Any Way You Slice It

Some thoughts on church,
and postmodernism,
and how it is that we find integrity and wholeness
in our varied forms of worship
and understandings of God.

An Entry Point

I've organized this blog chronologically from its inception, which is backwards from how most blogs are organized. Basically that means that the dates you see for each post to the right are imaginary. Don't worry about it. They show up in the right order...think of the "older posts" link as a "next" button.

And a BIG THANKS! to those who were willing to be interviewed, and who offered suggestions. You're really good sports, and I'm glad to know you (even though I've only ever really met Jay Voorhees, and I'm not sure that we did more than show up at the same seminar once).


In its infancy

In talking about unity and diversity and inclusion within the church, I was inspired by a thought: any way you slice it, an orange is an orange. Wedges or slices or segments, they are still orange. Blend them with vanilla yogurt in a smoothie, open a carton of OJ, add sugar and water for orangeade--still orange. They smell like orange, they taste like orange, they have orange integrity, if you will. So should the church. As we move from a modern way of doing church into whatever the future holds (my contention is that postmodernism is a phase, but who knows what's next?), I'm curious to see how we'll slice the orange that is our faith, and what the finished product will be. Any way you slice it, an orange is an orange. Thanks to the folks who have read this site and posted comments; you are all a big help! Come back and see how it's going as I transition this blog to a survey of a few online church presences and hopefully come out with a successful look at postmodern ecclesiologies from a practical perspective. Coming soon: Interviews with: * Amy Forbus, Digital Community Builder at the United Methodist Reporter and my blogging consultant * Jay Voorhees, UM pastor and preacher at Church of Fools, an online worship experiment of Ship of Fools and the Methodist Church in Great Britain * Jacqui King, pastor and planter of Nu Faith Community UMC, a new brick and mortar church and online church *Phil Wyman, pastor of The Gathering in Salem, Mass, and a pioneer in ministry to the Wiccan and neo-Pagan communities there (this interview will not take place until after Nov. 12; please check back to see it!) Reviews of some online ministry presences with an eye towards how they help people make and maintain connections to the church and to Christ


Teaching an old dog new tricks

They say it can be done. I'm hoping to learn this fall, when the local community college offers canine obedience classes. I already obey the dog; I'm curious to see if Cletus the WonderMutt, at the advanced age of 8ish, can learn anything new. I'd love to be able to have him off the leash, but when he's not restrained, all he can hear are the strains of "Born Free" in the wind. All kidding aside, can churches learn new tricks, or relearn old ones? I'm anxious to see if mine can. We want to attract new people, we have this new worship service, we want to do ministry differently...I wonder what that might look like.


Through a glass dimly

Wondering what "church" might look like in 50 years. Will we be inclusive to the degree that the Bible is irrelevant, or only one of many sacred texts? Will we all look the same, or will each church be an independent free-standing body, where ecumenism becomes cooperation across congregations, rather than across denominations? I realize the church doesn't look like an whole orange now; we are split into segments...but what will a post-modern church look like? Will there be segments and slices, or will it be more like extra pulpy orange juice or a creamsicle?


Thought for today

It's been an interesting week. Last Saturday Ben presided over the funeral of my stepmother, feeling acutely the pressure of ministering to (without offending) my agnostic father and Wiccan stepsister. Today I met with the local Presbyterian and Unitarian ministers, and we talked about our sermons. It's interesting the theological differences we have and don't have, and the varying topics of our sermons. The Unitarian tells us about the topic of her sermon. The Presbyterian is preaching a long series on Hosea and connecting its themes to our times. And I am the faithful lectionary girl, at least for this week. Yet somehow, I know that there will be people in each sanctuary who feel God speaking to them through us. That's pretty good stuff.


Troublesome words

Having an issue in some conversations I've been having about postmodern ministry. It seems that we can't agree on our vocabulary, and so we're spending some time arguing about words that could be spend really exploring how we might be about ministry and relationship-building in postmodern culture. An example: in talking about the emerging church and the concern that some parts of the movement are focusing on relationships to the exclusion of doctrine, we realized we don't agree on the meaning of the word "doctrine". I guess maybe I've sort of reappropriated it for myself to mean the foundational teachings that invite us into relationship with God and others, and help us to live in community. Some of my peers reject "doctrine" as a narrowly defined, rigid, and exclusive set of rules that no longer have any real meaning. We've spent most of the conversation this week disagreeing when we mean to agree, I think, that narrow doctrinalism is bad, and something we reject. But I've had a hard time agreeing that all doctrine should be rejected, due to my own definition. And I've been told that insisting on knowing what things mean is "modern" thinking, not postmodern...well, so be it. Anyone out there have a term you'd like to get rid of, or redefine? Hit me in the comments and let me know!


Hey, anybody out there?

I'm working on a project for a DMin in postmodern ministry. Anyone know of websites I need to be sure not to miss? I'm thinking of reviewing "web churches" and perhaps interviewing some leaders. Help me out...leave names/email/web addresses in the comments, please!


Bending space online

We have just started a LOGOS program at our church for children and youth. The program itself is exceptional; it emphasizes building both faith and relationships to help kids feel connected to the church. But here's the really great part. Our Children's Ministry Director just came in to say what a wonderful experience she's been having getting advice and ideas online through a LOGOS online community. Not only does she receive suggestions and support in answer to her questions, but one person (not a staff member of LOGOS or any church, but a volunteer) even snail-mailed her a huge packet of resources from her program at her local church...with a photo of her grandchild and a personal note. Not only is the online community creating "public" relationship space, but that space is extending to the social and personal realm. What a great way to do church!


I need homework help!

I still need some links to churches/ministries with strong web presences for my postmodern ecclesiology class. Got a favorite or three? Please let me know where it is in the comments! Thanks!


Thank you!

Thanks to the folks who have read this site and posted comments; you are all a big help! Come back and see how it's going as I transition this blog to a survey of a few online church presences and hopefully come out with a successful look at postmodern ecclesiologies from a practical perspective. Coming soon: Interviews with: * Amy Forbus, Digital Community Builder at the United Methodist Reporter and my blogging consultant * Jay Voorhees, UM pastor and preacher at Church of Fools, an online worship experiment of Ship of Fools and the Methodist Church in Great Britain *Phil Wyman, pastor of The Gathering in Salem, Mass, and a pioneer in ministry to the Wiccan and neo-Pagan communities there Reviews of some online ministry presences with an eye towards how they help people make and maintain connections to the church and to Christ


