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A. Trevor Sutton: Meeting with your church online is vital for serving your congregation’s needs

Health professionals and the media call the COVID-19 virus a “novel virus.” This new virus for humans has generated many novel responses around the world — new tests being created, new restrictions being imposed, new vaccines being developed.

Amid all this newness, congregations have sought new ways to do ministry in a time of quarantines, cancellations and social distancing. Many congregations have been pushed to explore new ways to do ministry online. And while that may be difficult, online gatherings can be a rich way of serving our congregations’ needs in this global crisis.

Online church is not entirely new. While it may be novel to a particular congregation, the notion of online church has been around for a long time. The history of online church goes back at least to the Challenger explosion in 1986.

According to digital religion scholar Heidi Campbell, an online memorial service organized by a Christian network discussion group was held after the U.S. space shuttle Challenger exploded after takeoff.

Other variations of online church arose in the late 1980s as virtual communities formed within multiplayer computer games and bulletin board software systems. More online churches emerged with the invention of the World Wide Web in the 1990s. These virtual congregations utilized chatrooms, discussion forums, online worship services, music and other digital multimedia.

Since its inception more than 30 years ago, online church has taken radically different shapes. A prevalent form of online church involves a local congregation creating an internet campus. This variation of online church typically includes livestreaming a worship service by means of Facebook, YouTube or the congregation’s own website. Tim Hutchings, in his book “Creating Church Online: Ritual, Community and New Media,” argues that internet campuses have steadily moved from being “a niche curiosity to something much closer to becoming a mainstream religious practice.”

The growth and development of online church also includes the myriad ways in which local churches are using the internet to facilitate ministry. Websites, social media pages and teaching videos posted to YouTube are all online church resources used by local congregations. Similarly, pastors often use internet-based communication tools such as email, video calls and social media messaging to do ministry. This suggests a steady integration of the local church and the online church.

Over the past 30 years, online church has generated many debates and disagreements. Several church bodies have issued statements against certain online church practices. Well before COVID-19, the Roman Catholic Church, the United Methodist Church and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod all issued statements against celebrating the Lord’s Supper online, for example.

Some pastors and congregants might resist the notion of online church because of their own unfamiliarity with the available technology. Other debates surrounding online church deal with the legitimacy of online communities and the relationship between the online church and the local church.

Like the internet itself, the topic of online church is diverse and divergent. Rather than creating a sharp distinction between the online and offline forms of church, it is better to think in terms of “church in a digital age.” The church today is unavoidably part of the church in a digital age. And with the recent spread of the coronavirus, many are exploring what it means to be church without being physically present with one another.

In this time of quarantine and social distancing, how can the church continue to be the church? How might a congregation not neglect “to meet together” (Hebrews 10:25) while still being careful and responsible? I suggest three guiding principles for being church in a digital age.

Online church should be personalized. Every Christian tradition and theological perspective will come to different conclusions about what is good, right and salutary regarding ministry and the internet. Thankfully, modern technology offers many different options from which to choose while still honoring theological positions.

Congregations should personalize their online practices so as to respect the convictions of their particular traditions. Being the church in a digital age does not require compromising one’s theological convictions.

Online church should be personal. A common critique of digital technology is that it is impersonal. Yet with many hospitals, nursing homes and care facilities under quarantine, it is not always possible for congregants to connect physically. Likewise, it may be difficult for small groups, leadership boards and Bible studies to gather in person. The church in a digital age uses digital technology well when it makes online practices as personal as possible.

While video chats and virtual meetings cannot replace face-to-face gatherings, these are better than not meeting at all. Increasing the frequency of these more personal practices can help offset the impersonal aspects of digital technology. Less personal forms of communication such as mass emails and social media posts should be used to give information, not foster personal connection.

Online church should be participatory. Paul encouraged the churches in Galatia to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). Certainly, many people are burdened by the coronavirus. However, togetherness is a powerful antidote to fear, loneliness and anxiety.

Congregations can connect people and provide opportunities for participation through digital technology. Participating in a phone tree, email thread or video call fosters a sense of personal connection. Priority should be given to real-time versus prerecorded forms of participation — livestreaming versus video posting, for example — because synchronous experience fosters a greater sense of togetherness.

