January 2024 | a personal blog by Elliot Crippen – Digital Enabler for Yorkshire North & East Methodist District
Last January I wrote an article on why digital was important for the church in 2023 as an encouragement to engage in the online space. I also outlined my vision for how traditional church (existing Methodist churches and circuits) might best engage online going forward.
This year I wanted to follow this up with an article sharing how my thinking has progressed but also offering a different focus. This article isn’t an encouragement to the everyday church, but an outline for how I see the next generation reimagining church in the online space. It’s not a practical blueprint that most churches will be able to follow, but articulates a direction of travel for those who are pioneering fresh expressions of church in the digital space.
This is a question I’ve been pondering upon since the pandemic as many search for answers about where we journey next. It’s an area I frequently explore with colleagues as part of my role advising churches on how best to engage online. Increasingly so as my role shifts from offering basic digital training to helping shape new online Christian communities. There’s also a wider conversation around the theological implications of predominantly online Methodist Churches (link to report). I’ll explain below why the terminology of the question is not the most helpful in explaining my vision, but it seemed the most natural way to express it understandably. It’s not about the future of church ministry online (as an extension of our church buildings), but imagining the possibilities for the future of fully online church (new online Christian community).
“If you’re leaving the digital world just to focus on your Sunday – were you ever doing church from the beginning?”
Lindsey Murphy, an Online Pastor talking on Pocket Pulpit Podcast
“The digital church can reach a person that the physical church can’t. It doesn’t mean that we should compete with one another.”
Mark Lutz, who runs an online church for gamers, talking on Breaking the Fifth Wall Podcast
Well, I just mean church. The “online” is redundant. We live in a digital age where there is no distinction between online life and “real life”. For younger generations the world is hybrid in a seamlessly integrated way – it is all part of a single experience. Just as “online worship” is just worship. “Online church” is just church. It is different to what we do in the building, but no less real. It’s also important to highlight that whilst I’ve used the term “fully online”, in reality, what I’m talking about is a hybrid experience of church (that goes beyond live streaming services and meetings). I’ll expand on this below, but I’m not suggesting that future generations will become members of fully online churches, but that they will engage with a range of online and offline elements (grace spaces) that for them will be a singular experience.
So the logical next question when discussing this topic is what do I mean by “church”?
You’ll have gathered that I’ve been using the terms “online church” and “online Christian community” interchangeably. For many the distinction comes down to questions of Holy Communion, Baptism, Membership and other traditions and rules. To some extent, the distinction is a theological one. But ultimately I don’t find it a particularly helpful question to dwell on because, as already described, I don’t think the future revolves around everything being fully online; equally I’m coming at it from a different perspective. Whilst it can be easy to view this article as my thoughts on how we might plant an online church, what I’m proposing is how we reimagine an online Methodism. I suspect that the above theological questions may be crucial building blocks if you were to try and plant an online Catholic or Church of England church. But what is the distinctive nature of Methodism? (read Leslie Newton’s book here) Just as John Wesley wasn’t intending to create a new church denomination, I am not suggesting we plant new online Methodist churches. And just as John Wesley didn’t want to break away from the Church of England, I also see my vision sitting alongside the existing church.
What I’m proposing is not an online church with answers to Holy Communion and Baptism in cyberspace. What I’m proposing is a hybrid Methodism, which at its heart is about gathering a movement of people to receive and share (online) transformation in a modern age.
“It’s so hard to admit, but I see us applying sticking plasters in many areas of our church life to ‘keep things going’. That’d be fine if they were only needed temporarily. But actually they’re just masking a huge paradigm shift: the old is fading and the new is emerging – fast”
Leslie Newton, 2022
I hope to break this down in an easy-to-understand way, but it’s not a single solution that’s easy to express. What I’m proposing is a multifaceted network of projects (grace spaces) that offer many parts of the jigsaw along the journey of faith – building a varied tapestry, rather than a uniform church building. I’m also aware that it can be difficult to fully communicate the nuances for those who don’t view the world through my lens of current culture. Particularly for those who are embedded within Methodism, existing church structures, or lifetime church-goers, it can be hard to look with fresh eyes or an outside perspective.
If you’ve spoken to any teenagers recently you’ll know how the younger generations often have different world views, different approaches to using technology and forming community, and often struggle to understand why we have our sticking points in the church: “Isn’t it obvious what we need to be doing?” Whilst I’m sadly no longer a teenager, I’ve often felt this frustration in my interactions with the church. I’ve spent the last 5 years trying to encourage the church to catch up with digital technology and pushing for more creative uses of online platforms. It probably won’t surprise you that I’ve made very little progress. Where technology is being embraced, it’s still small steps on the road to being able to flourish long-term. The explosion of AI in recent years, and before that the rapid growth in digital caused by lockdown and the pandemic, has meant that the church is as far behind the curve as ever and struggling to catch up. I’m not talking about live streaming or having a church website, I’m talking about creative fresh expressions of online church.