Church of Fools, part 1

Church of Fools was a 3 month experiment conducted by Ship of Fools and the Methodist Church of Great Britain in 2004 with an eye to what online worship services might look like. After three months (plus a couple extra, due to its success) of online interactive worship, visits from various trolls (disruptive visitors), and an appearance by Satan, the experiment came to an end, at least in part. The website is still up, and the 3D bandwidth-hogging format has been changed to a less-interactive single-visitor format...but visitors still come in to pray, to be silent, and to meditate. The original creator of Church of Fools has moved to St. Pixels online church community. Jay Voorhees, a UM pastor outside Nashville TN, was a part of Church of Fools, and is my first victim, I mean, interview subject. Jay: Let me give a little background to set the stage. I was not in on the original planning for Church of Fools (COF) but was rather brought in a bit later, however I have had enough conversations with some of the founding team to give at least some information on the formation of the site. Anne: I think first off, I want to know how Ship of Fools got involved in the online church idea. Was it just for the sheer fun of it, or was there a desire to see how people might respond? How did you get involved with Church of Fools? Jay: As I am sure you know, the Ship of Fools was an online community focused around a set of bulletin boards that attempted to deal with issues of faith in a fresh way. The Ship itself took a satirical approach to the things of the church, reflecting especially the sense of humor of its founders, who maintained a traditional British sense of humor. I had been involved on the periphery of this conversation at the bequest of one of my parishioners, a man who soon became a moderator on the boards, and was involved in the earliest days of the COF project. Part of the impetus for COF arose from a group of active chat rooms at the Ship. These rooms involved some fairly serious theological discussions, and there was a feeling among some that they would be enhanced by a visually oriented chat space. As a first step the Ship did a small experiment with an online space that was (I think) based on Noah’s Ark. When response to that was positive, there was a movement by many to enter into an experiment with an online church. The Ship founders approached the Methodist Church of Great Britain about entering into a partnership on the project, and the Methodist Church provided much of the funding for what was to be a three month experiment, which then extended out after the rousing success of the project to five or six months. I became involved in the COF project at the invitation of my parishioner, and after participating in that space for a while, was asked to become one of the regular “Reverends” on the site to moderate conversations, lead worship, and generally be present. Anne: What are your thoughts about online worship settings? Do they work? What was the best thing about Church of Fools? Jay: Honestly, for me, the online worship was forced. Frankly a text based environment, even in a virtual world, doesn’t allow for the flow of thought and the expression of emotion that is necessary for heartfelt worship. On the other hand, many of the leaders and regular participants at COF had history in the Anglican tradition, and I think maintained a sense of the holy in our regular observance of morning and evening prayer. What works in maintaining these worship services is the daily discipline of gathering with others (albeit online) to focus intentionally on God. I also believe that these “services” provided an entry point back into the church for a group of persons who had been alienated by the church in the past but wished to reconnect. Coming online allowed them a safe space to dip their toes back into the water, ultimately leading some to reconnect with churches in the “real world.” What become probably the most important aspect of the SOF project was the community that arose from the online conversations between the services. People somehow found ways to bond in this online space, creating relationships of importance. Obviously, they were limited in their scope, but for many they remained very important in their lives. Anne: One of the hopes for Church of Fools was that the online community would lead to people wanting to connect with conventional churches. How did that work out? Jay: There really was no way to measure how many folks ended up connecting to conventional churches. Anecdotally, there were several (10 or so) folks who claimed that they had been away from church for many years and this project was leading them back into the practices of prayer, and considering reconnecting with “real” churches. However, there is no firm data beyond those conversations to support any claim that this directly led folks into relationships with conventional churches. Anne: What did the Church of Fools project team hope to come out of it? How did that work out for them? Did you yourself have any different hopes? Jay: I’m not sure anyone had clearly defined goals as to what would be the final outcome. It was an experiment to simply see what would happen. What happened was that a large number of folks showed up, more than anticipated. It also demonstrated the problems and limitations of online communities in that it is much easier for those inclined to come and disrupt what others are doing. My own hopes related to entering into deep conversations with persons seeking to understand God at a deeper level. That certainly happened and I think were valuable. Anne: Is the Methodist Church across the big water still interested in the project? Are there plans to move back to 3D and a more interactive experience? Jay: I’m not sure about the desire of The Methodist Church of Great Britain to remain connected to the project, although they have generally been willing to think outside the box. The COF project ended due to funding issues as maintaining a 3D environment requires a bunch of bandwidth. The leaders at the Ship unfortunately entered into a deal with the software developers which make resuming COF (or St. Pixel’s as it’s called now) at its previous level impossible due to licensing fees. At the same time, the COF ran into the same problems that traditional churches experience – differing visions among the leaders, and the stresses of identifying the commonalities of a community. There was (and continues to be) a group in the US that is proposing an alternative vision of the COF project, recognizing that COF maintained a more British feel and background and that there might be a need for a more Americanized expression. However they have been unable to find a suitable 3D environment and I am doubtful that they will get that project to happen. Anne: How would you define “postmodern”? What would you consider to be hallmarks of postmodern ministry? Does Church of Fools meet your criteria? Are there other online “churches” that you’re interested in (and what are they)? Jay: Wow, that’s a loaded question. I frankly don’t like the descriptor of “postmodern” in talking about church today for I think that there are many factors and descriptors to describe the cultural shift we find ourselves in. Postmodernism for me is the challenging of the assumptions of modernity, especially pushing against the reliance on scientific truth as the only form of truth, and taxonomic character of modern society (that is, the desire in modernity to created categories with fairly rigid boundaries). Modernity seems to me to loosely be focused on the activity of the left side of the brain – analysis, rationality, logic. On the other hand, postmodernity lifts up creativity and flexibility as values to be pursued. There is a discomfort among postmoderns with rigid categories of truth, and a recognition that scientific definitions of truth may not be the only way to define truth. Postmodern people tend to value authenticity, communal connection, and are comfortable with paradox. At the same time, I would suggest that post-colonialism is also an important factor in culture today. Post-colonialism is the movement from the centralized authority of those “in the know” to a more distributed notion of power and knowledge, with the understanding that power and authority should arise from within a community rather than be imposed by outside forces. In many ways, the rise of open source software (with the connections of “open source” to other areas of life, including church) is an example of a post-colonial mentality. It is the belief that there is power when the end users own what they are using rather than having someone determine what’s best for them. Postmodern/Post-Colonial/Emerging ministry is characterized by many things, but the quick and dirty answer would be an emphasis on shared power within a communal context, a willingness to ask difficult questions of church traditions and the scriptures, a valuing of experience as a valid revelation of God’s presence and activity in the world, leading to a more interactive form of worship. COF met many of those markers, however the tension in the community arose in the nature of communal leadership. The founders of the Ship of Fools, especially the primary leader Simon, was unable to recognize that he no longer “owned” the COF once the community began to gel in that space. Like most web site operators, he assumed that he was in control because he maintained the site. However, once a community began to be formed there, it was clear that the postmodern folks there believed that their input was important if not crucial to the success and operation of the COF. Simon and the other Ship leaders struggled to realize that the communal dynamics had changed and that authority was seen not in titles or roles, but in the interactions with the shared community. I am unaware of other online churches and have not attempted to be in contact with them.


Some Reflections on Online Community via Blogging

Soon, I hope to hear from Amy Forbus, Digital Community Builder for the UMPortal, on blogging and varied other subjects. In the meantime, here are some of my own thoughts. I started blogging in January 2007, so I can hardly consider myself an expert, and I'm not one to worry about who is reading my blog. At first, it was sort of a novel way to keep a journal, which I've never been good at doing for longer than whatever crisis I was journaling about lasted. This time, though, I've layered on some other experiences and kinds of meaning (to me at least), that have made it a much more successful attempt at journal-keeping than in the past. I intentionally named it Telling Stories and Learning Faith, hoping to emphasize both my desire to become a better storyteller and narrative theologian and also my sense that while I may be going on to perfection, I'm nowhere near there yet. I meant it to be a place to post whatever writing I do, and perhaps encourage me to do more, and initially to be a forum where I could express myself honestly and openly, without having to censor myself too much. That focus quickly shifted as my senior pastor and I thought about how the blog might let me be more transparent to our congregation, and I began not only to publish my weekly newsletter articles in the blog but also to censor myself a little more often and be a little more moderate in how I express my frustrations. As a very open person, that's occasionally difficult for me, but down the line, I found other arenas for that type of expression as well. In the first couple of months, I felt all alone in the blogosphere. I would occasionally get email or verbal feedback from a parishioner about something I had written and very rarely a comment from someone I didn't know who had stumbled on to my blog. I learned to use the "next blog" button at the top of the Blogger page to surf through randomly selected blogs, and discovered that I really am not interested in much of the content out there. As a free blog provider, Blogger hosts many blogs with commercial and "adult" content I'm not interested in. But one day, I stumbled on to the RevGalBlogPals site...I've honestly forgotten if I was chasing a link from a comment someone left me, or blogsurfing through random blogs, or possibly someone had mentioned the webring to me. At RevGalBlogPals, I found content for and by clergywomen, many of whom had experiences in ministry similar to mine, and others whose lives and settings were completely different. My connection with RGBP is two-fold: I'm now a member of the webring, so more people may stumble onto my blog through another RGBP member, and also there are a variety of weekly and monthly features through which we interact on the blog. The Friday Five, a "get-to-know-you" weekly event, is my favorite weekly web ritual. Each week a RGBP member posts 5 questions for visitors to answer on their own sites, and then refer to their post in the comments on RGBP. I have grown to look forward to the exercise both as a means of stimulating me to write something each week and as a way to connect with peers I might never meet in person. Through the Friday Five and reading others' responses, I have developed a list of blogs I check on a regular basis. Among them are The Best Dog Ever (yep, purportedly written by a dog), Catz and Best of (yep, by a cat--there's an informal RevGalPetPal network, too), Abbey of the Arts (and a bi-weekly poetry challenge I have added to my blog/writing discipline), and freshly ground and freshly brewed, although there are many others. In addition to the RBGP Friday Five, I check in on Tuesdays for Lectionary Leanings as the RevGals discuss the week's lectionary texts, on Wednesdays for the Wednesday Festival, where site visitors are encouraged to visit blogs having particularly interesting content, from a great recipe to a prayer concern to a project, and on Thursdays for the advice column, Ask the Matriarchs, where we can all join in to share our experiences and counsel when one is facing a difficult situation. I have also been invited to share in a joint blog kept for and by other UM clergywomen looking for a sounding board and a sense of connection. I did not anticipate finding a sense of community in any way when I began blogging. It started as a selfish exercise: I wanted a place that would be my own for reflecting on what was happening in my life and for writing a bit, so that one day I might be able to figure out what I want to write (I feel that as a sense of calling, not as strong as my call to pastor, but certainly strong and persistent). It became, however, a place to make connections: a fellow blogger from Tennessee offered me company and a seat at his Emergent cohort meeting when I was in TN helping care for my sick mother-in-law. Another blogger who is currently in Iraq with the military has stumbled upon the RevGalBlogPals, and finds himself asking questions as he reads our posts: questions about faith, about the Bible, about grace and Jesus Christ. I never anticipated that I could feel a sense of relationship, at many different levels, as I sat in my office typing on a keyboard. It's been a surprise, a welcome one, and a gift as well. cross-posted on Telling Stories and Learning Faith


