A columnist, author and Anglican priest says he sees great potential for faith to grow in online spaces, even as he acknowledges obstacles churches face in an increasingly secular society.
“One of the main problems with church for the longest time … is that although the door may be unlocked, it seems locked” to many, the Rev. Michael Coren, an Ontario priest and regular columnist with the Toronto Star, said in a talk at Babel 2.0, a Nov. 5 conference built around the theme “Can Faith Survive Online?”He pointed to recent data from Statistics Canada that show one-third of Canadians have no religious affiliation. Christianity has seen the biggest decline; 53 per cent identified as Christian in the 2021 census, down from 77 per cent in 2001.
But during the pandemic, Coren said, he had seen people who would never attend church in person show up for worship on Zoom or similar platforms. In online worship, Coren saw a great opportunity for ministry, one he believed churches have not taken full advantage of.
“Online worship is not a panacea … but it is a possibility,” he said. “As we’ve been forced by this darkness to adopt a new way of conducting worship and community, out of that darkness I believe something light can be produced.
“I’ve seen it happen several times during the peak and height of the pandemic—less so now I admit,” he added. “There were people who felt alone and they were frightened. They had a certain spiritual feeling and maybe their parents had been churchgoers. They would never go into a church building. But they joined us on Zoom, and they would chat to me in the chatroom… and say, ‘Could we meet? Could you recommend a book? Could you answer this question for me?’ That’s pretty good evangelism.”
“If our aim is to bring more people into the kingdom,” Coren said, “to have more people understanding the real authentic teaching of the rebel Jesus, I see [online worship] not as a hindrance, but a great chance and opportunity.”
Coren’s 2021 book, The Rebel Christ, argues for an understanding of Jesus as a social radical.
Presented by the Winnipeg-based Anglican liturgical community saint benedict’s table with support from the Collegeville Institute, Babel 2.0 took place at Canadian Mennonite University and was also livestreamed. Coren, who serves as assistant curate of the parish of St. Christopher and priest-in-charge at St. Elizabeth’s, Burlington, Ont., was one of three main speakers. Others included Katherine Schmidt, associate professor and chair of theology and religious studies at Molloy University in New York; and Nora Young, host and creator of the CBC radio show Spark, which focuses on technology and culture.
Schmidt, whose 2020 book Virtual Communion examined the “theology of the internet” from a Roman Catholic perspective, also said she saw in the internet possibilities for the church to reach more people.
“Online space creates new space for evangelization,” she said. Many marginalized groups or those who have fallen out of church life, she said, are able to participate online in ways they had not before. “New technologies allow for innovation and creativity,” she added, pointing to podcasts as an example.Describing herself as a “digital optimist”, Schmidt called for digital literacy training in all forms of ministry.
Schmidt also, however, said her colleagues expressed various anxieties about worship in online spaces. These include the anonymity that allows people to spew vitriol and hate; a “crisis of authority” in which questioning expertise can pass into spreading misinformation; a growing gap between those with internet access and those without; digital surveillance by corporations and government; and a general feeling of “disembodiment” in online interactions.
Ecclesiology, the understanding of church, is what lies behind many such anxieties, Schmidt said. The Christian faith is centred on the physical embodiment of God in Jesus. Sacramentality itself has a physical dimension, such as in the Eucharist. As a result, Schmidt said, Christians often express concern about whether online church is “really” church.
Young said digital tools had provided a “lifeline” for people to maintain connections during the pandemic, along with other benefits such as lower carbon footprints from reduced travel.
The shift to online formats, Young said, had also revealed limitations to platforms such as Zoom. She recalled an interview on Spark with Deb Roy, director of the MIT Centre for Constructive Communication: “Consider, he said, that you can’t even tell if someone is looking at you or if they’re looking at another person, or even if they’ve opened at another tab and they’re looking at Instagram.”
“That’s a pretty basic failure in digital communication,” Young said. Still, as technologies continue to improve and hybrid forms of gathering become more common, she said, spiritual people should continue to explore the potential of digital spaces for connection, community and contemplation.
Babel 2.0 sessions are available in video and podcast formats at stbenedictstable.ca.