And so there is a need for dual transformation. I can continue to support and equip the local church, but if we are to make progress with a hybrid Methodism then it needs to have its roots outside of our existing structures. So unlike my 2023 article, I haven’t started with what we do in the church building and tried to translate that into an online context. Instead, I have started with society, looking at community building in the secular world. If we aim to attract a critical mass of younger people (anyone under 50 really!) then we need to see how they perceive and interact with the world. The big opportunity of digital is that it doesn’t rely on geography and can exist untethered. It doesn’t have to be the project of one local church. And so we are not tied to working with or within existing church structures. We have a blank slate and can build a new model from the ground up – an exciting opportunity! We can reimagine what interests and values might draw people together in the online space.
There are around 62 million social media users in the UK, and 80% of them haven’t heard or don’t believe the gospel – social media is the nations largest mission field
Digital Church Toolkit
This is my own experience as someone under 30 (if you’re reading this as a fellow “young person” I’d love to hear if you agree with me!)
Inherited church predominately revolves around gathering on a Sunday and the way we have often translated this into the online space is to gather in the same way, all together at the same time, on Zoom (or other technology). However I believe that if you ask a young person what community gathering brings to mind, they are more likely to refer to YouTube comments, Facebook groups, Patreon or Discord servers, video games, or communities on TikTok: engaging with strangers around a common theme (a fandom, an issue like sustainability or LGBTQ+, or themes of motherhood or mental health). What you’ll notice is that in these examples the community doesn’t gather together at one specific time – they are asynchronous. In the modern age, content is consumed on demand. Conversation is had across platforms and can continue days or years later. Communities are made up of strangers who share a common interest, not based on geography or if one can make the gathering date and time.
There’s a lot of loyalty within our traditional churches, with many people proudly stating how long they have been coming to the same church. We build our structures around the understanding that people will want to “join us” and support the whole work of the church. That people will arrive, commit their loyalty, and want to become a member of our organisation. In a modern age, people are unlikely to have this community approach. Many young people are part of multiple communities already and are not looking to join anything, but seeking places that offer value to their lives (or opportunities to give value to others), wherever that is. We see this already within our circuits, where families often travel around to attend all the children’s groups in the area, no matter which church or denomination. Why would they become a member of a specific church? They are attending multiple different churches for various mid-week activities. In the online space, this also holds true. Membership conjures ideas of paying for a service, not being part of a community. People don’t just belong to one community but get involved in many places based on the many and varied interests they have. And so the approach to online church shouldn’t include the concept of “joining us” or becoming a “member”. It needs to have a structure that understands people will dip in and out. Understands that different elements don’t have to work together to make a whole – instead a range of stand-alone modular projects that offer different things. Understands that people will find value in some of our projects but also in others. That they might feed their spirituality in many different ways, both online and offline.
HAVING A NICHE
As a church, we are very keen on expressions like “all are welcome”, which whilst showing good intentions for inclusivity, often results in churches believing they should appeal to everyone. This is true of the global church, but as an individual community or project it can be less effective to try and be all things to all people. We spread ourselves too thin and don’t cater to the needs of a particular community. As a Connexion, we end up offering a bland shade of beige, instead of a multicoloured variety of vibrant ministries. Webster’s online dictionary defines a niche as a ‘distinct segment of a market’. Who are you trying to reach? This is something that I am passionate about and it’s all the more important online. The sooner we realise that our individual ministries or projects cannot reach every person in the digital space, the better results we’ll begin to see. The last decade has seen the online space dominated by fandom culture, which is a great example of how a community can flourish by focusing on a specific niche. Fan culture, or fandom, is a term which describes communities built around a shared enjoyment of an aspect of popular culture, such as books, films, TV shows, music, sports etc. The internet is no longer dominated by unified experiences – we don’t all use Facebook or talk about mainstream topics for example – but has segmented into pockets of specific interest communities with their own subcultures and trends. For example, social media has diversified – the favourite ones (often appearing and disappearing quickly) are unique, small, and quirky – the mainstream Meta platforms, like the established church, continue to exist but are disliked by many as they try to incorporate more features and be all things to everyone.
Focusing on a niche helps us provide for our target audience and dictates the type of content we might want to create. We need to diversify. You may recognise that, instead of trying to recreate our existing church model online, I’m encouraging us to employ more of a Fresh Expressions (Fx) model.
“Try telling a student who is being bullied online that digital interactions aren’t real”
Dave Adamson, MetaChurch
My vision would be a network of people and projects, aiming to provide various pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. Outreach, justice, worship, small groups, – all within their context (going to them, not inviting them to us) and in methods that are familiar in the online space, speaking into various subcultures. Remember it’s not a prescriptive set of tasks that lead from one to another because it won’t necessarily be part of a “whole”. It’s not a singular church. It’s a movement of individual people creating personal relationships in varied ways. People might engage with just one element or more, and they might do so alongside finding spirituality in a cathedral or as part of a home group.
