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.

Responding to Plagues (and Climate Change!)

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Like much of the Church of England, until last week we were doing a series on Green Lent. In our last service meeting together in person, one of the passages I focused on was 2 Chronicles 7:13-14 – and as the Coronavirus crisis deepened, I found myself more and more drawn into that passage. It’s God’s words to Solomon, after the Temple has been dedicated.

When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

2 Chronicles 7:13-14 (NIV)

It particularly struck me that v13 identifies three types of calamity – two of which (climate change and plagues) are very much with us at the moment.

He also outlines how God’s people should respond to them. (Yes, it’s Old Testament, and God’s people were one specific ethnic group in one specific place, so things are a bit different for us now, but there’s still a lot to learn.)

  • Humble ourselves – get down off our high horses, stop thinking that we’re better than others or that we know best, recognise we’re at least partly to blame, and follow the advice of scientists and doctors.
  • Pray – do we ask for God’s help in confronting the climate emergency or the coronavirus emergency? Because they are both too big for us to deal with on our own.
  • Seek God’s face – what’s the priority in this crisis? It should be wanting to see God more; wanting more intimacy with him. He is far more important than anything else, and far more valuable than anything we could lose in either crisis. It’s the same in Jeremiah 29:13ff.
  • Turn from our wicked ways. Not just platitudes or moral posturing, not just grief at the way things are, but actual change. Isn’t it obvious that these things are connected? A disease that started in a market trading in endangered species and spread around the world by too much unnecessary air travel. If we are actually sorry, we need to change.

We need to stop treating this world like we are just free to travel anywhere, especially by air, without consequences. Flying long distances creates far more CO2 emissions than just about anything else we do.

We need to stop eating meat from animals treated like industrial products rather than like sharers in this amazing breath of life.

We need to take the gift of time to learn to seek God’s face, as individuals, as families and as churches.

I don’t think in today’s context that this is God promising to stop the pandemic if a few of us ask him to, but in the present crisis, this has to be something of a template for what it looks like to respond.

Because God’s plan is always for hope and restoration beyond the disaster. Once the worst has happened to Israel and they have been driven out of their land, these are God’s words to them:

“For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord.” (Jer 29:11-14).

So in this environmental crisis, and this pandemic, let’s seek God’s face, let’s trust in him and grow our relationship with him, because that is what matters most.