Interview with Amy Forbus on Blogging and Online Community

Amy Forbus is a UM layperson, a RevGalBlogPal, and the Digital Community Builder for UMPortal. Here's my interview with her: Anne:Your job title with the UM Reporter is “Digital Community Builder”, but you’ve told me that’s a bit of a misnomer. What do you do, and what would be a more appropriate job title? Amy:Some tasks match my job description very well: I do pursue opportunities to build relationships for UMR using the Internet, including blogging and reading others’ blogs, social networking, and e-mail dialogue. I also lead a few workshops here and there dealing with blogging, Web sites, and online communites. Most recently I’ve presented at the Texas Conference School of Christian Mission, Roundup (a Northwest Texas/New Mexico Conference annual event), and UMR’s own Editors Conference, which I’m preparing to do again in January. I also led the way in launching the Reporter Blog ( As a member of the News staff, I always keep an eye out for postings from Methobloggers that could translate well into print, and I pitch those as potential commentaries to our managing editor, (who is also my supervisor). That’s how Will Deuel, Matt Judkins, Natalie Stadnick, and Guy Kent have wound up in the print edition. I write some features for the paper that focus on aspects of digital community (a Q&A with Real Live Preacher, features on RevGalBlogPals and The Young Clergy Women Project). My other area of interest is young adults, as I’m quickly aging out of that category myself. That topic doesn’t always have an overt “digital community” connection. Other tasks are “digital,” but they don’t directly deal with community: updating the UMPortal each weekday, setting up the weekly Sneak Preview email blast, proofing stories as I load them on the UMPortal, training and providing support to customers who have local-church-customized versions of the UMPortal. These tasks sometimes add up to the majority of my work week, and on those days I feel much less like a “digital community builder.” I’m not sure what a more appropriate job title would be, though. My supervisor has suggested making me a staff writer, but that doesn’t quite cover it, and honestly, I’m a little hesitant to do much more writing because of my other responsibilities. Anne: You mentioned in your profile on Locusts & Honey about the Methoblogger meetup in January at the Congress on Evangelism. I started my blog while I was there, but didn’t really connect there with any of the bloggers. Since then I’ve got to know you a bit, and found Gavin to be very supportive and welcoming during my mother-in-law’s last illness. Tell me a little about your experience with blogging, and with the RevGalBlogPals webring. How did you get started and connected? Do you feel like there’s ministry taking place there, or relationships forming? Amy: I originally blogged anonymously, and as having nothing to do with United Methodism; my blog was actually a creative-writing exercise designed as an attempt to escape the church in some small area of my life. Then I found some Methobloggers, and I couldn’t stay away. So, I found myself posting on my own blog in character (my dog Cub), and commenting on others’ blogs as myself (DogBlogger). Once when I posted a comment on John the Methodist’s blog, he visited mine and recommended it (he called it “delightful”—I’m still happy about that). I stayed relatively anonymous until I decided to attend the Methoblogger meetup at Congress on Evangelism in January 2007. I prepared myself by taking a couple of more private items off the blog, e-mailing with several others who would be attending, and finally joining RevGalBlogPals, where I’d been playing the Friday Five already. When I got there and they asked about my blog, I braced myself as I said, “I’m DogBlogger.” The reaction was far more positive than I expected. Jay Voorhees immediately added me to the MethoBlogroll and set me up as a contributor to the site. And, all of us had a wonderful time getting to know each other offline. I discovered the RevGalBlogPals webring through some of the women Methobloggers’ blogs I encountered, and got connected by simply jumping into the mix. There is definitely some real ministry happening there… marriages have broken up, pregnancies have been lost, family members have died, and the community has supported those people at each of their blogs. Once when Cub was having a series of blood tests with uncertain results, another RevGalBlogPal who has only a four-footed child reached out to me, and we corresponded by e-mail quite a bit – she revealed her secret identity and everything. That was ministry to me. Also, many of these women have felt isolated working in church professions, and the network of colleagues who are also friends has been precious to many of them. I’ve done a few small meetups, including a completely accidental one, and I’m planning to attend the Big Event meetup in March. Anne: You pointed me to Nu Faith as one example of a church doing online ministry. What are your thoughts on the role of the internet in developing individuals’ faith and faith communities? Amy: For individuals’ faith, I do think the Internet can have a valuable place, but it shouldn’t be the end goal for one’s spiritual life. I also realize there’s a lot of content out there that falls outside of my theological standards. For example, most people have received what I call “Christian blackmail messages,” in which you’re given some lovely (or all-too-syrupy) statements about God, then threatened with something like, “If you don’t send this to everyone on your address book, then you don’t love Jesus!” I can’t adequately express my level of disdain for that sort of… crap. Yes, I think “crap” is the valid theological term there. My first thought for an online faith community is, “It only works with the right combination of people.” Even in groups that meet in-person, an online component doesn’t always work well, especially when not everyone has the same level of dedication to, or interest in, e-mail communication. I’ve seen some fallout from those differences happen within my own local church. For those who are comfortable establishing or continuing relationships online, though, I think it can be life-changing. I’ve seen that happen, too. Anne: What are your thoughts on how the UMC is engaging in ministry to postmodernism? Amy: Yes, there are some places where it’s fruitful, but I think many churches are doing it out of a sense of fear and their need for denominational self-preservation. Then, there are those who don’t really engage at all, for a variety of excuses. My part of the country is a place where it’s pretty common to church-hop, and I think that complicates the issue. Are we making disciples, or trying to steal ready-made ones? I’m sure I have many more thoughts on this topic, but I’m not articulating them well at the moment. Anne: As a layperson, how would you like to see church happen? What does church mean to you? Do you have a vision for what ministry to postmodern culture might look like? Amy: I would like to see church happen in a way that goes beyond the surface; where the answer to “How are you?” doesn’t automatically have to be, “Fine, and you?” I would like to see church happen differently, more intentionally. If people are showing up on Sundays for the same old thing because that’s how it’s always been, I’d like them to be willing to step outside of that comfort zone. What if more than two or three people in the room actually expected the Holy Spirit to show up? Imagine the possibilities. To me, church means community, relationship, sharing, expression, brokenness, truthfulness, healing, spiritual growth – and it can happen any time, not just on Sundays. I love it when church happens when you’re not trying. Anne: What frustrates you the most about how the UMC is looking at ministry in the future? What gives you the most hope? Amy: I think the thing that frustrates me most may be the same thing that gives me hope, in a terrifying sort of way. It seems as though everybody’s doing a bunch of hand-wringing about the fact that we’re aging, a huge wave of clergy retirements will hit us within the next 10 to 15 years, and we’re shrinking. That frustrates me the most, that we can’t seem to agree on what to do with that information. But what gives me the most hope is that the church will have no choice but to look very different in the next 10 to 15 years. It’s terrifying because I don’t know how that will turn out, but sometimes the only way things will change and grow is when they’re forced to do so. It’s going to be interesting to be wrapped up in this shift. United Methodism is an organism, and organisms have life cycles. The questions I’m waiting to see answered: Are we willing to die to self as a denomination, and if so, what kind of new birth will we have? Anne: If you could shout one thing to the world about the church or ministry or Christ, what would it be? Amy: We’ll be doing a lot more than bickering at General Conference. Unfortunately, the bickering is what makes headlines. Don’t judge all of Christianity by looking at the demonstrators or the secular news stories.


