210829 – Church Online – Nexus

Yr B ~ Pentecost 14 ~ James 1:17-27 (MSG)

A few years ago a picture got a lot of attention. It’s an image of a group of teenagers at an art museum, sitting in the presence of a masterwork by Rembrandt, all staring at their phones instead of gazing admiringly at the art. On the internet people piled on in derision, castigating ‘kids today’ as self-absorbed, and so addicted to their technology that they were missing out on what’s real and beautiful. One of the main captions that went with the image was, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

Well, it turned out what was wrong with that picture was most people’s interpretation of it! The truth is, those students were using an app for their phone – provided by the gallery – which gave more information, and background, and an enhanced, interactive experience of the art. They weren’t missing out on anything. In fact, they were getting more out of it because of their hand-held technology. The common assumption was that looking at their phone meant they were disconnecting from reality – the reality is that that’s their method of interacting with the world. And it ain’t just kids!

I’m a middle-aged guy, and I am interacting with my phone very, very frequently. I use it for all sorts of things – curiously, rarely as a phone! Obviously, it’s where things like my email comes into. But I also use it for checking the weather, checking sports scores, tracking down information (Google, wiki), researching products before purchasing online. Nowadays you can purchase everything you need online with your phone – right down to groceries.

I haven’t had a newspaper delivered to my house in years, but I read the news every day – from several sources, all online. I entertain myself with puzzles, and crosswords, and YouTube, and looking up guitar gear. And yes, I partake in some social media like Twitter, and Instagram, and I have a Snapchat account, and I’ve even watched some Tik-Toks. And of course there’s the ubiquitous Facebook.

I also pray with my phone. I have 3 different daily devotionals that come to my email, I have a couple of prayer apps including ‘pray-as-you-go’ which we include a link to in every Noticings. (You can read Noticings on your phone too!) And I don’t just carry one bible with me, I have access to 20 different translations, all in a handy bible app. I use social media for both my work and my personal life. Apps like Facebook keep me connected to friends near and far, and Facebook groups are a key source of collegiality for me and my minister friends.

Simply put, this phone is indispensable for me. I could not do my job and be effective as a minister today, without being connected via technology – and I’m a middle-aged guy! How much more completely intertwined with their devices must younger folks be!

Here are some statistics.
Of the 7 billion people in the world, 2.5 billion are on social media channels. That is 35% of the world’s population. In 2005 only 5% of North Americans had a social media account – by 2011 that ballooned to 50% – now it’s well over 75%. An average person spends close to 2 hours a day on social media. Think about that – if you’re not spending very much, if any, then others are spending way more than 2 hours!

There are people on Instagram, and YouTube, and Tik-Tok who have channels with thousands and millions of followers. They put out short video content that is easily consumed and easily shared. Do you know what these folks are called? Influencers! We put out long-form video content every Sunday morning, and I invite you to share the link with your friends, but we don’t exactly have a million followers. I guess I’m not that big of an influencer, and neither is ‘the church’.
Maybe the problem isn’t what we’re saying, or doing, or believing, but how we’re communicating!

The scripture reading from James 1 today challenges us as the church to stay on course – to remember and celebrate the light and love we know through our faith in God and our following of Jesus’ Way – and to share it. Where? In the wider world – in the community. Ok, where’s that?

And here is where we get our first paradigm shift of the day.
We know that we should take God’s love into the town square. Well, social media is the new town square – and the town is worldwide! The church has always been called to go to where the people are, and integrate ministry into their routine. (Pointing to phone) This is where the people are. Are we there?

Lately I’ve been rethinking one of my go-to ministry concepts. I’ve always believed that it’s easy for a church to figure out its ministry. All you have to do is walk outside the front door of your church and look up and down the street. That’s your ministry! And to a certain extent that’s true. But it’s also really limited. It’s stuck in an ‘old’ paradigm that equates a church with a physical neighbourhood. The idea of church ‘turf’ is way past its best before date. This morning our ‘turf’ probably stretches from here to Alberta, and Saskatchewan, and to Newfoundland, and maybe south to Mexico, and certainly to Toronto and other untold exotic places. This doesn’t mean we should ignore our neighbourhood ministry and focus – it just means that we can’t stop there. We need to think differently, wider, bigger, farther.

James 1 says we are to be “doers of the word and not just hearers.” It says that true religion is living and embodying Jesus’ principles of love, love, love – otherwise it’s just “hot air” – a religion that only serves itself – a church that’s merely a comfy insiders club. So, how do we embody and become “doers of the word” in today’s town square? How do we help people explore their spiritual questions, encounter this way of love, love, love that we are centred on, and grow in their faith through social technology?

Our ministry isn’t just our neighbourhood – it’s our relationship with all the people we’re in community with – and these days our community stretches far and wide.
That leads into a second paradigm shift.
I think we need to re-examine what we mean by ‘here’ and ‘together’. When we say ‘here’ and ‘together’ we normally mean the physical building. The language is all through our liturgy and our hymnody. Gathering together is a foundational concept for Christian community. Our first hymn today began We are one as we come, as we come, joyful to be here… and it spoke of us being together in this place.

