Last week, the UK government banned churches from meeting in person in response to the Covid-19 crisis. The response (certainly in our case) was a lot of hastily-put-together online services, mostly trying to replicate some elements of what usually happens on a Sunday. Ian Paul has done a good overview of what happened.
The whole experience of trying to do online church got me reflecting on it. One really interesting lens to look at it through is the distinction between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0.
Web 1.0 was how the WWW started out, and it was all about information. In the late 1990s, I ran a website for an organisation that ran Christian holiday camps. Each page simply gave information about the camp, and the communication was completely one-way. There was no room for comments or reviews; we gave the information, there was a button at the bottom of the page that you could press to send an e-mail to the office, and that was it.
Web 2.0 is what a lot of websites are today – the most obvious examples are things like Facebook, Twitter and Trip Advisor. The key idea is user-creation of content. Think about Facebook – Facebook themselves hardly create any content; it’s all about setting up a platform for other people to do that. Most big websites incorporate that to some level these days – whether it’s with reviews or comments or FAQs.
Church and Web 1.0
One of the frustrations of being a minister (pre-lockdown) is that church could sometimes almost become me doing a performance for everyone else. And sometimes we used to criticise megachurches for doing almost exactly that. Before I was ordained, I left one megachurch precisely because there wasn’t much I could do there in the way of service.
So isn’t it fascinating that when it comes to doing online services, our default reaction is to go even more that way – literally having one person perform the service to an empty church, while others watch in the comfort of their own homes? It’s a very Web 1.0 way of working, even though we often use Web 2.0 tools to do it. It’s also a return to the idea of clerical professionalism, even sacerdotalism. In normal language, that means it’s treating the paid clergy as the people who do the work, even seeing them as necessary to the functioning of the church.
Church and Web 2.0
The challenge of Web 2.0, and why I think many classic evangelicals tend to be wary of it, is that all voices seem equal. The lunatic fringe seems to have the same weight as the voice of establishment and experience. Worse are the trolls, who exist only to cause disruption and offence, often from the relative safety of their parents’ basement. Theology degrees and decades of holy living seem to count for nothing compared to presentation skills; substance is trounced by story (or, more accurately, one person’s often-faulty understanding of their own story).
And yet, and yet it does seem to embody and enable some of the one-anothering that is completely absent from the Web 1.0 model of church, and yet is so prominent in the New Testament.
Is there a way forwards which gets a better Biblical balance? Yes, though I’m not quite sure what it looks like yet! But a great place to go for wisdom (as so often with questions about ministry and church) is Ephesians 4.
11So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
14Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
The role of the pastors and teachers (and those with other word gifts) is to equip God’s people for works of service (the same word as “ministry”), so that we all grow together into one body. In fact, the body is built up as every part does its work – the pastor’s role in that is secondary and supportive.
What does that mean for online services? Normally at church, we might have three or four people speak from the front. A livestreamed service under current rules has only one, unless it’s done by several people who live together. But Web 2.0 makes it much easier to get many people involved in leading the service. People no longer have the barrier of getting up to the front of church. They can record and re-record their contribution until they are happy with it. I think it means that we have a wonderful opportunity to get more and more people involved, and visibly involved, in leading and being seen to be part of the life of the church.
One of my hopes and prayers for this pandemic is that the church emerges from it far healthier than it went in – it’s a wonderful opportunity to break old bad habits and start new ones.