Preliminary Thoughts on Church of Fools and St. Pixels

(see Interview with Jay Voorhees) I'm not surprised the Church of Fools experiment did not continue. It wasn't really constructed such that results could be tracked, and I'm not sure there were any real clear expectations to begin with. This creates a real disincentive for the funding body to keep paying for the bandwidth it took to run it. However, there are some long term benefits and some positive ideas that have come from Church of Fools. As Jay said, anecdotal evidence suggests that a few people found a connection through COF that hopefully motivated them to seek a relationship with a "real world" church. In addition, in reading the comments on the website, even the current 2D single-user interface has provided some meaningful space for connecting with God through prayer. The 3D St. Pixels environment seems clunky and antiquated compared to Second Life, and no wonder: it's 3 years old, which is centuries in Internet years. Text-based worship experiences there seem forced and a bit hard to follow; on occasion there are more comments than one can make sense of, and sometimes they just don't seem to make sense. I did not feel like a part of the community, but rather like a voyeur with many choices as to who I might be peeping at. In other words, it felt like a group of people each having individual experiences rather than a shared experience. These are churches online in the sense that they are intentional spaces where Christian worship may take place, but there does not seem to be meaningful deeper relationships. Everything that happens appears to happen in public space, making the worship service into an interactive performance rather than an encounter with God and others that has the power to transform lives. There is no meaningful missional emphasis, and I am finding it difficult to imagine how one might form truly incarnational relationships without some flesh-and-blood meetings. On the other hand, they made us of the technology of their time to attempt to reach a new field for evangelism. One could wish for some user data to know whether they were attracting those who were already meaningfully connected to church or those who find themselves somehow alienated from brick and mortar churches.


Jay Voorhees and Church of Fools, part 2

Anne: Would you consider being involved with a project like Church of Fools again? What would you change? Jay: Yes, I would consider being a part of a COF like project, and have maintained relationships with the US expressions, although I really don’t have the time to do much. The main problem with COF was an inability of the founders to envision a form of polity that was community driven, one that was more influenced by open-source software than something created by a centralized owner. I think that the leaders were driven more by technological wizardry rather than thinking intentionally about the nature of community, and what type of community they were creating. Communities are things that aren’t created through human efforts, but are things that we put in motion but then have lives of their own. The COF founders didn’t fully recognize and appreciate the power of what they were putting in motion, and have been unable to build upon that to create a sustaining church. Anne: How do you think the UMC in particular and Christians in general can best connect with postmoderns who are not presently connected to a church? Jay: Obviously, as is true for any form of evangelism, one has to be present with folks before one can connect them to a faith community. What I think we offer as a denomination is a theological tradition that is well situated to deal with complexity, holding in tension personal piety and social holiness. Postmoderns usually need to belong before they believe, and our “journey based” theological construct allows us the means of recognizing the unique gifts of all, and of understanding that our relationship with God is not based on a single event (walking down an aisle, saying the sinners prayer, etc.) but instead represents the adoption of a lifestyle over time. Anne: You mention shared leadership as a hallmark of ministry with postmodern/emerging people. What might this look like in a church context, functionally speaking? Alan Hirsch suggests in The Forgotten Ways that leadership in postmodern/emerging ministry will be more lay-driven, with less value placed on seminary training and ordination. What might clergy look like? Jay: Shared leadership is absolutely crucial in ministry with emerging folks. The pastor in the these models is less of the example to be emulated and much more of a co-participant in the journey, albeit with a certain task in helping to create a culture within the congregation. Certainly many of my colleagues in the evangelical end of the spectrum are very negative of seminary education, however I think that is because they experienced a theological education based in indoctrination rather than in formation. I frankly found my seminary education (Candler) to be valuable, but part of that we there was a great deal of thought given to balancing praxis and doctrine. In these kinds of congregation, however, clergy are really environmental engineers, creating spaces by which Christian community and the experience of God can flourish. Anne: So many people posit that the age of the denominational church is coming to an end. Do you share that view in regard to the church at large, or the UMC in particular? Some have suggested that we are “due” for another Great Awakening. Do you anticipate a revival/renewal movement growing out of postmodern/emerging ministry? Jay: Are we at the end of the denomination era? It depends on how denominations respond to the world around us. There is no doubt that denominations in the current American form are children of modernity, focused on institutional development and the systematization of revival along universal norms. Denominations assume that there are universal truths and practices that they hold which can be shared and experienced with little regard for the specifics of cultural settings. The great analogue to modern denominations is the notion of the fast food franchise – an organization that helps to provide uniformity to an experience (be it worship or a Big Mac) in a variety of locations. From that standpoint, denominations are certainly already dead, for “brand loyalty” means nothing these days . . . for postmoderns and moderns alike. There has to be something more than style of branding that provides meaning for this structure if it is to have any success (one reason that Open Hearts, Minds, Doors is generally ineffective is that it is built on old notions of brand identity and loyalty). Yet, I maintain hope for denominations, especially our United Methodist Church, based not in a universal experience or form, but in a shared theological heritage that provides meaning for folks searching for holistic ways to reach God. This absolutely requires an emphasis on content, not style; theology, not form. Part of the reason that I maintain this hope is that I think the church needs structures of accountability, both at the individual and small group level, and at the ecclesiological level. At that latter level, I think this needs to include not only accountability for church leaders (clergy and staff) but also accountability for congregations, holding struggling congregations to certain expectations of their faith practices. Are we due for another Great Awakening? I am always suspect of those who put too much emphasis on “revival,” fearing that we will fall into the trap of the first and second awakenings – the systematization of that revival into something that can be duplicated. I think that the emerging church is indeed bringing about renewal in certain segments of the church, especially to an evangelical world in flux with the fall of the Falwells, Robertsons, and Haggards. But it is one of those things that we won’t really know until hundreds of years later, so we are better off simply trying to be faithful to our calling by God and let the historians worry about those questions. Anne: How do you feel that that the Internet (including blogs, social networking sites, YouTube, Second Life, etc.) and other new forms of communication (text-messaging, for example) can be used to foster community and bring people into relationship with Christ? What dangers do you see in the Church adopting these means? Jay: I am the original technogeek (sometimes called the TechnoPastor) so I am not the best person to ask this question, however I do see value in these tools for facilitating alternative paths for communication. One must always remember that these things are tools in the service of a broader mission (bringing Christ, creating community, etc.) and resist the temptation to jump on the bandwagon simply because something is cool, however the proper use of these tools can indeed enhance ministry. The one mistake I often see made is the desire by Christian folks to create alternative spaces to the ones currently populated on the web. So instead of trying to be present on MySpace, we create a “MyChurch” site as an alternative, only to find that no one shows up. It is kind of like saying we’re going to build our own alternative mall with only Christian stores, and then are surprised when folks keep going to the “real” mall and shopping at Macy’s and Sears. Just as the church has to be present in the broader world, we also have to be present in the on-line world rather than creating our own Christianized ghettos. The danger is what I said above – becoming enamored with the technology and forgetting that technology is only a tool in the service of a broader goal. The church has to think through what it is trying to accomplish and then choose wisely the technological solutions that help them in that purpose. Anne: Who do you see as leaders in postmodern/emerging ministry? Who has most influenced you (positively or negatively), and how? Jay: I’ve been lucky enough to be friends with many of the public faces of the emerging church, folks like Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt of Solomon’s Porch, Dan Kimball of Vintage Faith, Tim Keel of Jacob’s Well (whose new book titled Intuitive Leadership may be one of the best introductions to the who postmodern emergent thing I’ve read), Karen Ward of Church of the Apostles, and the list goes on. These are folks who aren’t mentors but are friends, willing to engage in conversation about the variety of ways that God is calling us to be faithful. I am also especially pumped up by a new generation of United Methodist leaders involved in trying new things – D.G. Hollums in Kentucky, Jim (I can’t remember his last name) at Hot Metal Bridge in Pittsburgh, and others along the way. Anne: What sources do you consider essential for learning about and participating in postmodern/emerging ministry (books, people, websites, places, conferences, etc.)? Jay: ; (Anne suggests maybe this should be; Soularize, most of the books in the emergent lines published by Baker, Zondervan, Josey Bass, and Abingdon; Wikipedia; Malcolm Gladwell’s “Tipping Point” and “Blink”; Friedman’s “The World is Flat”; the Alt Worship movement in Great Britain; open source theory; well, that is a start. Anne: What is your greatest hope for the Church in the future? What is your biggest fear? Jay: Greatest hope? That we might actually follow in the way of Jesus and actually help to usher in God’s kingdom on earth. Greatest fear? That we will continue to be consumed by consumerism until we are totally meaningless. Anne: What have I not yet asked that you wish I had? Go on, you might as well answer it, too. Jay: I’m out of gas, so I hope these are helpful.


