The Church as we know it is dying. The world is now an online world. We must be a part of that. We must be salt and light in the real world, not the world seen through the rose windows of an emptying church. To be a part of the online world we need to be online. The Church must respond, must show that its scripture, reason and tradition are not an inconvenient truth, but a warm and welcoming Truth for today’s society; that it still can be a foundation for creating and developing community, fellowship and faith into the net generation and beyond. As we step “bravely [across] this new threshold, to put into the deep of the Net”, let us show we can still be relevant fishers of men. Our Father, who art in cyberspace, Sticky be thy homepage. Give us this day our daily web (preferably via ADSL, although 56kb/s will do) And forgive us our downloads, As we forgive those who download unto us, And lead us not into pornography, But deliver us from spam For thine is the mousemat, The browser and the modem, For ever and ever, Amen (anon) Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 14
  15. 15. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman Appendices Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 15
  16. 16. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman Appendix 1 Anglicans Online ‘Start Here’ Appendix 2 Church Websites 2.1 SS Peter and Paul, Kettering. Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 16
  17. 17. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman This website implies what it is, a respectable parish, a traditional church and church community. The information provided is clear and easily accessible, the impression given of good, solid, sensible… Nothing flash, nothing showy. I think it’s quite easy to build a picture in your mind of the people who minister and worship here. 2.2 Queens (sic) Road Church, Wimbledon This website implies a different community and a different style of worship; perhaps even a more vibrant experience. The visual is bright and attracting, unconventional and much more in keeping with professional web design around the internet. More interestingly, the screenshot above was taken in January 2008, on revisiting the site in February 2008, a new website design has been launched. Personally, I prefer the old one ☺ The new one can be seen below. Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 17
  18. 18. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman Appendix 3: Sermon Feeds 3.1 Durham Cathedral (and the main Durham Cathedral homepage): Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 18
  19. 19. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman 3.2 Trinity Church Boston MA (and the main Trinity Church homepage): Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 19
  20. 20. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman Appendix 4: Social Networking 4.1 Facebook Profile 4.2 Facebook Groups Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 20
  21. 21. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman 4.3: MyChurch Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 21
  22. 22. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman Appendix 5: Online Churches 5.1: iChurch (and an example of their prayer board): Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 22
  23. 23. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman 5.2 St Pixels 5.3 St Pixels virtual church website http://www.churchoffools.com St Pixels is a fascinating example as it started life as a 3D virtual church, a little like a tiny crystallised location from Second Life. It was a three-month experiment by the Methodist church, and the ‘church’ was eventually closed down in favour of the chat room/discussion forum format after disturbances by badly-behaved users hijacking services (existing and known as ‘griefing’ in Second Life) Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 23
  24. 24. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman 5.4 St Pixels virtual church 5.5 St Pixels members Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 24
  25. 25. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman Appendix 6: Second Life Sistine Chapel The Sistine Chapel is located on the Vassar College campus. An information board outside the Chapel not only requests that an avatar is appropriately dressed to enter the [religious] building, it also tells you that there is, effectively, a type of enchantment – a script triggered as you approach the door – which in fact refuses entry to a visitor in a bikini. This reality check continues inside, where only a few visitors are allowed in at one time to avoid crowding, and the ‘tapestries’ are curtained and only revealed in part for a limited time to avoid over-exposure… Better than real though, is the ability to control your view so that you can explore at extremely close quarters the ceiling and the upper wall paintings. It is an experience which can only make the visitor adamant to pack their real life bags and head for Rome. Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 25
  26. 26. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 26
  27. 27. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman Appendix 7: Second Life Anglican Cathedral Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 27
  28. 28. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman Appendix 8: Second Life Danske Folkekirke 8.1 Chapel at sunrise 8.2 Chapel at night Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 28
  29. 29. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman 8.3 Café 8.4 ‘Samtalrum’ Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 29
