This latest Grove Book in the Mission and Evangelism series began with a draft title of God on line, with the aim of capturing some of the online innovation which has emerged from churches during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the end, as the title suggests, it became something very different and far more enlightening.
Pete Philips, the lead author and director of the Centre for Digital Theology at Durham University, sets the tone of the whole book with the words We need to get out of our buildings and find God in the wild. He then runs with that theme, with three examples written by practitioners from three different denominations, which capture the landscape of those wild places. What is brilliant is the sheer creativity and imagination in what emerges.
A Roman Catholic priest in Malta describes taking the Rosary on line and on the road, reciting and broadcasting it live over loudspeakers in small hamlets while streaming it live over Facebook. A Methodist minister, reaches back into an ancient tradition, creating a wayside pulpit with a radical twist, offering “boundary-pushing in sacramental practices” to create a “physical embodied, practical life and breath, taste and touch approach to responding to the pandemic.”
A key feature of the book is that while the pandemic has been marked by painfully forced isolation, the examples point to innovative ways of connecting, participating, building community, reaching beyond the traditional, whist engaging with the tradition. When streaming of services, and “spiritual communion” threaten greater clericalism and lay passivity (a point made by the Roman Catholic contributor) the examples offered illustrate the possibilities for deeper and engagement, creative witness and developing discipleship.
At the heart of the book is a rejection of a largely redundant, binary approach to online and offline, to In Real Life or Virtual. Instead it explores the opportunities of blended spaces seeking to encounter whatever God might be up to in these uncertain times.
One thing is made crystal clear, when church buildings closed, the church certainly didn’t, and in the process we might just be learning something new about being church.
Hybrid Church: blending online and offline community is out now from Grove Books in the Mission and Evangelism series in partnership with CMS.