Is the plural of Paradox, Paradise?

We have a visitor in the community for a few weeks, who comes into town to visit her mother, who is unable to attend worship with us anymore. She faithfully sits in her mother's church and listens to every sermon and every hymn and lets me know after the service how awful some of the hymns are: songs about blood and gore, Jesus' "precious bleeding side". She also critiques the sermons, which by some twist of fate and lectionary have centered on Luke each time she's been here. She doesn't agree with or believe a lot of what we do, but she's here anyway...something draws her here. That's a part of the essential paradox that is our faith. The Old Testament calls us to fulfill the law; Jesus says the Law is not as important as having a relationship with him. Our culture calls us to put ourselves first, because no one else will care for us like we will; our faith calls us to live for others, and put ourselves last. Many of Jesus' parables and the stories of his encounters during his ministry, and the stories of the early church in Acts, tell us about paradoxes: the disobedient leper who comes back to Jesus rather than go to the Temple is the most faithful, the stone that the builders reject becomes the cornerstone of our faith, we must be born seems like a huge part of my preaching and teaching is centered around unpacking the reality that we can't learn or earn our way into the Kingdom. And when I look back on what I've preached and taught, in the midst of all the paradoxes, I find consistency: God's desire for us, that we might be in relationship with God in Christ through the Spirit, and also with each other. So maybe Paradise is the plural, the sum, of all these paradoxes...the Kingdom of God, in all its paradoxical, eternal, now-and-not-yet, present and eschatological glory. A thought from Mother Theresa, who embodied paradox (much like John Wesley) in living out her faith, even when she didn't feel it:

People are often unreasonable, illogical and self-centered; forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives; be kind anyway. If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies; succeed anyway. People may cheat you; be honest and frank anyway. What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight; build anyway. If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous; be happy anyway. The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow; do good anyway. Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough; give the world the best you've got anyway. You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God; it is never between you and them anyway.

crossposted at Telling Stories and Learning Faith


Some Deeper Thoughts on COF and Jay Voorhees

Thus far, what strikes me most from what Jay has said is the notion of pastors being "environmental engineers, creating spaces by which Christian community and the experience of God can flourish." I, like Jay, found my seminary experience to be formative rather than indoctrinating, and thus a valuable part of my preparation for ministry. Coupled with the belief we share that the UMC's theological heritage may suit us to minister to postmodern/emerging people, as we live in the belief that we are on a journey of dicovering and growing in relationship with God and one another. Our Wesleyan roots give us the freedom to accept that there is tremendous mystery in our relationships with God and God's desire for us, yet we can also have assurance that God's love and presence are real, even as we work out what that means to us on an individual and corporate level. Jay also brings out the very real issue of how we can be present to postmodern/emerging people, as a way to make the prelimiary contacts that lead to relationships. I think the Internet is one valid and potentially effective way to establish a presence, whether is be through splashy websites, blogging, or local contacts through a social networking site like Facebook. I continue to be concerned that we have a way to have good and healthy relationships online, and also to have some means for these relationships to become incarnate (pardon the pun): to take on some flesh-and-blood or brick and mortar context. Jesus taught the value of affirming one another face to face, of healing touch and the ministry of being truly, physically present to one another; I don't think we can be truly successful in ministry if we do not do this, although I am also convinced that online relationships can have real value in helping people grow closer to God and one another. It's a bit of a paradox to hold both ideas in tension, but this is the place I find myself. There is an old illustration that wanders around in email from time to time about a little girl who was afraid to be alone in the dark at night. Her mother and father shone the flashlight under the bed and made sure the closet door was securely closed; they made sure no tree branches would brush up against the house and make scary noices. Finally, they told her that she would not be alone in the dark; Jesus would always be with her. "That's fine," she said, "but won't you stay with me? I like my Jesus with skin on." That's how I think most of us like our Jesus: with skin on, incarnated in the community of believers. That's why I think that virtual relationships are fine, to a point, but should lead to incarnate relationships, where we can meet our Jesus together with his skin-on body. Geez, that sounds vaguely nasty, but you know what I mean. I like my Jesus with skin on.


New Monasticism: Shane Claiborne and the Potter Street Community

This is less an online church than it is a continuing journal of a powerful missional expression of church as the family of God. Shane Claiborne is the face of a movement to new monasticism: a return to simple values lived in intentional Christian community with the goal of being a meaningful incarnational member of the neighborhood in which they are located. The Simple Way is the website dedicated to the Potter Street Community (PSC). In June 2007, a fire in an neighboring abandoned warehouse destroyed the building at 3200 Potter Street where the intentional community was based, as well as damaging or destroying many other homes in the Kensington neighborhood in Philadelphia. In the aftermath of the fire, the PSC has partnered with other groups to continue its work in the community and the small businesses that helped sustain it. PSC members have also created a fund to support their Kensington neighbors as they recover from the fire. The PSC does not engage in overt proclamation, although Shane in particular leads conferences about New Monasticism. It is however, an intentional missional/incarnational community dedicated to forming and growing relationships among people for Christ. While they are not engaged in evangelism as most mainstream Christians might consider it, it cannot be denied that their living within impoverished and challenged communities and working for the benefit of all expresses GodLife values in a way that cannot help but reach people. The Simple Way is in no way an online church, but I do think it demonstrates the values of the PSC in a way that invites, welcomes, and stands with those whom it serves.


Solomon's Porch: online calling to in-person community

The Solomon's Porch website is not so much an online church presence as it is an online church description. That said, it's a pretty good one. Solomon's Porch describes itself as "a holistic, missional, Christian community" and it is located in Minneapolis MN. The website on first glance in only minimally interactive, with mostly informational content provided. At the bottom of the home page is a click thru link to the church's newsletter and discussion groups, which is password protected, one assumes to minimize the influence/impact of "trolls". The content, however, is very well done. Unlike many local church websites (mine included, or should I say, implicated), Solomon's Porch provides a large amount of meaningful and easily accessible information about the nature and shape of their worship services (moving beyond simply posting time and place), how they understand Christian community to be formed in and with and around Christ (rather than simply posting a mission statement), and detailed background information on their mission projects (which often get only lip service on a church website). Participation is encouraged first through navigating the site and taking in the content. The arts are a particular emphasis of Solomon's Porch, and the site contains many links to websites and virtual gatherings for artists who are members of the community. This is a website intended for information, not for overt community formation, but it seems to me to be inviting. I want to know more. And for those of us who read the website and want to know more, there's a handy listing of books about and by members of the Solomon's Porch community. As an example of a postmodern church, the website leaves me with the impression that they are doing pretty well.


Exploring with is another sort of parachurch is our catechesis, perhaps, but not a community in real relational sense. While their website indicates that thinks of itself as such (see the Who We Are page), what it really amounts to is a very general summary of what an ideally accepting church might look like. Visitors can find answers to all sorts of questions about what Christians believe and what the church teaches, and all of their answers are easy for me to accept (as a lifelong United Methodist). There are some big names behind the site (Michael Battle was at Duke when I was there, Phyllis Trickle is one of only a few women cited, Marcus Borg is a part of it as well) and perhaps that's the issue: so many names and so many positions that it all seems very fuzzy and welcoming in a way that I'm not sure is faithful to the way we often struggle with so much of our faith. As far as building community, they don't. Any relationship with this site will be a "public space" relationship, with no real provision made to encourage life-changing encounters with Christ or even with other Christians. There are worship components (prayer and guided meditation) but nothing that points to a relationship apart from the individual and (maybe) God. I think the site is founded on a good idea, but in its desire to be welcoming and inoffensive, I find it bland and uninteresting. Pity. I would not have said that at all about the contributors.