I owe much inspiration from those who have gone before me in discerning the future; those exploring new structures of Methodism through the growing Kairos Movement in Yorkshire North and East district. Kairos itself is difficult to explain, but in practice works on a model of many dispersed communities gathering (online and sometimes in person) around interest groups. There is a pattern of feeding ourselves spirituality and expressing our spirituality through practical love and action. There are many groups and partnerships that fall under the supportive network of The Kairos Movement. Bible studies. Podcasts. Online Discussions. Photography church. Craft retreats. Supporting refugees and asylum seekers. In essence, Kairos is a form of online / hybrid church and it is effectively a good example of the “pick and mix” type model that I want to encourage as we plant a new hybrid Methodism.
“People will be loved into faith by starting, not in our church, but in their world“
The 21st Century Christian: following Jesus where life happens (a Fresh Expressions book)
In my experience, Methodists love to build committees, teams, and share leadership. Now the importance of lay leadership is particularly significant to Methodism. However, it is interesting to reflect that much of the online worship I have encountered is often led by a different local preacher each week. In the creation of the digital NPNP (New Places for New People) that I lead, I received significant pushback against my wife and me being the sole content creators – the face of the project – we were encouraged to build a team to share the workload with. I often encounter ministers who, in the online space, fall into the role of facilitating conversation in a community. This is in comparison with how the outside world within a digital culture operates. YouTubers gain community through consistency, not a different person and topic each week. People are attracted to engage with communities based on personalities. Leadership is defined by being open and honest about personal experiences, not carefully treading the line so we don’t offend anyone.
I’m talking about those people we refer to as “influencers” – a term which has come to have a very negative connotation.
Nonetheless, I think there are things we can learn from influencers. I’m not talking about celebrities, but the small-scale individuals who have built a community around their niche. These individuals often have greater success at carving out a space on the internet to connect with like-minded people than the big corporate organisations (who have lots of money for advertising!). In the same way, we don’t have to always do things as a “church”. We need to shift away from undertaking projects as an organisation, run by committee and compromise, and instead focus on releasing passionate people to lead projects and showcase their personalities with honesty and confidence.
We need Methodist Influencers! Or to move away from that terminology, we need a movement of (digital) kingdom builders who launch projects and form new communities around them.
“It is time for ‘the people called Methodists’ to recognise that we have become lumbered with all kinds of things (nearly always with the very best intentions) which don’t really fit and aren’t true to who we really are.” “It is of paramount importance to recognise just how fully lay leadership was a vital and key part of the mobilisation of the early Methodist movement.”
Leslie Newton in his book “Revive Us Again”
You’ll notice what I haven’t done in this article is detail the specific projects or methods I would recommend as part of this tapestry of online church. These will be different for different contexts, and will also need to change and adapt over time as digital trends change and evolve. Having said that, the methods aren’t that groundbreaking. It’s just finding creative ways to offer new forms of worship, discipleship, mission and ministry in the online space (recognising that it needs to be consistent across online/offline so they can cross-pollinate – they are part of a single experience after all).
The key difference is how the content is relevant to a specific audience (and that we’re not inviting people to come to a church building, but sharing grace with and alongside them). And so, for me, the challenge isn’t creating the content – that’s the easy part – the challenge is the culture shift needed to understand that this is a different approach to online church. And that is why I have written this article.
For me, it is about working towards a culture shift in the church that releases a network of creative people – the digital kingdom builders – to plant a new (hybrid) Methodism. Not a church, but a movement of individuals seeking and sharing (online) transformation in a modern age. Not to break away from the established church, but growing alongside, and in time feeding back into it, so that both might flourish.
blog by Elliot Crippen – Digital Enabler for Yorkshire North & East Methodist District
As part of his remit, Elliot equips churches to use digital technology creatively and encourages pioneering new approaches to online church.
Elliot has launched and co-hosts a digital NPNP (fresh expresion) called “Don’t wake the baby!” which is a podcast for non-Christian parents.
“Denominations have tried top-down leadership strategies to reverse decline for decades; perhaps we need to give local, grassroots revolutionaries a chance.”
Let us pray for this… When our world is in crisis, Now is the time for us to ask for more healing, more feeling, more dreaming.
Our hearts bleed with the injustice, Seeking more of you in difficult days, when grace seems far away. But do you wonder?
Will we refuse to ignore, the stranger next door, without enough to live? Can we do more?
This is the time to be salt and light. Are we eager to help when things are tight? Hands to give and hearts to serve, Not a favour to be returned, Or a means to fill the pews, Longing to share god’s grace, To all, in everyplace.
This is the time to turn passion into action, Across our nation. As they wonder… Wonder what it’s like to be loved by you
Take us back to our roots; relight our fire, Let us hope anew.
In this moment of great need, Let me dry your tears on my sleeve, Bring you in from the cold, Young or old,
This is the time to be bold.
God is planting something new, Is she calling you? What can you do?
Beyond these walls, Taking risks and not afraid to fall, A community for all. This is the time for more longing, more going, more doing.
Fill us with your love and grace, and Revive us, Lord, again.
Prayer written by Emma and Elliot Crippen in 2022