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Why God’s hybrid Church is still open for business

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads, churches up and down the country (and across the world) are preparing to livestream their Sunday services. Premier's head of digital theology Pete Phillips believes that while this is a welcome opportunity for a Church which is both physical and digital, leaders could go further

We really need to get over this idea that church has to be physical. God isn’t. Faith isn’t. Prayer isn’t. Worship isn’t. Church is a community of people worshipping God, seeking to follow Christ. We can do all of that online regardless of a virus.

The above paragraph was first published as a tweet. It was written yesterday in the sparse, unnuanced style which is ideally suited to that social media platform. As anticipated, it sparked off quite a conversation. So allow me to clarify...

Yes, of course, the Church is physical - after all we serve a God who sent his son into the world in physical form, incarnate, blood of our blood, bone of our bones. Jesus was a man and rose enfleshed in his resurrection body. And yes, God is physical. But he is also beyond the physical. He transcends our definitions. A hybrid God whose persons reflect both incarnate and resurrected flesh, and fluid spirit. 

God’s church is also a hybrid: physical and spiritual, offline and online, bricks & mortar and clicks & coding. And in a time when the church has effectively been shut down by the state, we need to focus especially on the online nature of who we are. Digital church is the way forward both for the present crisis but also for future crises: the coronavirus is not going away and neither is bacterial resistance to antibiotics.

As enfleshed, physical beings, I believe we are at our best in face to face, physically-proximate community. But often those communities have been the privilege of the able-bodied and the healthy. Now we are all excluded – we are all in the same boat for once. But those already excluded, labelled as disabled or sick or housebound, invite us into the online church, the online communities of faith which they have been developing for so long. In a world plagued by coronavirus, we are all brought together into a new expression of Church in which faith might bloom again!

While the state temporarily closes down physical expressions of religion, we need to realise that Church is more than the physical expression of itself. We need to see the Church arise anew as a Digital Church – the Church as community needs to go online.

Of course, everyone has started live-streaming. This is good. But often live-streaming services is simply putting your physical church service online. It is a broadcast experience which often leads to the congregation simply consuming a piece of media rather than engaging. When I come to church I am part of a community – saying hello to friends, asking how people are, reading the notices, drinking coffee, eating biscuits. This is a rich multisensory experience which shows why church is so much more than live-streaming.

So how do we replicate that offline experience of church in an online setting? Can we get feedback from those online? Could you provide a number for people to text in their prayers? Can we comfort their sorrows? Can we bridge the digital divide? Livestreaming is the beginning, but to create online community we need to go further in embracing more tools, more possibilities, more media – be it postcards, phone calls or Whatsapp groups.

One Catholic Priest in Italy asked his congregation to send in selfies of themselves. He printed them and stuck them on the pews as a reminder to himself of his congregation. When he preached and prayed online, he saw their faces in front of him:

A number of ministers have been saying morning prayer via Facebook Live. It is intimate and powerful – even when done at 5:30am! Others have decided to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and pray for their people, and have live-streamed this.

Whether people are self-isolating, waiting to go back to work, recovering from illness, or looking after the kids, they might benefit from some dedicated discipleship. At Premier, we’re preparing a 14 Day ReCharge Pack as a spiritual support for those periods of waiting (watch this space). The pack will focus on the Lord’s Prayer as a guide to our thinking and our walking with God.

There's also a job to be done in steering people away from fake news by making communication clear, concise and official. Share what your denomination is saying and what your church has decided to do. Do it through face to face video as well as by text and documents.

In a world where social distancing is the norm (for now), the church as community needs to go beyond the physical to embrace the real – those really hurting, those really isolated, those really in need. That will need sacrifice from all of us. It will mean some theological hoop-jumping for some of us. In the end the community of grace needs to be upheld and in this context, digital is a gift of God to make that happen.

As a student of mine, the amazing Craig Philbrick, curate in Winchester Diocese says: "It’s time for us to be the church without walls: a place that connects communities together, keeps hope alive, and demonstrates that peace that only Jesus can bring. Now is the time to be a great neighbour. Now is the time to love."

Dr Pete Phillips is Premier's Head of Digital Theology and a researcher at Durham University. With a PhD in John’s Gospel and many years’ experience of teaching and researching the New Testament, Pete now explores the interface between all things digital and theological. He is the author of Engaging the Word (BRF) and The pixelated text Hear him at this year's Premier Digital Conference and discover a world of advice, ideas, insight and guidance to help you communicate credibly and effectively online. For more information visit premierdigital.info/conference

Premier Christianity is committed to publishing a variety of opinion pieces from across the UK Church. The views expressed on our blog do not necessarily represent those of the publisher.

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