Revolution Church:

Revolution Church has a website with great graphics and slick packaging; if they don't have a marketing firm involved, then they have some very talented people in house. This is not a bad thing; it's much more attractive and inviting than a one page site with free hosting and minimal information or one with clunky or hard to understand links. That said, this is a brick and mortar church with significant web presence, but that presence is aimed at evangelizing people into the brick and mortar locations. One thing that's different about Revolution Church is that is has no permanent sanctuary. They worship in 2 locations, with a 3rd set to launch in September 2008, and have small group meetings (a good variety, from small Life Groups that meet for weekly discussion of the message to the University of Revolutionary Living, "a semester-based system offering classes covering everything from basic theology to practical tools for living as a Christ follower." In addition, there are Ministry Teams which invite participation in a variety of ways, from maintaining the worship space and children's ministry to local and global missions and helping set up and run the patio conversation area (which must be dismantled each week). A variety of special interest groups, from motorcycling to scrapbooking, are also offered. Judging from the website, this is a church that provides a number of points of entry for interested persons, and there seems to be a high degree of comfort in at least public, social and personal space. It's a bit harder to tell about intimate space, but this website does not have the discussion groups and online interaction offered by some others. Insstead, there is an emphasis on engaging, invitational language and lots of photographs to help encourage web visitors to connect with the congregation, facilitated by the multiple services and locations; this is clearly a church that is intentional about helping people make connections with one another and with God.


Mars Hill Church: It's All New

Mars Hill Church has a reputation of being on the cutting edge of new and emergent ministry. Perhaps that's because it's pastor, Rob Bell, has become a well known writer on the subject with the guts to engage the faith with any question (the site advertises a "Porn and Pancakes" breakfast November 10). But it's website, while very well done, doesn't allow for a lot of interaction. It's odd; the site does everything right except allow for online participation. There's a stories section with testimonies and narratives about missions, and an invitation to tell about our own stories (although I get the sense that it should have something somewhere to do with Mars Hill). The buttons all have nice intuitive names: who we are, what we believe. There's a ton of information here, great links to get or offer help, downloads about the church's theology and doctrine, but it doesn't draw me in. This is a site aimed at people who are already interested in church, and perhaps already interested in this church. I almost get the sense that people find the site, like I did, because of Rob Bell's writing and not the church's intrinsic merit, which is a shame. From what I see, there's a lot of room to connect and engage with this congregation. It's that first step that's sort of a doozy.


Liquid Church: I like it, I like it.

Liquid Church may be the best incarnation of online church I've run across. It's based on a blog platform, is easy to navigate, provides easily accessible and useful information for nearly any question one could ask. Because it's a blog format, items are listed sequentially with the newest item first. There are several widgets that help navigate according to content...tables of contents, basically. Sermons are posted online are are immediately visible on the entry page. The podcast streams with one click (no other download required) and is good quality. In the sermon I watched, the speaker referenced survey information gleaned from worshippers in the three services the previous Sunday and it's easy to engage, and it does both ways. The three weekly worship services are all held on Sunday at a NJ hotel. Parking is readily available and they are quick to point out that it is also free...the church will validate parking stubs. It couldn't be much easier to that. Liquid Church seems to have a focus on relationships and finding meaning in life with Christ. The web interface deals with real life issues, and I think their tagline in the header says it all: come as you are...leave different. I think you could engage with this church easily online and also transition easily into worship attendance in person at this church or at another. The relational focus carries over into their missions efforts: mostly community oriented, with real needs: free water at a gay pride event, deeply discounted gas and free car washes, a free market giving away ice cream, food, and other items to members of the community in need. They are Baptist and consider themselves evangelical...but also had this to say when questioned about their participation in the gay pride festival (Bobbie, a lesbian, had the booth next to Liquid Church's booth):
An amazing moment came in the late afternoon when Bobbie pulled me aside and whispered, “Tim, somebody just told me you were Baptist. Is that true?” She whispered Baptist as if it were a dirty word (which is too often is!) I said, “Actually, Bobbie, yes our church is Baptist.” A forelorn look creased her forehead and she asked nervously, “Just tell me one thing: Are you here to tell us that if we don’t change we’re going to hell?” “No, not at all. I replied. In fact, we’re here because God is changing US--- as Christians, many of us have been pretty judgmental and condemning and even hostile at times to the gay community, and Jesus is changing our hearts. We’ve got a long way to go in making amends, and so we just thought we’d serve today to try and humbly reconcile...” My words were cut-off as I was wrapped up in the arms of this middle-aged lesbian as she cried “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” with tears in her eyes. “Finally, a group of religious people who are treating us like real Christians are supposed to.” I doubt any of us would be foolish enough to deem ourselves "real Christians" (whatever that means)... all the same, it was one of the most encouraging words we've ever received from folks.


Not Much to eChurch Online

This one was a big disappointment...perhaps I should have known by the name. This is not a church in any real sense. Instead it is a poorly constructed mashup of free widgets: bible study, devotion, games, etc. all appear to be generated elsewhere and just all jumbled together on this site. Its layout is not coherent and it served no real useful function that I can determine. There appears to be a forum for gamers; apart from lists of links, this is the only interactive content, but I did not find the rest of the site interested enough to want to register.


Infinite Church Online: is it going anywhere? believes it's got the online church model figured out. It sets itself up as not just a web page, but a friend, with a fully interactive worship environment, and an emphasis on discipleship, missions, and relationship building. It's leadership, according to the "Catch the Vision" movie, is lay driven and promises more than just a website or a chat room. The motto is "making real connections in a virtual world." What it really is is a variation on Church of Fools or St. Pixels: a fairly clunky graphical interface in which one can move an avatar around and chat with people. Two immediate downsides, as far as I'm concerned: 1: You have to download and install their 26 MB graphical environment, which is no where near as smooth or as easy to navigate as Second Life. And the name? New Christian Chat. (not a chat room, huh?) 2: The guest avatar is a smiley face. Come on, how cheesy can you get? The website itself has a sort of cursory interface. I think the movie is the best part of the whole thing, and certainly worth a look, as it upholds the ideals of online church connections. The site proper is just a couple of pages, with basic information designed to get you to download their proprietary chat software. While they do have a "real time" worship service once a week, there are no archived services readily available for download. One wonders, too, how they handle the "troll" issue that was a problem for COF. It's really too much work to interact or participate with, and there's nothing in the "public spaces" to tell you how they mean to be missional, relational, or incarnational, although these values are expressed in the vision movie. They do, however, offer online baptism, if you can navigate and relate to it well enough to want to take that step; they acknowledge that having done so online, you may also wish to do so in real time. The New Christian Chat graphical environment is pixielated and small (a small window in the center of my screen). The movement controls are not intuitive, and there's no real instruction given (unless you stumble upon it) as to how to navigate the church environment. Apart from a voice that says, "welcome, new guest" there was no overt "help" or reaching out; I was on my own from there and quickly lost patience. Besides, who wants to download such a big file while they're in a coffee shop? What if they are using a public computer, such as one in a library? All in all, just doesn't life up to its own press. Shame, really. I'd like to see someone make a go of it.


There's a mission field for you

Reuter's reports that 80% of US adults use the Internet. Read the article here.


