“The bread and the wine are the gifts of God, they’ve been given for us the people of God. Receive them in remembrance that Christ died for you and feed on Him in your hearts by faith and with thanksgiving.” Up to this point, I had been immersed in a worship service that was being broadcast live on Facebook. Sick and unable to get to church that morning but determined not to miss out on my weekly worship, I went on Facebook and joined the gathered church in worship. The songs were uplifting, the sermon challenging, and I even joined the congregation to recite, out loud, the Mystery of Faith: “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” Then the pastor handed out the bread and the wine and I realised that I had reached the limits of my participation in the gathered worship of the church.
Can Facebook and other social networking platforms offer an alternative to church — alternative gathering spaces for worship and community? In many ways, the answer seems to be yes. We are more connected today than we have ever been. According to social media statistics, more than 70% of Singaporeans have a Facebook account. Started only 15 years ago, Facebook now boasts 2.4 billion users worldwide. In 2017, Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s new mission: “To give people the power to build community to bring the world closer together.” Within a year, the number of Facebook users who belong to groups grew exponentially from over 100 million to 1.4 billion. At the first Facebook Communities Summit where he announced this change, Zuckerberg notes that the people who are part of ‘meaningful communities’ on Facebook regard these groups as the “most important part of their social network experience and an integral part of their real world support structure.” Zuckerberg’s goal to connect persons with common purpose and identity through groups and to encourage group administrators to care for the people within their groups — sounds a lot like pastoring.
More and more churches are taking their worship services online: from live streaming their services on social networking sites to actual online church campuses. At the end of 2018, celebrity pastor Judah Smith announced the launch of a new location of his church, Churchome. Already in five physical locations across the West Coast of the United States, their newest location is: everywhere. Listed as one of six locations on the church website, Churchome Global is an app promising live worship, weekly services, and daily content with the goal of gathering and connecting people from all around the world to God and to each other. Smith claims it is “maybe the most effective platform we have ever used in doing so, where people can actually build real, tactile relationships all over the world.” However, critics of the proliferation of online church platforms and social networking sites bemoan these as disembodied, isolating, and detracting from real human interaction. How then, do we evaluate the suitability of the internet and social networking platforms as alternative gathering spaces for the Christian community? Can Facebook communities replace the church? Church and the Covenant of Presence Is church a place? An organization? An institution? A building? A banner we gather under? I think most of us would agree that it is the people who make it a church; a people who have been called together to worship God and to be formed into Christ-likeness. If our Christian lives are all about becoming more like Christ, then the church is the environment where that process is nurtured. The primary virtue found throughout the New Testament is love — precisely because our formation into Christlikeness is meant to happen in community, not in isolation. In fact, it would seem that the apostle Paul often measures spiritual maturity, not by how much doctrine the church knows, but by how they love one another and how they lay themselves down for each other.
Love requires presence. Scot McKnight, Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, in his book, Pastor Paul, writes that “biblical love involves a covenant of presence.” God’s desire to be with his people is the central theme that runs from Genesis to Revelation. From the Garden of Eden, to the tabernacle in the wilderness, ultimately in the person of Jesus Christ—the one who is called Immanuel, God with us — and now, in the Church, birthed by and filled with the Holy Spirit. In our highly digitized, busy, and multi-tasked lives, physical presence has become a precious gift that we give to each other. Making oneself available to another person requires intentionality and sacrifice. It requires us to turn off distractions and focus our attention on another person. “Being heard,” David Augsburger, Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Fuller Seminary, has said, “is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable.” While social media gives us the ability to connect with people over vast distances and at any time of the day, there is something deeply human in our face-to-face interactions that is irreplaceable.
The truth is, these digital technologies are here to stay. Much like the advent of the light bulb or the telephone, despite initial skepticism and objections, these inventions eventually became part of everyday life.
Here to Stay The truth is, these digital technologies are here to stay. Much like the advent of the light bulb or the telephone, despite initial skepticism and objections, these inventions eventually became part of everyday life. I do remember life before the Internet and it was only some time after my first child was born that I owned a smartphone. For my children, despite my attempts to regulate their exposure to technology, this will be the only world they know (until some new technology emerges to change the world). Despite early pessimism toward social networking sites, results from studies into their detrimental effects are mixed. While it might be tempting to paint the effects of social media with a broad brush — for example, claims that social media encourages narcissism, in authenticity, social isolation, and shallow engagement— the picture that emerges from these studies are more nuanced. There are enough studies that reveal the capacity of online platforms to enhance relationships and engagement to at least prevent us from simply saying: offline good, online bad.
Deep down, introvert or extrovert, most of us intuitively know that in-person interaction is irreplaceable. It is, therefore, helpful to think of social media, not as an alternative to human-to-human interaction, but as a supplemental tool. In reflecting on the use of social media in pastoral ministry, author and pastor Glenn Packiam of New Life Church writes in an article titled ‘I’m a Pastor IRL’, “[O]nline relationships produce the most positive effects when there is also an offline component to those relationships… When social media is a supplement to and not a substitute for physical presence, it can help community to form.” Zuckerberg himself admitted that many of the groups he studied also met in real life. He says, “Online communities make our physical communities stronger.”
How can we thoughtfully engage Facebook and other forms of social media then? Perhaps we could frame this in a two-pronged pastoral question: (1) how can we intentionally use online platforms to maximize our connection and engagement with others in a way that facilitates Christ being formed in ourselves and others; (2) how can we practise our faith in ways that prioritize the gift of presence — being present to God and to others?
Participation with Presence The bread and the wine, from my story at the beginning, in their physical, tangible form, are a reminder that the gathered church is not a disembodied, abstract entity, but an enfleshed body and tangible presence. Communion, the central act of worship from the beginning of Christianity, as author and liturgist Aaron Niequist tells us, “is participation with a presence, not merely remembrance.” God acting through our humanness and through ordinary, physical things like bread and wine, is the very basis for our gathering together: being present to God and each other by laying hands on one another, singing to one another, encouraging one another, etc., for the sake of becoming more like Christ. Maybe one day, technology will advance to a point where we can do this one-anothering online so well that it comes close to real life. But for now, social media remains a tool for enhancement and not a replacement for the gathered life of the church.
Cheryl You is a Worship Director at a church in Norfolk, Virginia. She is an old soul who loves old things — old books, vintage architecture, and ancient liturgies. An enneagram 4 and an introvert, she tries to balance new technology with old-school rhythms of prayer and contemplation.