A Transitional Snarl

the digital cathedralBy Sara Sommers, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

In his optimistic book, The Digital Cathedral, Lutheran pastor Keith Anderson purposes an analogy that characterizes the cathedral, in its most dynamic sense, as a wider field of faith formation. Cathedral is more than buttressed building and storied glass windows.  It is bustling with life, art and music, with pedestrians and prams, the laboring and the lamenting, bakers and neighbors, the pious and the practical all implicating various aspects of the Christian expression of daily life.  We, modern inhabitants of the digital age, are likewise privy to this same robust experience of “situational sacred space” when we embrace the networked, relational and incarnational aspects of ministry, “placing ourselves outside of our church buildings or ministry offices, both digitally or physically.”  For anyone feeling forlorn about the church’s future, Anderson counters with examples, anecdotes, uplifting quotes and advice that assail a new kind of faith community where church takes to the streets, the air waves, smart phones and “third places,” demonstrating God’s proactive love.

While not a frequent cathedral visitor, I fully grasp Anderson’s portrayal of cathedral as both substantive and situational sacred space, as emblematic of a new view on church.  In his Introduction, he and his wife visit St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.  Under renovation, the cathedral is “nearly unrecognizable,” its frame hidden by scaffolding.  Marked too by the standard signature of modern identity, placards advertising St. Pat’s Facebook page and Twitter tweets, the cathedral reflects an “apt symbol for the book” as it literally captures the church’s current need to remake itself, tipping a hat to modern technology even as it sustains its earliest bones.  Later in the book, Anderson writes, “A cathedral is an immersive experience of faith formation, with the images, architecture, people, music and ritual all serving to form those who enter that space.” With the advent of modern technologies, this “space” is no longer only a locale but also a digital possibility happening “everywhere and at all times.” The previous linear model of hierarchy is now a webbed network of relational encounters and connections.  We shift our “focus from what or who is contained in each box, to the spaces in between those boxes, and to the connections and relationships that transcend and transgress the boundaries we draw.”  Anderson advocates, “if we want to speak and lead in ways that are culturally resonate, we must engage and relate, as life does, in networks – and at the outset of the twenty-first century, that means digital social media as well.”

Offering example after example, Anderson promotes a vision of the church unbound and spontaneous, yet relational and most importantly, incarnational. From “Ashes to Go” (a novel administering of Lenten forehead dust at the commuter rail station of Ambler), to Laura Everett’s Bike Lane Boston trailblazing interfaith ministry (a personal favorite as I bicycled Boston’s harried intersections while in graduate school and appreciate Everett’s courage as well as faithful enterprise), to Pope Francis’ selfie sensation, to teenagers instagramming their Appalachian Service experience, Anderson cheers us on with proof that the love of God should be no stranger to social media nor limited to the pew. Yet, for all of Anderson’s worthwhile anecdotes and advice, I have a few points of contention.

As a cusper, that generational terrain between boomer and millennial, I find myself caught in a transitional snarl.  It can be exhausting to field both yesterday’s “membership duties” and today’s virtual responsibilities.  Many of us in our late 40s and 50s are holding committee positions, physically attending church meetings, baking casseroles and manning church yard sales while also digitally managing our other social networks. I think this is why I often want to go to church, get a word, and get out before I get networked!  If I endorse Anderson’s digital cathedral, I must also encourage digital and personal limit setting. (His Digital Rules are useful.) Meanwhile, I also bear a soft spot for our eldest members whose steadfast value may be lost behind the advocating for “new and different.”  If we as “church” are going to invest in new technologies, let’s educate our elders on usage practices so as not to intimidate or inadvertently uninvite them to the cathedral.  The Seminary, too, may find offering courses in video editing, podcasting (I did recently take Jay McNeal’s podcasting class), and website maintenance, for example, equally as relevant for future church leaders as ancient biblical languages.

Additionally, Anderson’s overt endorsement of new technologies as a means for securing future generations naïvely avoids naming damaging aspects of social media.  He writes, “If we want to meet the needs of our current congregations and to continue to share the Gospel with younger generations, we must understand networks and the new technologies that fuel them.” I agree, but would advise that social media networks can also produce feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, jealousy, pressure and loneliness. The sweeping positives Anderson portends must be held in check with some of the negatives.  Anderson’s poetic Digital Cathedral has my endorsement as it crafts a church creative and relevant, but I enter the virtual vaulted walls with a detectable cautionary optimism.

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