Review: Ecclesiology for a Digital Church

| Ecclesiology for a Digital Church: Theological Reflections on a New Normal, edited by Heidi A. Campbell and John Dyer, SCM Press, 2022

reviewed by managing editor Stephen Waldron

Christian theology has always been an effort to reflect on unexpected events. Almost 3 years after a pandemic disrupted church life around the world, we might ask whether we should change our theology of the church. For the authors who contributed to the volume Ecclesiology for a Digital Church, this is an overdue conversation.

Theologian Katherine G. Schmidt makes a stark claim with which most other contributors seem to agree: “Digital culture is the predominant context in which the Church should understand itself in this century” (ch. 4). This is because of a material change in human life that contributors Bala A. Musa and Boye-Nelson Kiamu, borrowing from economist Klaus Schwab, call the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” 

The idea is that the first Industrial Revolution used steam power to mechanize production, the second used electrical power to create mass production, and the third used computers to automate production. Building on these prior advances, the networked digital revolution, like its predecessors, is revolutionizing both economic production and human life more broadly. But Christians have often failed to recognize how significant this shift is for the church.

A first step in doing digital ecclesiology is to break down false binaries. Multiple contributors point out that terms like “real” and “virtual” do not quite get at the distinction between in-person (what might be called “IRL”) activities and digitally mediated ones. After all, even digital interactions are physical and embodied. 

Furthermore, multiple contributors point out that New Testament authors of Johannine and Pauline texts were already engaged in technologically mediated interactions (letter writing) that they themselves compared and contrasted with in-person interactions. While we might agree with these biblical authors that in-person interactions can be superior in some ways, most Christians are grateful for their technologically mediated presence with us in the texts they wrote. Technology, co-editor John Dyer explains, has always served as a bridge between local church and global church.

This was especially true in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic. Contributor Anthony Le Duc describes the work of Catholic priest John Mi Shen, who was based in Manila. In January 2020, he provided a private online daily celebration of the Mass and personal pastoral support for Catholics in Wuhan who were locked down. During the following months, many of those Chinese Catholics provided significant financial support through Fr. Mi Shen for Catholics in Manila who were suffering from the impacts of the same pandemic.

Amidst hopeful aspects of the digital church, there are still problems. Just like in-person worship, digital worship services can be better or worse, and the pandemic revealed that most church leaders had far less expertise or experience in the digital realm than with in-person worship. Many tried and are even still trying to simply broadcast an in-person service using YouTube or Facebook without a significant interactive component.

Others, however, have been engaging in more effective ways that are not always recognized by church authorities. Contributors Thomas Schlag and Sabrina Mueller describe the emergence of German Protestant clergy who act as “Sinnfluencers” (“Sinn” = “meaning”) through social media platforms. These religious influencers provide space for people who may be disconnected from the institutional church to engage in spiritual life and theological reflection, asking questions and inviting comments on religious topics.

There are also potential ethical issues as churches move into digital culture. Contributor Jonas Kurlburg refers to liturgy as “persuasive technology,” noting that cathedrals, music, and stained glass windows are all methods of persuasively influencing the spiritual lives of people who encounter them. If technologies such as social media and virtual reality (VR) can also be used in liturgy, understood more expansively, where is the line between persuasive influence and spiritual manipulation? For instance, should churches use targeted advertising that relies on the harvesting of personal information by technology firms? This is just one area in which practice has advanced far more quickly than theory in most churches.

Other contributors have directly taken up the call of co-editors Heidi Campbell and John Dyer to reimagine ecclesiology and other areas of theology in light of digital contexts. Kate Ott argues that digital ecclesiology is inherently anti-hierarchical in ways that are aligned with the liberation of children to be full participants in worship. Church, she contends, should not be centered on the needs of adults if the words of Jesus (“let the little children come to me…”) are taken seriously. Philip Butler claims that secular online musical performances served the spiritual needs of African Americans during the physical distancing of the pandemic, creating sacred space that should be recognized as such.

Multiple contributors compare digital church to the Pentecost experience of the earliest Christians, multiplying the church’s effectiveness and enabling all to speak and hear the wonders of God in their own language. But this may be unrealistic techno-optimism that does not truly confront the material realities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. 

Several contributors mention the spiritual potential of VR equipment, but, in addition to being economically inaccessible to much of the world’s population, such technology isn’t necessarily seen as desirable by those who can access it. And when others point out the leveling potential of digital platforms, allowing everyone equal voice, this seems naïve about the continued potential for dominant leaders to capture and even misuse attention as they so often have before our digital era. 

Furthermore, none of the contributors raise the issue of secularization. For communities ranging from Mormons to Hasidic Jews, access to the internet has exposed believers to uncomfortable information that religious authorities view as spiritually dangerous. In the long run, it seems plausible that digital culture, in addition to enabling new forms of church life, will produce apathy about religious communities (at first among younger generations) if not outright skepticism about many theological claims.

As some contributors to this volume note, spiritual life in the digital realm is not limited to the institutional church. But this shift does raise a question about whether the “networked” forms of church endorsed by digital theologians will ultimately preserve anything like the kind of faith that the New Testament authors technologically mediated in their writings. It remains to be seen whether digital entertainment will simply displace digital church in the bodies, hearts, and attention spans of most believers.

Stephen Waldron

Managing editor Stephen Waldron is a Ph.D. student at Boston University School of Theology.