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Churches reexamine meaning of religious community in digital age

With more people tied to their computers and smartphones, some 109 churches juggle between building an online presence and keeping a physical one.

“At the end of the day, it’s really the building of relationships across generations,” said the Rev. Mark Polley of Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church.

Digital technology is an extremely good communication resource and evangelism tool, Polley said, and the church is trying to use social media as much as it can to stay in contact with and lead people. However, “it’s easier to counsel or help someone you’ve met face-to-face,” he said.

Christ the Redeemer is only one church in the 109 that is trying to use digital media to reach millennials and others who are likely to spend more time in front of a computer or with a smartphone than they are in a pew on Sunday morning.

Ben Fuqua, college ministry pastor for Christ Chapel Bible Church, said he believes in face-to-face communication, but he also realizes the need to communicate digitally and well across multiple digital platforms.

Fuqua sat inside TCU Barnes and Noble’s Starbucks and appeared to be acquainted with nearly everyone around him.

Christ Chapel seeks out the digital demographic, Fuqua said, and the church has an intern to help communicate with them through social media.

“I’m not [digitally] savvy at all,” he said.

The church uses Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to make announcements and keep people in the loop, but those platforms are used mostly as tools just to get the word out, Fuqua said.

“We hope that they actually show up to events that we do and they can actually get personally connected, just because I don’t know if connecting over social media really counts as connecting in my book,” he said. “We really want people to actually be known in real life.”

Fuqua said he and his wife, Danielle, welcome about 60 students to their home on Wednesday nights to eat scrambled eggs and bacon.

“They’re allowed to stay as long as they want and sit on the front porch and talk," he said. “These are the ways that we think people actual connect when they are in a relationship with each other.”

Fuqua said Jesus showed up physically because he cared, but that doesn’t mean that God can’t work through digital means as well.

“As a college ministry, we aren’t focused in on that,” he said. “We define real community as being face-to-face with people and being known.”

Sage Elwell, TCU assistant professor of religion, said digital technology allows people to communicate feelings and emotion in ways that have traditionally been expressed face to face.

Elwell, who has written about the role of digital media in religion and also teaches a course titled Digital Religion: God, The Soul, and Morality after the Digital Revolution, said websites like Facebook, for instance, have become ways to memorialize the dead and express grief publicly.

Elwell also said churches, synagogues, and mosques are now expected to be able to convey their religious message digitally.

“But part of what religion is,” he said, “is this communal experience.”

When relationships are digitally based, Elwell said, there is no sense of touch, no hand-holding and no vulnerability.

“More and more, it is just taken for granted this is the norm. I can always walk away from a computer,” he said. “If I’m looking at somebody face to face though, there’s vulnerability there.”

Vulnerability has its role in religion, Elwell said, and shutting it off gives people an extremely large amount of power, which makes them feel good.

Elwell is not the only one writing about digital media and religion.

A Christian Post article in 2013 listed the top five churches that use social media the best and two were located right here in Texas.

Gateway Church in Southlake made the list, and according to the article, its purchase of “the Table Project (a Christian social network) hinted to their strategy of a deeper merging between social media and spiritual life.” San Antonio’s Community Bible Church, whose ministry incudes an online church, was also listed.

­­However, for others, digital outreach is moving at a slower rate.

Polley said Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church isn’t currently using all of digital media’s capabilities for outreach, mainly because of staffing issues, but the technology is important. The church, which Polley said started in 2008 as an offshoot of the Fort Worth Episcopal diocese, provides audio sermons online.

“For us, just starting out, it is more information for our members, he said. “Although most of our guests have checked us out on the Internet before they came.”

Facebook and email are the main ways the church communicates with its members during the week, Polley said, but he also makes phone calls, texts and sends letters.

The church is among others seeking balance as the definition of community expands.

“With things like Facebook and Twitter and social media, our understanding of community is evolving,” said the Rev. Dave Brower, associate pastor at Arborlawn United Methodist Church. “We used to think of things as a physical presence.”

Brower said things like the Ice Bucket Challenge create mostly digital communities which are native to today’s youth.

“It’s a big shift,” he said. “Some of the churches are doing it really well and have an online pastor who works to foster that community.”

Brower also said there are online religious communities that have no face-to-face interaction.

“There are some people, like me, that would struggle with that,” said Abbie Johnson, Arborlawn’s youth minister. “But … I see the trend of the students embracing this.”

Johnson said she tries hard to stay up with what’s happening digitally and is learning how to use a system that will enable her to sync communication across various social media platforms.

Arborlawn also uses a projection screen for youth services, Brower said, to provide song lyrics and enhance the environment by providing lively images.

“We can sort of change the environment of worship,” he said. ”If you have an upbeat song, it adds that energy feel.”

The digital age has not impacted Arborlawn negatively, Johnson said, because church membership is up and attendance remains about the same. Arborlawn currently has about 3,000 members.

“Anything within reason that can help us to connect to people in a different way is a positive,” she said. “It’s a tool that we can’t ignore for sure.”

University Christian Church uses digital media as a tool and has a full-time online director who manages Facebook, Twitter, and updates the website daily, church spokesperson Carol Fewell said.

Fewell said Sunday school classes also have Facebook pages and other popular items on the church’s digital menu include a weekly email newsletter, weekly online sermons and an event calendar. In addition, sermons are broadcast Sundays at 11 a.m. on KTCU FM.

"We use our website as a front porch for people who are new to our area that might be seeking a church home,” said Ben Simpson, student minister at University Baptist Church.

Sarah Thornton, University Baptist’s music and media assistant, said the church constantly tries to direct people back to its website and also uses Facebook, posts sermons online and sends out an email newsletter.

“I think it is a new and better way of putting things in people’s hands,” she said. “Snail mail is such a thing of the past.”

Elwell said today’s generation is more tech-savvy and more apt to listen to a sermon online than attend a service, which is “beneficial to those who may be physically unable to attend service.” While the option is similar to TV ministries, he said, digital media allows for more interaction, and can be used to great effect.

“The key is to see the technology not as an end in itself but rather as a means toward some end,” he said. “Naturally, the church, the synagogue, or whatever, is going to be deciding what that end is, but presumably, it will have something to do with bringing people together in a real and meaningful way.”

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary communication director Dave Wright said he does not know of any local churches that operate solely as an online community without physical interaction.

“Church is about community and removing that with just an online community is kind of missing the point,” he said. “I see that as maybe a passing fad that isn’t going to last.”

 Fuqua said he thinks today’s generation hungers to be known and desires to have community.

“However, I think they are dissatisfied with what social media provides them,” he said. “As they get into social media they realize, ‘Hey, I want more than this.’”

As Fuqua talked, several students walking inside Starbucks waved, smiled and said hello. One stopped, put down his backpack, grasped hands with Fuqua and talked about grabbing breakfast later in the week.

“I’ll text ya,” he said over a shoulder to Fuqua then went on his way.

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