Church on the Net

Church on the Net's "signature" graphic is a little unusual. From the website:
Why the apple core? Adam and Eve ate the fruit of knowledge, thinking it would tell them everything they wanted to know and make their life complete. In fact, it broke their reliance on God. So, now that we've enjoyed the apple, why are we still looking for answers? What will fill that hole inside us?
Church of the Net, a ministry of Holy Trinity Ripon, which is parish of the Church of England, is an online community aimed at helping those with no church background find clarity about God and the church. Among it's useful features are very spare webdesign without a lot of graphics, so that it loads very quickly. There is also a glossary in the left column to explain a variety of terms from God, Jesus and Holy Spirit to Christian Ethics, Angels, The Bible, and Sexuality. The language is very plain and uncomplicated, all the better to help those who haven't grown up in the church, and don't come "pre-loaded" with the vocabulary. What it is not is a worshiping body: there is a weekly article posted, but not an online service. Church on the Net doesn't mean to be the only church connection for people; instead their goal is to help people become better informed and more comfortable with joining a worshiping body elsewhere. There are three blogs, one on faith and current events, one offering "a wry look at some of the weirder things Christians get up to", and a third on science and faith. There are also forums for discussion on the weekly articles, other articles on the site, and other site feedback. Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be a lot happening on the site; both blog and forum posts are weeks or months old. The articles, however, are up to date and include a "Go Deeper" section which offers suggestions for prayer and reflection, as well as links to video clips and suggested reading (conveniently available from Amazon). I like this one a great deal. While it provides a very comfortable public space, there are options to move into social space, and potentially personal space as traffic increases on the blogs and forums. However, Church on the Net has no intention of replacing brick and mortar church; while they are intentional about building an online community, they focus on low-demand, easy to accept relational language and efforts, trusting that as they are able to "interpret" the church to their visitors, they will connect with a brick and mortar church for relationship. The site is an expression of the incarnational and missional focus of the church, and so there is no real emphasis on reaching out to others; the visitor is the other here. This is a model I'd like to see succeed, and think parts of it could be duplicated well.


Full frontal church:

In contrast to some of my other reviews, I'm going to state my opinion of this on right up front. I don't like it. I don't even think I really have a good reason. I just don't. I do not believe that online-only church can really offer the fullness of relationships and incarnational connection that happen when we occupy the same space as one body. I'm not suggesting that it has to be exactly a brick and mortar church, but that there are some experiences of church, worship and otherwise, that I believe can only really offer meaning and relationship and yes, incarnation, in the physical presence of other people sharing in and participating in the same experience. Now, that said, I've shown my prejudices. And doesn't really live down to them. I mean it; it's not as bad (I think) as I feel about it. LifeChurch bills itself as "one church, multiple campuses". Live worship experiences are offered online (you can even get yourself e-vited) weekly, and the same worship service is broadcast by satellite to the 12 campuses nationwide (and on Second Life) that make up its congregation. The site is easy to navigate, with comprehensive "frequently asked questions" and and links to basic information. All that sounds pretty good, right? But: there's no real interaction. Yes, I can receive the "What's Next Kit?", a bible, t-shirt, cd and dvd. I can click through a contact link and even find an area to volunteer. But the language seems a bit exclusive to me: unlike Church on the Net's intentional use of non-church language, terms like worship, salvation, mission are given without reference. In addition, it's hard to see how twelve separate bodies are going to feel connected to one another via satellite broadcast, nor how any individual congregation will feel like much more than a spectator. They do offer the whole package: children's and youth programs, LifeGroups (local small groups) and global missions from the brick and mortar campuses. But I just don't feel it. It's not a web church; it's a slick invitation to a pre-packaged worship service. The web version leaves a lot of room for visitors to observe at a remove, and never engage. Even the physical campuses seem to lend more towards watching and less toward participating. The MRI variables all seem to be there, and one would think this would be a technological solution that works for me. Instead I find it canned and sterile, uninviting.


Nu Faith Community: Online and in person

Nu Faith Community UMC is a new church plant in northwest Houston, TX, that's starting up in a new way. The church "launched" online well in advance of the "brick and mortar" launch in April 2008. The stated goal is to reach out to those who are not connected to church, to foster diversity in the church, and share the love and relationship with Jesus Christ. The founding pastor and "Launch Team" have created a website that seeks to answer preliminary questions about Nu Faith Community as well as the Christian faith, offered opportunities to become a part of the community through online, telephone (Talkcast) call, or on location Bible study. The pastor is also available via sermon downloads or email contact, and she includes a phone number on the site. She engages with the Houston area with local radio broadcasts, preaching engagements at other UM churches, and joint studies with other churches, in addition to the website. Interaction is available via participation in the Bible studies at any level, a variety on online forms to enable people to make contact with the pastor or to volunteer to take part in missions, in the launch in April, or to assist in other ways. Meetings and information sessions are held in the pastor's home on a regular basis. Multiple efforts are made on the site to make engagement easy. This site is targeted to a particular geographic location, and it does not offer weekly worship. What it does offer are multiple spaces to engage in, from public all the way to intimite, if one chooses to do so. It also emphasizes connection to a brick and mortar church (albeit one that does not yet exist) and does so in a relational, missional, and incarnational way. One criticism I have, however, is that the website's terminology locates it within the "Christian bubble" and may not be as accessible or inviting to those who are not familiar or have a negative opinion of church. By the way, the pastor, Rev. Jacqui King, was originally part of our DMin cohort. When she was appointed to Nu Faith, she deferred for a year.


Rev. Jacqui King and Nu Faith Community

Rev. Jacqui King is the Church Planter for Nu Faith Community UMC in northwest Houston, Texas, a new church launch that is starting with a web presence in advance on it's on-the-ground launch in April 2008. Anne: How do you describe Nu Faith to people you meet? Jacqui: I share with people that Nu Faith is a unique faith experience where they can meet God in an on-line environment. I usually ask them about what they search for on-line. This leads to a conversation about what to expect on-line such as Reflections, Study @ and Meet Us @ options. Anne: How are you working to make face-to-face contact with people in advance of the launch? Jacqui: Meet Us @ and Study @ are the two primary face-to-face contacts where fellowship through service, prayer, worship and study occur. Also, launch team meetings, retreats, and Serve @ add extra connection for persons who feel called to build a new community. Other events that will occur prior to Launch Sunday will be preview services and outreach community projects involving Plummer Middle School. Anne: Please tell me a little about the web ministry: what areas do you feel are most effective? What’s your favorite part of the website/interactive web ministry? What do you like the least? Jacqui: The web ministry was launched as virtual church. I enjoy sharing the good news of Jesus Christ in a technological forum where people from all over the world or around the corner can encounter God @ Anytime. My favorite part of the web is the Study @ options because my husband and I have connected our families from various cities together to study God’s word together. I enjoy the broad flexibility that the reflections and study offers persons working non-traditional hours. They can experience worship, study, and prayer like never before. Right now I do not have a thing that I rank least favorite. The virtual church is part of our DNA that will continue to grow beyond Launch Sunday on April 6, 2008. Anne: We’ve been reading Joe Myers’ The Search to Belong and Organic Community. In them, he talks about 4 kinds of relationship space we can occupy: public, social, personal, and intimate. If you are familiar with his terminology, can you tell me a bit about how is helping people find their way into the spaces? If not, can you tell me about how people are entering into relationships with God and one another as the Nu Faith community comes together? Jacqui: I have read just a few chapters of the book and I believe that Nu Faith offers public space through the study options of Study@ The Line and Study @ Anytime. This is a space where people can connect loosely without a great deal of self-disclosure. For instance, a person can text me on-line a question and I will share it with the group without disclosing their name. Also, the site can be accessed without registering email or password. Worship gathering would constitute public space. The social relationships evolve in the launch team meetings, service projects and Meet Us @. These spaces include relational building moments coupled with fun. Personal and intimate include sessions with family, prayer and retreats. I believe the community is growing and formulating. The Study @ The House is a small group that is both personal and intimate space. Eventually, small groups and service teams will represent social, personal and intimate space for a faith community which operates in both virtual and brick / mortar spaces. Anne: How do you tie together online church experience with “real world” connections where people can be in some kind of physical contact? Jacqui: Study @ The House and Meet Us @ serve as connecting spaces for “real world” fellowship. In situations where people live in other cities beyond Houston, I will respond to those requests via internet by encouraging positive hand-off to churches in their areas. Anne: What do you feel are the keys to success for Nu Faith’s success as a web ministry, followed by a new church launch? Jacqui: I can look at web stats and gauge some success. The reach data coupled with on-line giving is an indicator of connection. I am praying about what success means. However, success is defined the virtual church allows people to meet God in a new way in the places where they live on a daily basis. Accessibility is important; relevancy is crucial; being real is real important; being responsive is important. The success is making disciples for Jesus Christ. Right now people who drive trucks, work late hours, have crazy commute times and small children have a new way to grow spiritually because Nu Faith is alive. God’s grace is sufficient and can meet us right where we are…searching, seeking and wanting answers. When the church launches, the virtual church will grow to reach more; teens will help develop myspace and facebook pages; college students will expand their social networks; families will connect with forums and prayer groups for specific needs. Success is the love of Jesus Christ being shared all around the world over and over so that all will be saved! Virtual Church wants to be a part of the Great Commission in a new way! Anne: Can you briefly describe the model for planting/growing Nu Faith? What will the role of the website be after the April launch? Jacqui: Nu Faith is a parachute drop. I am using a hybrid model that I will share in the writings at Drew in Fall 2008. The website will be integral in the church following Launch Sunday. Anne: How do you see incarnational ministry happening online? Jacqui: I have not explored this ministry area at this time. Anne: How do missions work during this phase of Nu Faith’s development? How will the website be used after the physical launch of Nu Faith Community? Jacqui: Missions primarily are part of community outreach and managed through Serve @ projects. We are a faith partner to Plummer Middle School, where we have various projects for December ’07. Mission trips will be arranged through partnerships with area churches. The website will continue to grow. Anne: Are there other church websites or online ministries that inspired Can you suggest any others that you think are particularly good (or not)? Jacqui:


