Cathedral in the World

the digital cathedralBy Marcy Wright, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

In The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World, Keith Anderson draws upon the metaphor of the ancient and modern cathedral to craft a new vision of the church in the 21st century, one “that extends ministry into both digital and local gathering spaces, recognizes the sacred in everyday life, and embodies a networked, relational, and incarnational approach to ministry leadership for a digital age.” (5)

Cathedrals are characterized by an “openness and spaciousness and a serve as welcoming space for people with a wide range of beliefs and practices, and those with none at all.” (4) That is contrasted sharply with the traditional parish, which in many ways has “closed in on itself.” (4) While Anderson acknowledges that the traditional parish has been the primary focus of the church’s energy and focus, and acknowledging that this has been a good and noble thing, he cautions that in the changing ministerial landscape, our tireless focus solely on the parish creates an ecclesiastical “blind spot” which prevents ministry leaders from focusing on “the people and stories just outside our doors.” (23)

Anderson argues that while we worry about dwindling church membership and attempt to create and market new and exciting programs to attract people inside our doors, we miss a great deal of what our neighbors surrounding our determined sacred spaces experience in their everyday lives.  Ultimately what we miss is the opportunity to “fully engage in our world today…and walk the streets…in order to connect with those beyond our buildings and see what God is up to in the world.” (25)

Anderson offers many inspiring examples of networked, relational and incarnational ministry, from #SneakersforSarah, where friends offered weekly, online support to someone undergoing cancer treatment (36) to  “Ashes on the Go”, in which congregations offer the imposition of ashes on commuters at a train station at the beginning of Lent, (37) to “third spaces”, public places that serve as source of regular and informal gathering, where folks can encounter, deepen engagement, and spend time in conversation. (130) Given the opportunity, these third spaces can be transformed from that which is seemingly mundane and ordinary to that which is sacred and holy and a place to develop relationships with each other and with God.

Much of Digital Cathedral resonated with my sense of ministry and my sense of call to something different beyond traditional church walls.  Because my career began in the non-profit arena, I am particularly attuned to the fact that creative, supportive and life-changing ministry is possible in a variety of settings.  I appreciated Anderson’s emphasis on building relationships, whether through small groups or social media.  So many people believe think that social media is superficial and leads to tenuous connections, but Anderson, as well as my own personal experience debunk this myth.  While it remains important to emphasize face-to-face interactions, it is also critical for leaders to recognize that real and authentic relationships can be built through online presence and dialogue and can be the building blocks for true faith formation.

Ultimately, what truly caught my attention, and what will inform my ministry efforts going forward, is Anderson’s reframing of our current understanding of evangelism.  I recall so many evangelism trainings at my home church, where we were coached on how to approach people to win them to Christ.  One method involved asking those we encountered, “if you died today, do you know where your soul would reside?”  In hindsight, I can’t think of a more awkward or quite frankly morbid conversation starter, a conversation anyone would be reluctant to have.

Anderson quotes former Bishop William Lawrence of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts as affirming that “the work of the cathedral is not necessarily conversion, but reconciliation…before seeking to change or convert others, we must first listen, understand, reconcile, and at times, repent…rather than rushing to convert the other, we should instead create safe space and common ground to engage, and to ‘let be’.”  This is the evangelism model I will use in my ministry in whatever setting I am called.  I envision that much of my ministry will be around the creation of “third places”, not at the exclusion of invitation to traditional church worship and participation but as a creative and vibrant companion experience that is holy and has value even if no one ever approaches the parish doors.  Anderson’s practical guide (144-147) will be a useful resource.

At my church, when someone joins our congregation (which is a rarer and rarer occurrence these days) we celebrate by reminding ourselves that no matter what we do, God brings the increase. (1 Cor. 3:7) Undoubtedly though, that means that God brings the increase to us, to our congregation, inside the walls of our church.  Digital Cathedral suggests that God has already brought the increase, in everyday places, like pubs and bus stops and online—and our task in this new ministry landscape is to go out and engage, not seeking to add to our numbers, but seeking our own expansion and increase by sharing in the joys, hopes, challenges, traumas and laughter of those around us.  Connecting, convening and conversing with people in the community, engaged and in relationship. (163).  Only then are we truly and authentically the “cathedral” in the world.

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