Over a period of five days in March, Dallas-area churches, temples, gurdwaras, synagogues and mosques had an epiphany during a crisis that threatened their fundamental function to assemble.
So, faith leaders pivoted and embraced a new dimension of digital ministry.
The epiphany came from a mix of orders and guidance from community authorities who warned that worshiping in person was too dangerous during the COVID-19 outbreak.
The pivot came as worship communities scrambled to design pandemic-proof services delivered through technology platforms — some with steep learning curves and devoid of the traditional approaches of in-
The mainstream Christian denominations we attend were at a disadvantage when the pandemic sent us into “stay at home” mode. Like most other old guard Christian churches (with a few exceptions) we were not up to speed on emerging media, as were evangelical and Pentecostal denominations who
These churches had been adapting to digital media for over 20 years. Most mainline churches had five days to launch worship, fellowship groups, Sunday school classes, pastoral visits, and more — five days to master the technology for online meetings, webinars, live streaming and podcasts.
Religious communities soon seized on the potential of these platforms as they used video conferencing tools like Zoom to navigate Passover and Easter — realizing that, for some of them, going back to the “old normal” had become less compelling.
A lesson emerged: churches had the capacity to implement rapid change on the technological front, but there is work to do in providing the theology to guide the use of these technologies.
Now, faith leaders cannot go back. They don’t have time to look back. They must not only move forward technologically, but theologically and ethically, as they adapt to a reality that won’t “go away” for the foreseeable future.
It is one thing to learn new technologies and get on social media; it is another to develop the theological reflection that needs to go hand in hand with new ways of being the church in the world.
This is why, in order to better prepare Christian leaders, Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology will implement a course this fall bringing together the technology of digitally mediated ministries with the theological reflection necessary to carry them out with integrity and understanding.
This course will engage with a series of “theological updates” that these leaders will need to grapple with, some of which easily come to mind. For many Christians, for example, the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, is a central act of communal worship.
Many churches have ministries that are set up to take the elements of holy communion to the elderly and other mobility-impaired members of their congregations. If people can’t come to church, then the sacrament goes to them.
With the pandemic this is no longer a possibility — especially now the we know it can spike back for another round. The risks of unintentional contagion is too great. Consequently, churches face the possibility that at-risk groups will be cut off from the sacraments, as will everyone else as long as churches are closed for in-person gatherings.
Can Holy Communion be administered without physically sharing bread and wine?
Another theo-technological question relates to what constitutes a “real” community of the faithful. Sociologically, psychologically and theologically, churches have assumed both physical presence and contact as essential to community.
Where there are bodies, there is contact. Paul urged Christians to greet each other with a holy kiss. In the church the laying-on of hands both heals and imparts authority. Christians have always believed that embodiment is essential to being human.
Now, we must revisit our understanding of the mystical fellowship that exists across both physical and even ontological distances, in order to fully understand what it means to engage in digitally mediated ministries.
Pastoral leaders and congregations also play a critical role in keeping individuals and families mentally, emotionally and spiritually grounded and healthy.
Face-to-face (F2F) pastoral care and counseling have been critical to ensuring continued well-being for Christian communities. These leaders will need to listen to psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and experts in digital teaching and learning strategies to find new approaches for their ministries.
An emerging example of this shift is digitally mediated meditation using podcasts, videos and even virtual reality. Spiritual leaders are combining longstanding Christian insights into how such meditation can be effectively guided through and in virtual environments.
Historically, Christians have also relied heavily on F2F formats for teaching and preaching, from the Sunday pulpit to weeknight home study groups. Even when sermons and lessons are broadcast, teachers and preachers usually have feedback from a live audience.
As we adapt to preaching to an inert camera, we will need to engage with such experience: actors, news presenters, DJ’s, and others who have long addressed remote audiences through the immediate presence of a camera lens.
There has been an explosion of tools for digitally mediated teaching and pastoral care. As we write, preachers and teachers have everything from increasingly sophisticated video conferencing tools to virtual and enhanced reality classrooms peopled by increasingly realistic avatars at their disposal.
A 360-degree video conferencing camera purchased as the “cutting edge” of technology in January may be out of date before it comes out of the box. We have been thrown into a “Babel of technologies.”
We must learn not only new languages, but the discernment of which resources will best serve congregations.
In this, we hear Jesus’ words: “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”
Yet even as we discover new potential for ministry, we must face the hard facts of the emerging age of digital media and artificial intelligence.
The technologies religious communities must master during going forward are deeply entwined with technologies that will deprive increasing numbers of people from an opportunity to be employed in our current economic structures. Not only will we never return to “normal,” some of us are unlikely to ever return to work.
If we are to lead and not merely respond to our emerging culture we must recover ancient religious ideas that value humans for their status as God’s creatures, rather than their status as producers.
The new normal will need to be a new humanity.