Getting Connected: Some Thoughts on Online Church Presence

I wish I'd thought of this sooner; I'd be asking other people what it is they would look for in an online church presence. I've read a white paper on Church eMinistry Basics from the Web Ministry Planning Guide, and have looked over some other resources, and here are my thoughts on what I think people look for in church websites (both online churches, and websites for brick and mortar churches). I'm going to organize it by Myers' four spaces, or levels of engagement. Public Space: This is the arena for conveying information that will enable people to make public space connections to the church. This includes calendar information about programs and worship schedules, sermon downloads and podcasts, and even online giving. Websites that provide theological/doctrinal information, including FAQs (frequently asked questions) fall into this category. Many church websites provide for this level of engagement; a simple "contact us" link or even phone and address information on the website can meet the needs of those who want to be related in this space to a church. For an online church, the means of contact can go a little deeper, as there's not always a brick and mortar church to connect to. There might be a space for threaded discussion of topics or issues of interest, an online Bible study outline, or a photo gallery of church events. Websites with a minimal level of interactive content fall into the public space arena; they provide information about themselves but there is a definite distance between church and website visitor. Individuals will feel connected to the church site as a place they visit with some regularity, for example, to read or hear sermons or be connected with other content, such as music or devotional readings. Social Space: In social space, connections are formed that reveal people's "snapshots" to one another. These websites provide a higher level of interaction with online prayer requests, opportunities to give online, discussion groups, chats and blogs. This is also an area where people can be drawn together for a common mission project, or invited in to worship and relationship in the brick and mortar church. In terms of conversations about doctrine and theology, social level connections would include "Ask the Pastor" sections, or giving intentional and comprehensive contact information for developing deeper relationships with the church. Instead of a simple "contact us" link, one might see a detailed profile of a staff member of volunteer, with contact information at multiple levels: physical address, email, blog address, link to social networking site (MySpace or Facebook, for example), Instant Messaging identity, etc. For someone to be connected to a church website on a social level, there has to be meaningul interaction. One would expect to see a great deal of well-organized and presented material, both video and written, a large number of photographs, and many opportunities for participation in giving, missions, Bible study, prayer, and direct contact with staff members. (to be continued)


Getting Connected: Some Thoughts on Online Church Presence, Part Two

To recap, we're looking at Myers' 4 spaces in a sort of preliminary way to see how online churches might help people make connections and form relationships. Personal Space: This is where I really want to see some fact to face contact. In personal space, we begin to share more deeply than the "what you see is what you get" public level, or the "personality snapshot" of social spaces. For me to do that with a high level of comfort, I like to be able to see the person I'm sharing with, although I have developed a fair degree of comfort with some of my fellow RevGalBlogPal bloggers. One interesting aspect of these digital relationships is that we have tremendous control over what we share, and so I've shared many personal thoughts with people I may never see, and yet we've begun to count ourselves as friends. I'm still reconciling my feelings about having friends whose voices I've never heard. On a website, here is where I'd expect to see some kind of small group offering (voluntary, of course): moderated chats, threaded discussions, and invitations to particular activities. I would think some online support groups could be very helpful at this level; in the brick and mortar church I serve, we've had requests recently for groups for cancer patients, adult children caring for elderly parents, Parkinson's sufferers and families, parenting, etc. Personal space is a place for people to have these kinds of relationships. Another way an online ministry might help relationships happen and move into personal space is to allow some activities to come together online and take place in real time, such as an outing for caregivers with respite care provided for their patients/loved ones, retreat time, interest groups such as knitting or sports fans, and Bible study groups to meet in local coffee shops. Intimate space: Intimate space, in Myers' parlance, is the space with share with very few other people, in which we can be (physically or spiritually) naked and not ashamed. There is a conundrum here. Many people would profess to have intimate relationships with online partners whom they have never met in "real life." This is an area of great concern for me, as it is so easy to present an incomplete or false image of oneself. The rise of Internet predators and scam artists also makes this level of relationship a risky one to have online. Here again is an area in which I would be most comfortable knowing that there was some "real time" contact, and some type of brick and mortar or at least staff presence to ensure people's safety in this very vulnerable space for relationships.


What is church?

So now it's time to offer a summation of sorts; I've certainly made my opinions known throughout. But here are some personal reflections on what I think about church in general, and online church expressions in particular: As I've worked through this project, I have come to one conclusion: church is more than worship on a screen, or Bible study at any level of participation, or shared prayer concerns. It's more than a place to give charitably or meet people with similar interests, or join a mission team to some faraway clime. Church to me is the incarnated Body of Christ, and I simply can't separate that image from the need for live and in person community, people participating together in worship, in mission, in study, in life together and out in the world...people you can reach out and touch, if you need to. In my second post on the Church of Faith and the Jay Voorhees interviews, i referred to a story about Jesus with skin on. That's what I need for church to be truly church: Jesus with skin on, in the person of people who I live in community with, in the neighborhood, in the same city, going to the same grocery store, with kids in the same schools, and worship, study, play, and work with in mission to one another and the world. I have seen online churches with a missional emphasis. Church on the Net does an excellent job at interpreting Christian concepts and church language for those who do not have a church background, or seek a way to interact with church in a way that places minimal demand on the individual, but invited interested persons into deeper relationship with the church and Christians. Their mission is to be reach out to such people. Other online churches have mission emphases and high missional sensibilities toward others, but most of them seem to be "other" directed. It's hard to be relational online; there is a distance inherent in packaging one's church interface for a mass audience on the scale of the internet. It's easy to say you are open and welcoming to everyone, but much harder to actually pull it off. Liquid Church stands out to me as demonstrating their high value on relationships in the ease with which their website (actually a blog on typepad) is navigated. I was also particularly impressed with their presence in the community. The account of the church's generosity and accepting spirit at the gay pride event demonstrates the relational character of this church, and it comes off in their websites. As I said above, some kind of physical presence is inherent in the notion of incarnational ministry to me. The best of the websites I've reviewed have sought to draw people into relationship with a brick and mortar church, with real people, live and in person. This is the ideal for me. I am not satisfied with the level of interaction with the virtual environments of St. Pixels and Infinite Church. I've described it as clunky, and it is: cartoonish avatars, text-driven interface (sound takes too much bandwidth to really work), slow movement in a poorly animated environment. I was not able to feel connected in any meaningful way. Also, these are primarily worship environments; it's hard to image what kind of real, personal, relational missional relationships can develop in that kind of space. Some of the elements I miss: the very sensory engagement of the sacraments of baptism and communion, and the sacramental moment that is the greeting time. I miss in person prayer; it's powerful actually hearing someone's prayer for you. I'd miss joint participation in the music; live worship music brings something special for me. And in any online church setting, I would miss the "editability" over a cup of coffee that I share now. Digital coffee just doesn't cut it. Nope, guess I just like my church like I like Jesus: with skin on. At the heart of things, I need people. As Len Sweet pointed out in an online discussion several weeks ago, online relationships increase peoples' desire for in person relationships. I hope that's true.

About Me

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I am a United Methodist (UM) pastor, married to a UM pastor, which makes life entertaining from time to time. I am a newly minted D. Min--yes, that's Rev. Dr. Anne, to you. I am a learner and teller of stories, looking at how we share faith and relationships. Any views I express here are not necessarily United Methodist views: they are mine.