  30. 30. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman Appendix 9: “I long to see you”, sermon preached at St Pixels I long to see you 26 September 2004 – Steve Goddard, co-editor of Ship of Fools, preached during an emotional final service before Church of Fools closed. His theme: "I long to see you". The reading was taken from the opening chapter of Paul's letter to the Romans.Ever noticed how Paul bearhugs readers at the start of his letters? "I thank God in every remembrance of you," he writes to his close buddies in Philippi. But here's the heavy deal. Even when he hasn't met the people he is writing to, in this case the Romans, he still bigs it up. "I long to see you..." he says (Romans 1:11). Never having met someone, not seeing them, not being physically with them, doesn't imply lack of reality, depth and care as far as Paul is concerned. Romans is one of the apostle's longest letters – 16 tortuous chapters – and he hasn't even met the people he is writing to. Ring any virtual bells? Those clashes in the crypt with people you'll never set eyes on – from Manchester to Minnesota, Malmo to Melbourne, maybe? Locking horns on everything from the Pope to polygamy; offering advice to those in need; keying in the odd prayer or two – and thinking as you log off: "I long to see those people I have never met." Some observers have condescendingly patted us on the head. Their angle? Church of Fools is a good effort but a poor substitute for the "real thing". In many ways it is. An online church cannot dispense the sacraments. We can't baptize, marry or bury our visitors – though, sometimes a tad gleefully, we can smite them! But it offers people like Radalyn from Georgia a new, meditative window. "COF is an oasis in my day," she admits. "I often leave my 'ghost' alone, kneeling at prayer in the church while I work nearby." What a fascinating idea. Meanwhile, another visitor, Mary, says: "Being anonymous allows me to be outspoken about my faith and not judge people so quickly – something I would not normally do." Wesley J told me yesterday: "Contact in the cyberworld has not led to loneliness and despair. Exactly the opposite. I believe I am now more alive than I was before." So I believe many of us will wake up tomorrow morning and, though we have never met each other in the flesh, will say, "We long to see you" – here again in the Church of Fools. And even to those who would try to wreck what we are doing... to the troll we say, "We long to see you." To the hacker... "We long to see you." To the rager... "We long to see you." And to the regulars and first-timers – whether you're a distinguished grey beard, a nerdy Ned, a carrot top, a pink slipper, or a shadowy ghost – you have built something into all our lives through the Holy Spirit. "We long to see you..." and thousands more like you – again. Soon. May God grant us the means to make it happen. http://www.churchoffools.com/read-sermons/17_goddard.html Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 30
  31. 31. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman Appendix 10: St Pixels communion discussion For example, I would not have a problem with a St Pixels service that was based on a Communion Service, with bread and wine, and if it was well led it wouldn’t bother me if the leader was ordained or not. But some would have a big problem with this. Whether it is necessary to have unanimous agreement I don’t know. There are many real life liturgies though devised for ecumenical use, one very good source is a book called ‘Take Bless Break and Share’ Maybe we coud use this to dip a toe in the water. For sacraments online, I'm encouraged by this quote I found on a website: A sacrament, administered properly in the way established by Christ and with the proper intention, gives the grace it signifies. It is effective not by reason of the power of intercession of priestly prayer nor on account of the worthiness of the recipient, but solely by the power of Christ. The power of Christ lives in the sacraments. The most positive form of sacrament I have found on St. Pixels has been, of course, the prayer services. However, I do wish there were a healing service offered; I've found these to be very powerful in the Episcopal Church. I'm uncomfortable with the idea of Holy Communion online, simply because I believe so wholeheartedly in the sanctification of the bread and wine by an ordained priest. I do not take communion in other denominational churches for this reason, but again, that's a reason of personal preference that may not be held by others here. For those who consider communion a sacrament celebrated only by an ordained priest you will always make them feel uncomfortable or, worse still, deeply offend them. At best it would be a hollow mimicry, and at worst an insensitive parody of something that is deeply important to them. For most of those who don't value communion as a sacrament it would be a rather meaningless ritual. The very nature of communion makes it something which must be shared with others. True, it is first a communion of spirit between the believer and God, but Jesus designed it to be shared at a time when we are with others. I believe the emblems need to be tangible since they are to be representative of something real. Trying to do something virtual would need to be done with the understanding that it was only symbolic of the real thing. In other words, I don't think it would be "sanctioned", per se The idea of virtual communion is as bizarre and surreal as most other things here. Would I be sharing lunch with you in a real sense if we both ate our own butties simultaneously at the PC? I actually think that would be fine, Mark, as long as it was understood that it was not being done as a true partaking of the body and blood (i.e. valid ) and that it should not be considered a substitute for the real thing -- merely a symbolic gesture being done to promote further unity within this body of people. Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 31
  32. 32. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman Appendix 11: ‘being peaceful’ There are lots of places to sit awhile with your avatar, while you sit and pray, or think, or rest and recuperate during your time online working or playing. Here are a few, sacred and secular: Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 32
  33. 33. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 33
  34. 34. The Word made virtual Kate Boardman Selected Bibliography Campbell, H. (2005). Exploring Religious Community Online: we are one in the network. New York: Peter Lang Publishing. Frost, M. & Hirsch A. (2003). The shaping of things to come: innovation and mission for the 21st century church. Peabody: Hendrickson Press. Greenwood, R. (2002). Transforming Church: liberating structures for ministry. London: SPCK. Moody, C. (1992). Eccentric Ministry: pastoral care and leadership in the Parish. London: Darton, Longman & Todd. Assessed essay submitted to the Diocese of Durham Council for Ministry, February 2008 34