Well, to state the obvious, you aren’t here. And we aren’t together. Physically.
But a great gift of this pandemic chaos is that it has forced us to reimagine what ‘here’ and ‘together’ mean. We’ve expanded our definitions, because we had to. Re-imagined ‘here’ means the holy ground we share when we gather – wherever and whenever we are. Some of you are gathered together in real time on Sunday morning. AND some of you have tuned in at some other time during the week. Can we be here and together even if it’s on different days? I think we can!

When we began pandemic time there was deep angst about communion in our denomination.
Could we do communion online?
What would it be like to prepare our own version of bread and wine at home?
Does the blessing of the elements ‘count’ if the elements aren’t on the same table?
Can a common cup be a metaphor and not a physical thing?
And the biggest kerfuffle was about whether we could do communion asynchronously – as in someone celebrating communion with the recording of a worship service and not in real time.
Well, YES!!! Yes, we can. What we learned, much to our embarrassment, is that the Holy Spirit of God isn’t actually controlled by my words and actions, and certainly isn’t limited by my perception of time or space. Looking back, it feels foolish to me that we had so much angst about it. I’m thrilled that we’ve expanded our theological thinking in these ways. ‘Here’ and ‘together’ mean so much more than before.

As I was pondering what I’d say about all this a fancy word popped into my head – nexus.
A nexus is a means of connection between members of a group, or things in a series.
It’s a link; a bond.

What is our nexus?
Is it the physical church building? Partly. The building is important, because it gives us something familiar and tangible to gather in, a geographical hub and rallying point for our ministry. And on a very basic level it’s where we know we can come to and be seen, and known, and loved, and interact, and worship, and grow in faith. Now, what if your life experience never connected you to a physical church building? Or worse, through media and reputation and whatnot your sense of a physical church building was negative?

For some of us our nexus really is this building, but bigger, and deeper, and truer than that is that our nexus is Jesus Christ.
Our nexus is the Holy Spirit.
Our nexus – the connection that links us and binds us – is God’s Love.
And surely we would all agree that God, Christ, and Spirit cannot be limited to or contained in the bricks and mortar of a church. However, God, Christ, and Spirit certainly are contained within ‘the church’ – as long as by church we mean us! And with that expansive paradigm of church we get to rethink what it means to gather, and be seen, and known, and loved, and interact, and worship, and grow in faith.

Did you know that the number one reason for using social media is to connect with people?! Think about that. The reason people are spending so much time on their phones is because they’re seeking connection – community – sharing the journey of life with one another. Doesn’t that sound like church to you?

Most churches, Faith United included, tend to use social media as ‘promotional’ – advertising things like worship, and events, and fund-raisers, and bible studies.
What would it mean to change that paradigm and use social media as ‘relational’ instead of just ‘promotional’?

Actually, in some ways we do this already? Sending shalom to people on Sunday morning, for one! And our church Facebook group offers an online connective space where people interact and support one another. Stacey, our office admin and Children, Youth, and Family leader does all kinds of relational/connective social media work.
How else? What other possibilities await?

Historically, churches have scoffed at online community as not being ‘real’ community because they aren’t together IRL (in real life). But now we know that the vast majority of people are online and connected, and we know that they’re looking for community, and we know that the social aspect of church is so vital – so this ought to be one of our hottest theological and ecclesiological questions today:
How do we build authentic Christian community online?

Thankfully, we’re not the first congregation to ever ask this question! Let me introduce you to my friend and colleague Bri-Anne Swann’s community of faith called Resistance Church. Resistance Church is a United Church ministry that started precisely as an online church presence that moved beyond social media as simply advertising, into social media as ministry — relational, authentic, meaningful, spirit-filled connection.

Bri-Anne tells me “we are a small group of people from across North America and the world. We are at the point where folks have become invested in one another’s wellbeing. If somebody doesn’t show up for a while, others will reach out and make sure they are okay.”
They have monthly online worship times, an ongoing Facebook group for connecting, nightly prayer times on Instagram, and so much more. But, it doesn’t look anything like this church, in that there’s no building – just a ministry – and a community of people sharing a nexus of God, and Christ, and Spirit.

Now, some of you may be sitting there pondering all this, thinking that it’s all well and good, and maybe even inspiring, but you’re not a big online person and social media and online community is as alien to you as church is to some folks online. Fair enough.
But God, and Christ, and Spirit are not alien to you! Growing authentic Christian community, and mutually supporting people growing in faithful discipleship of Jesus are what we, as church, are all about – whatever shape that may take.
This isn’t either/or – it’s both and!

I bet you have kids, grandkids, friends, colleagues, and family members who live immersed in online connection – and I bet your heart longs for ways to share God’s love with them so that they can know the love, and joy, and meaning, and abundant life you know.
Learning a bit about their world may help, like we’ve done today – and continuing to pray for our shared ministry, and supporting our church as we seek to serve the world in love, well, that’s definitely right up your alley!

May the nexus of God’s love, Jesus’ way, and the Holy Spirit’s power flow through us all as we live and move as the church today.
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