How to Balance New and Traditional Models?

the digital cathedralBy Owen Gray, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

In his book Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World, Keith Anderson posits a partly systematic approach to ministry that integrates traditional ecclesiological elements with modern media. Specifically, he suggests that by leveraging 21st century social media and highly relational ministry models, the church might be able to reclaim a place of faithful witness in society.

The premise upon which Cathedral is built is a view of medieval cathedrals as social centers. In the early chapters of the book Anderson focuses on the people who made up communities surrounding the enormous worship centers, and in so doing he shatters the traditional understanding of what made cathedrals important. They are not, in his mind, most significant because of their ability to seat thousands or inspire economic, political, and religious awe. Rather they are relevant because they made church—and by default, God and faith—a locus of local life.

Anderson expands the image to critique modern church mindsets. So many people yearn for the post-WWII days, when worship attendance was the cultural norm and Christian influence was mighty. Anderson would suggest that this was only one form of church that existed for a short season, but that was really a flash in a pan; a unique circumstance with which most of Christian history doesn’t compute. The Christian church in the United States is never going back to that place. Instead, we must reclaim much of what made us worthwhile in other eras.

Practical stories and suggestions abound in Cathedral. On a concrete level, there are ideas about how to engage authentically with people in the community via coffee-shop office hours, farmer’s market booths, house gatherings, social media interaction, and more. In terms of theory, he suggests that any space can be inhabited and “called holy” (115) by people of faith, especially faith leaders. Traditional church activities in traditional spaces don’t have to end, since many people still find meaning and fellowship there. Rather, this era of the church should focus on going beyond the church building proper and find the holy in ordinary spaces where God’s people already are.

I consider Anderson’s input useful, informative, and mostly all on target. The low-hanging fruit critique (which I would agree with) is that there is always useful hedging the author can do in a forward-thinking book. That is, I do wish he would have spent more time articulating his views on what might happen in traditional ministry models and how his approach can be balanced with those places that are already established. However in the places that Anderson spends his time, he writes accurately and helpfully. I would suggest that leaders in almost every ministry context need to consider how they can reach people outside of their traditional walls and begin to inhabit sacred space elsewhere.

In terms of my own practice, I really find value in pairing Anderson’s ideas with Adams’ Grouped. If we take for granted that every person will have between 4-8 activity groups in their lives, the church (broadly speaking) should try to occupy at least one of those for each person. While it’s not realistic to believe we can do so for every single person, we can and ought to try to reach as many as possible since, studies show, the vast majority of people have questions or worries about the divine/spirituality. The church is a very real answer to inherent feelings all people, as God’s creation, feel. Anderson offers a model for achieving this. Whether it’s a coffee shop prayer station, church space at the Saturday morning market, or even an online venue like Twitter, the church can be creative in creating space for meaningful community that can become the locus of faith for individuals.

The faith leader, especially if they are supported by traditional church structures, will need to be especially creative, proactive, and faithful in navigating those spaces. I believe doing so will be a huge asset to the church and will prove to be a meaningful and effective form of ministry moving forward.

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