In The New Media Frontier, I distinguished between being and doing before going on to argue that the only way to signify one’s presence online was through linking, commenting, or some other activity.  Otherwise, readers remain ‘depersonalized,’ known only by their locations and IP addresses.

John Dyer, who is a model of constructive, thoughtful, and interesting engagement with technology, developed that distinction in a recent post, which allowed me to return to the subject in light of a recent fascination:  online church.  He writes: 

In the case of my my 8 month old son, he simply doesn’t yet know how to be present. Eventually he’ll learn how and he’ll start to understand that sometimes just being in a room with someone, not saying anything can be incredibly meaningful. When someone hundreds of miles away is hurting, our movement through time and space to be present with them communicates in ways far more profound than any letter, email, tweet, or spoken word.

Where as my son simply doesn’t know how to be present, in the online world there is no way to be present. Sure, there is a little green dot next to our name in a chat room indicating we are present, but for me it doesn’t feel the same as actually being with someone.

This inability to perform something so basic to being human reshapes what we value in the online world. Instead of presence, we tend to value words in posts, links, and replies. Being present in the real world doesn’t require anything new or novel, but posting online always requires something new or interesting. While being present is a selfless act for another, posting and linking is often more about ourselves than the other.

It is no wonder, then, that those engaging in online church have chats for parishoners(?) during the worship service and the sermon.  There may be ways to reformulate this to avoid the problem, but functionally it seems like online church is constituted primarily by its speaking to each other, rather than its collective hearing of the Word of God. While its internal conversation might be shaped by Scripture, the necessity of speaking online–even during a sermon and worship–points to the hollow nature of the means of communication.   If we cannot be still with our whole being, how shall we be arrested by the Word of God to us?

As I said, there may be other ecclesiastical formulations that would allow online churches to avoid this dilemma.  But as a means of overcoming the gap between being and doing, I would suggest that chats during church are deeply problematic.

Addenda:

Yes, this suggests that I am (with John Piper) opposed to using Twitter in church.  The church is formed in its response to the hearing of the word of God, a speaking that demands nothing less than everything.

And see also this interesting and well balanced piece from Collide Magazine on the question of online church.

And see also Christian Web Conference, where I’ll be debating Andrew Jones on these issues.  I hope you can make it, as it looks like the best one ever. 

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

5 Comments

  1. Isn’t this a matter of common courtesy? Interrupting a F2F conversation with a cell call or text message seems rude in all but extraordinary circumstances.

    But when sitting and listening to a speaker on a stage (a form of one-way virtual engagement), I think the rules of etiquette are different. Often when I’m at a conference, or in a class, I’ll take notes on my laptop or with pencil and journal. Texting someone in context of the stage lecture seems little different than taking notes. In a way, listening and texting, in consort with the speaker’s topic, shows an -increased- respect for the speaker. The texter, like an attentive student, becomes increasingly engaged with the speaker’s ideas and is no longer a passive spectator.

    Taking this further, we should ask ourselves if our ecclesial gathering time is best used as spectators or participants. I shared some thoughts on this recently:

    http://blog.beliefnet.com/jesuscreed/2009/07/tell-us-what-you-think-from-jo.html

    Wish I could be there for your friendly exchange with Andrew. Say hello to him for me.

    Reply

  2. John,

    Thanks for commenting. I wish you could be there too–it’s going to be a rip-roaring good time.

    You’re ‘bearish’ on the ‘lecture,’ which I understand completely. As an educational tool, I’ve done my part to replace it with a more interactive form of learning. But I would argue that the sermon is not a lecture at all, and hence its end is not information, but rather it is an exposition of the Word of God for the purposes of hearing the Word of God. Hence, I think you create a false dichotomy in the case of the sermon–either we ‘act’ (text, take notes, etc) or are ‘spectators.’ But is not the sermon a place where we come first and foremost not to spectate, nor to respond, but to HEAR? And hearing, as my wife reminds me often, requires every aspect of our being to be done well. We are not spectators, in that sense, but rather are being acted upon by the Word of God together before we respond corporately in worship. Incidentally, this is (I think) what local Pastor Bob has over A.W. Tozer, or Dallas Willard, or any other Christian luminary: the ability to proclaim the Word of God FOR his congregation specifically. Theology, at its center, must serve the local church, and this is one way she does so–by addressing and responding to the needs of the local congregation.

