Use the tools in your box

I asked Rev Dan Crouch to do a guest blog responding to Beyond Broadcast. Dan used to be part of the StreetSpace/FYT community before heading to vicar school, and initially trained through CYM asa the Youth and Community Worker so I thought it would be get his perspective. I love what he offers and the humility to recognise he is a visitor on holy ground.

Dan Writes….
As I offer these reflections, I am aware that I am not a native minister in the online world. I have been offering services online for about six weeks. I am a visitor. I am walking on ground that does not belong to me and exploring a place in which I am unfamiliar. There are others who know this landscape better than I do and I am their guest. This is indeed Holy ground.

With that in mind, my reflections come from someone who is a visitor to this realm. I am also a curate with a whole 21 months(!) of experience behind me, so I suppose I am also still establishing how I interpret this calling of priest – and what a time to be doing that!

I think this recognition that I am a visitor in someone else’s realm is actually quite a helpful way of looking at how we might look at cocreating ministry online particularly with regard to the ministry of life events (baptisms, weddings, funerals).

People interact with the online world in a very different manner to the physical world. We see this through trolling on Twitter and comments on Facebook. The possibility of hiding behind a persona, not identifying oneself fully, keeping some elements of life ‘offline’ in order to protect ourselves and others. The lockdown has, in some ways, challenged our approach to life online because we are no longer able to engage in the physical world, can the online world simply replace that, and if so, what does that look like and how do we go about creating space?

As an ordained minister in the Church of England one of the privileges I have comes through the invitation to conduct a baptisms, wedding or funerals. One of the things that has struck me has been how surprised many people are that they can be cocreators in these services. Yes, there are elements that must be included, but there is much scope to shape things to represent individuals, couples and families. Often people will say ‘I don’t want to offend the church’, to which my response is always ‘I think the bar here is a little higher than you imagine, tell me what you are thinking and if I possibly can I will help you to make that happen.’ It is this open-handed approach to cocreating that I think must underpin our approach to church online. It is a journey of getting to know people, of building relationship, drawing alongside, accompanying, listening, and always serving. I will return to these five elements of the journey later.

The possibility to be a cocreator was also true in our physical gatherings as Richard’s original post acknowledges, and I would agree that, in our case, the cocreation has happened through the desire to retain the status quo! Those present should always shape the services we have – which is why in our church building, with the vast majority of members aged over 65 we have liturgy heavy services including traditional hymns where we celebrate the eucharist each week. I am not knocking this completely – I in part perpetuate it – and we are called to serve the church to which we have been called and appointed, but we also share the cure of souls for the whole parish (church and community) and the big realisation I have faced is that by taking elements of ministry online I have broadened the stretch of those who view me as a potential teacher/pastor in the faith.

It is interesting is that our online presence is engaging a similar number of people as were attending our physical gathering, but I can be certain they are not just from our congregation because at least a third of our members do not have access to the internet. At the moment our approach has been more akin with broadcast than participation – probably because in my thinking we have been seeking to provide for our church community which is more used to a broadcast – but now, six weeks since the doors to the building closed I am being forced to consider how I might work with others to respond effectively to the needs of the local community.

I remember at college being taught about missional hermeneutics (interpreting the bible) and preaching and I remember one lecturer reminding us that every reading of scripture is a performance. It will not be read like that again, even if that same person is reading it. They also reminded us that every sermon/talk/address is for a particular context, group of people, needs and concerns, which is apposite advice at this time, but also offers a challenge because as we broadcast online and engage across a potentially wider congregation, how do we retain the local connection, relevance and importance? It feels there is a danger of becoming stuck in a paradox that as circumstances drive people to be more local, the church is moving online and becoming global. This is why we must ensure that we are serving our local communities, not just creating content for the online community. It is both/and not either/or.

Perhaps one the most challenging elements of cocreating worship is time, and as clergy learn various skills and are faced with the challenges of moving worship online, it is easier to say ‘I’ll do it myself’ than to share the burden with others. At this time of uncertainty, we are in a liminal space of opportunity and now is the time to embrace the possibility of change, but we are called to do so together.

The key elements of cocreating that emerge from my experience of the life events that may provoke our thoughts concerning Sunday worship

a) Building relationship – people approach the church, often with little/no relationship prior to the birth of a child, the engagement or the loss of a loved on. We respond, as representatives of Jesus, and get to know people rapidly, partly because there is an openness and a reason for our dialogue. There is a reason people are engaging and creating space to build this relationship will help. We may also find that our existing relationships are re-shaped by our current shared experience.

b) Drawing alongside – people are vulnerable, their experience, their emotions, their very selves are open and they need to be carefully engaged with. I am reminded of the journey of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus. The two disciples had effectively given up hope, they were walking to Emmaus talking with one another about what had happened. Jesus joins them where they are and walks with them. He does not change their destination, force them to go in a particular direction, or suggest he has a better route, but he draws alongside and travels with them, at their pace. We can draw alongside people online too, it takes time and effort and a commitment to engage.

c) Accompanying – people need to be walked through their experience. They do not know the choreography, they are unsure of the words. They need to be prepared, but they need to be accompanied, at their own pace, walking alongside them, sometimes leading them on, sometimes dropping back, sometimes carrying them. We need to be a little like a swiss army knife in terms of our willingness to be flexible, adapt and respond.

d) Listening – There is a lot of listening in these encounters. In my experience, it is much harder to listen in the online realm (some of this is connected to algorithms, but nonetheless it is a challenge) and many of us use the online world as a mouthpiece. It would be great if we were able, as the church, to find ways of modelling listening online. Pose questions, await responses, don’t judge but seek to serve.

e) Always serving – In these instances of cocreation we are always serving, serving God, and those who have approached us. As we seek to cocreate online and shape ‘church’ for what comes next in this liminal space, we need to ask ourselves who we are serving.

A possible direction of development in the future could be the online wake/celebration of life. For the vast majority of funerals that I am privileged to conduct at the moment the function of the funeral service is being performed, but the space for grief, for sharing memories, for gathering is either being omitted or postponed. It is such an important and significant space. When I speak on behalf of a family and invite people to a wake I usually use the words ‘the family invite you to [insert venue] to continue to share memories of…

In our cocreating of life events we are in the process of creating memories and holding space for memories. Perhaps this might be part of how we can serve our local communities through our online ministry at this time of coronavirus. Facilitating a space where things that need to be remembered can be, but also where new memories and new modes of being can emerge.

As I conclude, I reiterate that my ministry online is emerging, and has been necessary. responsive and reactive. Others with greater online experience of ministry can and will undoubtedly have more to offer to the conversation. I simply offer my reflections, observations and thoughts as a visitor to this holy space that so many call home.

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