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).


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.

No comments:

About Me

My photo
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.