This summer I’m taking Wycliffe’s Ministry and Technology course online. Every two weeks we’re to write a 1000-word response to a given prompt that we have first worked through in discussion forums, and submit that response for grading. There is no requirement to share these papers online, but I thought I’d post my thoughts anyways.
Paper #2: The Benefit of Non-members?
The prompt: “A church is the only organization that exists primarily for the benefit of non-members” (W. Temple). How does this apply to online evangelism?
I struggle with the dichotomies inherent in Temple’s statement for two reasons:
1. “Primarily”: Surely this was a rhetorical flourish, but I worry that it has been taken too literally. The implication is that the benefit of membership is secondary, that the embodied, visible life of the Church is somehow separate from the “main thing” that is the Gospel. Temple’s own context helps me grasp his own intended meaning, as well as clarifies the ways our own context problematizes his statement.
William Temple was one of the most prominent leaders in the Church of England (including Archbishop of York and then Canterbury) from the 20s until his death in 1944. He was commenting at the end of Christendom, at the end of the Church of England’s pre-eminence in English society, the tail end of an age in which church membership was the “respectable thing to do.” He had a strong commitment to labour, social welfare and the common good: a healthy, equal society for those in the church and outside it. He was likely responding to the calcified assumption that church membership was the “main thing,” and he wanted to give more space to the Gospel message and the welfare of all people.
But I worry that the opposite extreme has now become calcified: the corollary of this “primarily” is that church membership does not matter as much; we can forget the communal nature of Christian faith and life, and can slide down the slippery slope of individualist emotionalism and moralism. But can we really believe without belonging? We are in a vastly different evangelistic context, in which church membership has no substantive political benefit: in some cases, it can be more like Nicodemus coming to Jesus under the cover of night than Caiaphas embodying the power of the national cult. The benefit of “belong then believe” comes from the relationships that we really form with real people in this real organization, which embody our very approach to God.
Furthermore, the concerns of “social equality” and “eternal life” are now often opposed to each other in a false dichotomy that Temple never meant to imply, but that many churches are now deeply struggling to overcome. In some mainline churches in North America (TEC/ACNA, UMC), that dichotomy is an integral part of a series of factors that have led to formal schism. Part of our task of climbing back up the slope is to recapture the communal nature of Christian faith and life, one that takes Christ’s redemption of the personal and the political as the integral claim of the Gospel. The Church’s call for civil society to work towards reconciliation and healing social and environmental inequities is as true now as it was in Temple’s day, but it cannot be as distinct from the Church’s identity as the gathered People of God that Temple’s “primarily” implies.
2. “Non-members”: Given this assertion of communal faith, I am not about to deny the importance of church membership, of baptism and Eucharist and everything it entails. However, the internet has profoundly challenged the distinction between “members” and “non-members”: anyone can see what a church is doing and (especially now) join a Zoom service or Livestream, can comment on a church’s social media pages, and then flit away in an instant. I do this as a member and volunteer of a church, a Star Wars trivia meetup and a Toronto FC Supporters’ group, and I can interact with them all within the span of three hours. Just last week I responded to “Weird Anglican Twitter,” to other tweets about Revenge of the Sith and a TFC player I would like to see return, all in that three-hour time span. The difference is not that this is a new reality, but that the transition and barrier between groups is far more permeable, and my membership in all three feels relatively equal. Our context is now pluralistic and egalitarian: does evangelism celebrate the gains of this context or obstruct it?
There is a plain opportunity to celebrate these gains: the internet makes it simple for seekers to be introduced to a church community, and to belong. This has been the case for a long time: the ease and volume of people seeking Scriptural comfort online after 9/11 (Shier-Jones, “From Transmission to TXT – The Bible in a Digital Age,” The Epworth Review, 47) provides an early example, and the partial communal cohesion offered by Zoom calls and livestreams have become a necessary example over the last few months. But what about non-seekers in this pluralized context? It is inappropriate for us to enter an online community with the intent of evangelizing. I am comfortable being clear about my own Christian convictions and church membership, and I bring those insights into my interpretation of Star Wars and other stories. I am also comfortable if a nominal Christian in that community is inspired to deepen their faith. But what about my Muslim friend, who is comfortable contributing his insights in a similar way, making for a wonderful interfaith dialogue? Or my atheist friend, who has a deep understanding of filmmaking and storytelling? I am in this community to meet friends and to gather around a shared interest in a Galaxy Far, Far Away, rather than specifically to “win people for Christ,” as if it were a competition one could “win.”
Clearly, my own convictions have been shaped in part by this pluralistic, online context. The internet’s power to weaken distinctions of “members” and “non-members” and its “hypertext” relativization of truth claims (Hipps, 69-70) have altered the very identity of “evangelism” from persuasive, apologetic proclamation to relational presence, shifted the goal from convincing, baptizing and discipling to simply being and relating. There is an irony to the current situation: after decades of preachers exhorting us to “go beyond the four walls of the church,” we must be restrained about what that extra-ecclesial presence entails. In fact, the terms “go beyond” and “walls of the church” are as unhelpful today as Temple’s own “primarily” and “members/non-members.”
What we need to consider is how best to extend the church, and specifically, extend the doors and windows of the church into digital spaces. I think of the front page of the St. Stephen’s website and Facebook page as extensions of the church’s physical door, a welcoming entryway into the community’s activities. They are simply there, as attractive, informative and professional as we can make them, and hopefully people find them and want to enter the church’s life more fully. The requisite use of non-churchy language, clean design and photos of real people were in place before I came on board. We are hoping to advertise more on Facebook, but that is the extent that we can do in this pluralist, hypertext marketplace, with all its opportunities and challenges. Anything more risks becoming repulsive, or simply annoying.