Web 1.0, Web 2.0 and Online Church

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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

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

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.

Moving Forwards

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.

What is Calvinism?

The Protestant Reformation was a movement in the 1500s where churches across Europe rejected the authority of the Pope and went back to Scripture. It wasn’t actually a single movement – there were lots of movements and groups across Europe doing different things in response to different local circumstances.

John Calvin was one of the key figures in the Reformation. He was a second-generation Reformer – Martin Luther published the 95 Theses in 1517, but Calvin started his ministry in the 1530s, and died in 1564. He started out as a lawyer in Paris, but was exiled from France, and ended up settling in Geneva – a French-speaking city just over the Swiss border.

Calvin was first and foremost a Bible teacher and theologian. He wasn’t the leader of a movement, but his preaching and teaching were enormously influential, especially because of his book Institutes of the Christian Religion, which is one of the most important theology books of all time.

His influence on the English-speaking world was particularly strong because during the reign of “Bloody” Mary Tudor (1553-1558), many British church leaders took refuge in Geneva. One example would be John Knox, the Scottish founder of Presbyterianism.

Calvinism as it’s now understood doesn’t actually come from Calvin and isn’t a fair summary of his teaching. For example, in the Institutes, Calvin doesn’t mention predestination until about halfway through, whereas Calvinist Louis Berkhof puts it right at the start of his Systematic Theology. Calvinisim really comes from the Synod of Dort, which took place in 1618/9 (50 years after Calvin’s death), where people who liked Calvin’s teaching met to discuss how to respond to a movement called Arminianism. They came up with a five point summary of Calvinism, which is still well known.

A major problem with the five points is that they describe the reaction against Arminianism. They were never meant to be the basis of a systematic theology in their own right. Another problem is that they aren’t especially clear – because the summaries are so well known and each of them can be understood in several different ways. In general, Calvin himself was closer to the “soft” end of the understanding, but people who don’t like Calvinism tend to react to the “hard” version. Of course, it’s fairly easy to find people who believe any combination of these!

The five points, complete with hard and soft versions are as follows (they have the acronym TULIP).

1. Total Depravity

Hard version: Everything we do is only evil all the time.
Soft version: Everything we do is tainted by sin, so that nothing we do is ever completely pure.

2. Unconditional Election

Soft version: God doesn’t choose us because we do good things; he chooses us because he loves us.
Hard version: We don’t need to worry too much about evangelism because some people are just called and others aren’t.

3. Limited Atonement

Soft version: Jesus’ death doesn’t lead to forgiveness for everyone, but only for some people.
Hard version: There are some people who are not called – reprobates. They don’t really matter much, and Jesus’ death certainly didn’t do them any good.

4. Irresistible Grace

Soft version: When God calls us, he does so in such a way that we choose to go along with him.
Hard version: We don’t have free will in this at all.

5. Perseverance of the Saints

Soft version: If we really trust in Jesus, God will give us grace so that we will keep trusting him to the end.
Hard version: If you’re really a Christian, you don’t need to worry about what you do because you’re safe.

And yes, the cartoon character from Calvin & Hobbes was named after John Calvin.

Who can preach in church?

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There are a number of qualifications I’d expect for someone to be able to preach in church.

For example, I’d only allow someone to preach if they were living a lifestyle that fit with what they are meant to be preaching. Not perfectly, of course, since only Jesus can do that, but the kind of stuff in 1 Timothy 3. I know there are folk at church who gossip a lot, or who get drunk regularly, or who sleep around or who don’t treat their families properly. Those people are all very welcome to come along, but I wouldn’t let them preach.

Likewise, there are doctrinal issues as well. I know there are folk at church who believe in reincarnation, or who don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead, or who don’t really believe that God is Trinity. Again, they’re very welcome to be there, but I’m not going to let them preach. Broadly, I’d draw the line at needing to believe the Nicene Creed, plus the absolute authority of Scripture, plus not saying something that I’d disagree strongly with.

Third, they need to be able to preach. Not everyone is. Some people waffle on endlessly, others speak mainly about themselves, others just can’t manage to be interesting. It’s tough to know whether or not people can preach without letting them have a go, so I’d usually say that new preachers need to preach to me or to a small group and for me to check it’s ok before I’d let them preach up front in the church. I’d want to help them improve as well, so they’d need to be open to feedback or training.