    Down with lectures, then, and up with a more robust understanding of the proclamation of the Word of God.

    Reply

  3. […] orthodoxy:  the online church is a speaking church and  on virtuality and online […]

    Reply

  4. Matt, you make some good points. Brings to mind James (1:22) and Paul (Rom2:13) and even Jesus (Lk8:18) – they all remind us that “hearing isn’t complete without doing.”

    I need to admit – debating the merits or drawbacks of “Twittering during a sermon” isn’t that interesting to me. I’m far more interested in encouraging interactivity & participation in our F2F gathering – looking for ways to physically gather that are less influenced by lay / clergy dynamics, less stage-focused, less “professionally officiated” and more spontaneously / dynamically engaged and connected – as a healthy body. If Twittering brings us closer to this kind of body connection, then I’m all for it.

    Let’s not get too romantic about “sermon localization.” I suggest that “locality” of sermon can only go so far. I’ve been considering the sermons we’ve heard over the years. Once in a while, a message might use a reference to something specifically local (a road, a restaurant, a shared local news item, etc.), but in my 25+ adult years of local experience, it’s been rare to hear a truly localized sermon. Unless there are specific issues common to a single community (which at times there are, of course), the spiritual “needs” of any particular community are fairly universal.

    When I think of “localization” I think of sharing our lives with one another – not as an audience staring at a stage, but as engaged co-creators of true participative, generative community. We can now be inspired by a great sermon on our own time, anytime, anywhere. I think we can start to expect more from our rare physical gathering times, while simultaneously allowing pastors to step off the stage and be released to really pastor.

    There are a LOT of creative people in every community who defer to traditions of hierarchy and routine. But new forms of virtual engagement are helping to make this creative class aware of their latent value to the church. I say, let them Twitter as “doers” of the word, rather than twiddle passively as hearers only.

    Reply

  5. John,

    I think we agree on a lot. For instance, I’m a big fan of interactivity and participation in the service, which is why I have spent a lot of my adult years attending liturgical services. Christians in RCism, Orthodoxy and Anglicanism have that interactivity thing down.

    And I’m all for pastors truly pastoring, and being members of the community. It’s partly the loss of that view that leads to, I think, the use of videosermons in mega churches (against which I am opposed).

    My only contentions are that in our rush to adopt new technologies we won’t pause to reflect on the potentially harmful ways they might be shaping us, and the points at which they might be at odds with theology. In this way, traditional theology AND practice is instructive, but not determinative.

    Notice that my point doesn’t have to do with the local nature of the sermon. I agree that most of them are universal. But the sermon giver is always local, and I think hearing a sermon from the member of our body–from someone whose struggles we have seen and whose errors we have known–challenges us to hear it more as the Word of God, since we have seen it either confirmed or denied in our Pastor’s life. Either way, that contextual knowledge about the preacher changes the dynamic in how we hear the sermon.

    Frankly, debating the merits of Twittering in church isn’t all that interesting to me either. What is interesting is the ecclesiological difficulty that the possibility raises, and solving it in a way that is faithful to Scripture and disciplined by the witness of Christian history.

    But I’ll make one final point: you seem to create an antithesis between ‘the stage’ and ‘the creative, generative community.’ I think that antithesis is false. After all, a sermon provides a shared connection–we all hear the same sermon, which allows for corporate reflection. It is, in that sense, common ground that we can meet upon to discuss our own reflections. In this way, it is not opposed to a generative community, but it might precede it and guide it. At least this has been my experience with traditional sermons.

    Thanks again for your feedback. These are difficult issues to deal with, and it’s great to have your voice challenging me!

    Highest regards,

    matt

    Reply

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