The new coronavirus has brought tremendous discontinuity to our world. With so much discontinuity, it is vital to maintain whatever continuity we can. Congregations have always met in personalized, personal and participatory ways. These are not novel principles. Rather, the novel coronavirus has presented the church with an opportunity to live into these ancient principles for being church in novel ways.

Mentors, according to popular depictions in film, are eccentric characters who speak in riddles and impart wisdom with bizarre assignments.

“Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” shows Yoda mentoring Luke Skywalker on a piggyback ride through the forest on the planet Dagobah. In “The Karate Kid,” Mr. Miyagi hones Daniel’s skills by having him wax his car and catch a fly with chopsticks. And Rocky Balboa’s trainer makes him chase down a chicken in a deserted alleyway in “Rocky II.”

Hollywood makes it seem as if a good mentor must be quirky, enigmatic and shrouded in mystery. How are we supposed to find a mentor who fulfills the requirements: a heroic past, an unconventional approach and Yoda-like ear hair?

As a young pastor, I have come to rely heavily on the wisdom and insight of several experienced mentors. Without them, I would have made more mistakes, struggled through serious problems and accomplished far less.

But I’ve noticed that none of my mentors is particularly eccentric. So what has made these associations successful?

In my experience, there are several key elements in a fruitful mentoring relationship — and they rely, in large part, on the mindset of the one being mentored.

Humility. Pride is constantly whispering in a young pastor’s ear: You know best. You have a master of divinity degree; that’s like having a black belt in ministry. There is no way that a dusty old pastor has any valuable insight.

Curbing your pride and arrogance is essential to the mentoring relationship. You have to admit to yourself and to another person that you do not have it all figured out. You have to be willing to throw up your hands and ask for help. Without humility, you will never even get started.

Vulnerability. Pastors love to help vulnerable people. We are very comfortable with stepping into a hospital room and praying with someone in a time of spiritual and emotional vulnerability.

We are not, however, comfortable with being the vulnerable one in the room. Pastors are used to giving wisdom rather than getting wisdom. A mentoring relationship requires vulnerability from both individuals. Your mentor must be vulnerable in exposing past mistakes, failures and uncertainties, and you must be vulnerable in exposing present ones.

Honesty. If you’re willing to reveal only your polished and totally put-together self, you won’t learn anything. If you will not honestly open up about your struggles and deficiencies, a mentoring relationship is not for you. Mentoring will work only if you are willing to be painfully honest about the status of your life and ministry.

You are not trying to impress your mentor. Similarly, a mentor must be painfully honest in giving guidance. A mentoring relationship has no room for a veneer of niceties that obscure honesty.

Wisdom. Your mentor must possess more wisdom and knowledge than you do — that’s essential to the job. However, you will likely find that no single mentor possesses all the wisdom that you need for life and ministry.

So you too need wisdom, in part to recognize your mentor’s limits. Does your mentor have tremendous wisdom for ministry? A depth of knowledge and insight about you as a person? General wisdom about life?

Recognize where your mentor possesses a wealth of wisdom and insight. And recognize where your mentor is lacking, then find another guide to help you in those areas.

Openness to questions. Good mentors ask the toughest questions. That’s the point of it. I’m talking about the questions that you’d rather never answer: Do you think pride might be driving this decision? How are you contributing to this problem? Is it possible that your priorities are out of order here?

These questions are the absolute worst. They are like a scalpel to your pride and arrogance. It’s important to find a mentor who will ask them.

Intentional connectedness. Mentors often are recognized, not recruited. If you aren’t part of a formal mentoring program, you don’t have to artificially create a mentoring relationship. Instead, look around and see who is already serving in this capacity. Like any human connection, a mentoring relationship is best measured in years, not days. Can you deepen or formalize your connections to those folks who already are guiding you?

As a young pastor, I recognize my need for a mentor — or, more accurately, multiple mentors. I can think of at least six individuals who have served in that capacity as trusted, experienced guides.

Of course, real-life mentoring isn’t as cool as it is depicted in the movies. No epic montages. No enigmatic riddles. No piggyback rides.

Instead, my mentors ask me hard questions, guide me with their wisdom and encourage me to be vulnerable. They hack through my pride and arrogance with their keen insight. They help me grow in ways that could not happen without them.

I’m deeply grateful for their help. And because of them, I am a better pastor.