By Melissa Miller, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
Near the end of The Digital Cathedral Keith Anderson says, “Everyone has a different story, has followed a different path, and engages a faith community in different ways.” In this book, he is attempting to convince readers and the church body at large to embrace the notion that our uniquenesses in engaging our faith are a welcome response to faith. He says “our definitions of church have become all too narrow, too parochial” and he sites example after inventive example of how creative leaders are connecting people to their faith both inside and outside traditional church buildings. Admittedly, there are more examples outside the buildings but such is the nature of expressing a new ideology.
It is important to note that Anderson does not feel that churches and buildings as they currently stand are irrelevant. In fact, there is a wonderful theme throughout the book of his many visits to beautiful and timeless cathedrals. He spends paragraphs at a time describing their elegance and history while also capturing the ways they are engaging with the new, digital era. By first using his experience to Canterbury Cathedral in England, he tells its history in relation to how people interacted with the church. “Here, people lived fully ‘in cathedral’ – in relationship with an expansive, everyday understanding of ‘church’…in cathedral speaks to the often overlooked spirituality of everyday life in Christian community in distinction from the formal spirituality of the institutional church.” His aim is to reshape the readers’ idea of what “church” really means – it should be more about connections and relationships than membership and attendance.
In his chapter “Shifting from Newton to Networks”, he discusses how individuals are shifting from their reliance on hierarchical institutions in favor of personal networks. This means people consider their phones or devices ‘places’ they can go for connection to others and are less likely to consider church, or any other organizational location, to be a necessity to enable their personal growth.
So, what does this mean for our church and church leaders? Anderson says it means you have to go out – physically and digitally – where the people are and “tell a different story about church, faith”. Perhaps that means setting up a prayer station table at a farmers’ market or offering ashes on Ash Wednesday in a metro station or having conversations in pubs or developing an online program called ‘Lent Madness’ that is similar to March Madness or creating an Instagram campaign for Advent. It means the church has to evolve and get excited about connecting with people in new ways.
Evaluation & Opinion
“Faith formation in the digital age is also participatory and experiential” Anderson says, and he is correct. Very few people can still feel obligated or fear-shamed into going to church every week – it is just not an argument anymore. Like it or not, the church is competing for people’s attention. However, that does not mean the church has to compete for people’s faith. Faith and a belief in God is still highly relevant and actively sought. Though many want to harp on the decline of mainline church membership as a decline of societies interest in Jesus, that is simply not true. It would be like saying the number of apples purchased in Kroger has gone down so clearly people do not like fruit anymore. I would argue that our society is actually more interested in knowing the freedom, love, care, respect, compassion and grace of Jesus today than in previous years. The church boom of the 1950’s was a response and need for structure and care after a time of havoc and sadness. People flocked to churches in person because that is what they could do. In 2016, we are a society of people who worry excessively and live with either nearly oppressive amounts of structure or flounder in disorganization. We need to know grace and love exist for us. We need know redemption and freedom…and we look for it constantly.
Social media and digital technology have proven not to eliminate our need for face-to-face interactions, but instead it enhances our methods of connection. If people are choosing to share their deepest needs and worries through digital outlets, then the church needs to meet them in those places and offer a response. We can and should still meet them in our church buildings, too. However, let us not lose sight of the power of the experiences we share with those who seek a deeper faith but not a physical pew. Ministry to all means exactly that – to all.