In 2008, Deanna Thompson broke her back. While she was recovering from the injury, she also went through radiotherapy treatment for cancer which made her sick to her stomach. The resulting combination meant changes to her body and self-image and made it hard to do her ministry work, let alone socialize in person.
“I couldn’t keep food down and so you could start to see my ribs protruding. I looked like I was dying,” she said at “Religious Community in a Digital World,” an online conference that gathered academics, authors and religious leaders from across North America to discuss the changes technology and the pandemic era have brought to the Christian church.
For many people as seriously ill as she was, the resulting fear and anguish have less to do with dying than with the diminishment of themselves, she said, a reality that confronted her when she struggled with the demands of leaving the house. Going out presented physical challenges, she said. But it also forced her to face the emotional pain of living in a newly limited body.
So when the COVID-19 pandemic forced churches across North America to switch to virtual services, Thompson, director of the Lutheran Center for Faith, Values, and Community in Northfield, Minnesota, was primed with a different perspective on what it meant to gather remotely, she told attendees at the conference, hosted by St. Thomas More College, Lutheran Theological Seminary, the College of Emmanuel and St. Chad, and St. Andrew’s College, all located in Saskatoon.
“People who haven’t been seriously ill know that serious illnesses are really, really difficult physically, but I’m not sure we have appreciated the level to which they take a toll psychologically, emotionally, spiritually when your body is so very altered,” she explained. “This is one of the ways being in virtual spaces can be a gift because it gives you a little bit of protection or a barrier to having this body that is so different. [It stops it] from being so front and centre.”
That’s one reason why—while making space to acknowledge the lament over what churches lost when congregations weren’t able to gather in-person—Thompson said she also views the sudden, rapid advancement in remote attendance options as a source of opportunities.
For example, while some have raised concerns about the accessibility of digital gathering options for those who lack the required technical literacy, Thompson noted that broadcasting church services over services like YouTube and Zoom also adds accessibility for people who are homebound, have difficulty travelling to the church building or who find aspects of in-person worship temporarily or permanently difficult.
The event’s other keynote speaker, the Rev. Jeffrey Mahan, is a professor of religion and communication at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado. In his addresses, he looked at the COVID-19 era’s effects on religious communities as just the latest piece in a shift in the way people in North America think about belonging and identity in general—a shift he said Christian communities are already far behind.
The internet has changed what it means to be a member of anything, he said. By letting them click “like” on multiple ideas, speakers or ideologies in a day—rather than formally join a church, social movement or political party and stick with it—the internet gives them a more fluid sense of belonging.
In that climate, he says, church organizations need to rethink what it means for them to be a part of a person’s individual story of faith. That means putting the onus on established congregations to make themselves accessible to newcomers rather than expecting outsiders to do the work to fit in, said Mahan, and understanding that a single church won’t be the only—even the primary— community many people belong to.
These days, “the desire of the congregation to be the fixed centre of members’ lives seems quaint,” he said, and today’s dispersal of commitment doesn’t fit with the ways established churches expect their members to act. “Right now we’re telling them that their spiritual disciplines look thin. But what if instead we take seriously their spiritual questions and desire for ritual and connection? Can we do that without demanding they adopt our habits and assumptions?”
While Thompson’s perspective focused on the aspects of digital culture that are new to the established church, both in terms of what it has lost and what it might gain, Mahan characterized his own perspective as focusing on a cultural change that has already happened, leaving the church to catch up.
“We are well into a transition—a decline in a way of being that hasn’t meant that religion or Christianity are going away but that they’re finding different and more fluid forms,” he said. “If we’re going to make a difference, if we’re going to be in the conversation, if congregations are going to survive, they have to figure out how to be in that space.”