What Could You Learn from a Digital-First Faith Community?

Can we “gather” asynchronously?

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woman reading on her tablet on the ground

My childhood friend lived on a large homestead. From his kitchen window we could see a dilapidated barn that housed a mysteriously ancient automobile, a separate shack in the distance that was falling apart (rumored to be an old ale-house), and a fenced off expanse of land that was affectionately called “the back forty,” the boundaries of which we could not see.

“What’s in the back forty?” I remember asking one time. 

“I’m not sure,” he replied.  “The cows graze there, and I think there’s a stream. But I don’t know.”

And so, one boring summer day with nowhere else to go, we decided to explore the back forty and see what possible adventures would unfold.

________________

The church has been online for years, but not in a way that was fully present, using the internet pretty passively.  Typically a slow adapter, and historically famous for having difficulty changing, the church has seemed to spy the online landscape like my friend and I from his kitchen window: they could see some things there, make out some forms, but were largely confused about the landscape and possibilities it contained.

The online world was mysterious, a bit confounding, and served a limited purpose.

Then, with nowhere else to go in the pandemic world, the church began to explore this known-but-not-explored landscape.

Digital worship became a weekly occurrence, and continues to be.  

Hybrid worship is the norm in many congregations. 

A community now measures weekly attendance as being both “on-site” and “online.”  

Offerings appear in the digital offering plate with more regularity, people chat in the chat box as well as the Fellowship Hall, and prayer requests ascend from the online coding of digital algorithms to join forces with the spoken prayers of the assembly.

The adventures continue to unfold.

A digital-first community

Into this strange new “back forty” space of the church’s footprint, Anam Cara Community was born.  We are a “digital-first community,” meaning that all of our offerings are curated with the online medium in mind.

We “gather” asynchronously for worship with a high premium placed on visuals and flow.  

We are highly experimental, tweaking format and form as we go.

We are highly engaging, but relationality happens on the back end through feedback loops of emails, direct messages, and viewer analytics.  To most church workers this sounds very impersonal, of course.  And in some ways we, as curators, also still feel that way a bit: it all seems second hand.

That is, of course, until we take into account the fact that Americans spend nearly 23 hours a week online, which means that the 8th day of the week is not Sunday morning, as the ancient liturgists imagined, but rather the day we spend scrolling, texting, viewing, and being digital explorers.  People are engaged in the way they engage with most everything else today.  The church has been slow to recognize it.

If we spend a whole day engaging online, we thought, then there was space to connect spiritually and even religiously online. We knew people were doing this through other platforms, why not through one that kept spirituality as a key component?

Guiding principles

Anam Cara Community was birthed both out of the necessity of the pandemic and also out of the need to use the entire landscape of the human imagination to speak to the beauty and hope that God in Christ provides. In thinking about how we would curate such a community, we first focused on our core values, or as we call them, “Guiding Principles.” 

We resolved to “Tell Truths.”  We felt called to say things that both comfort and confront, and find that the online space provides us the ability to do that without reservation. The problem, of course, is doing so in a way that offers actual dialogue instead of just the exchanging of barbs. We’re working on this …

We resolved to “Attend to the Rhythm of Life,” which means that while we are consistent with our constellation of offerings (podcasts, online worship, blog posts, and newsletters), we are not chained to the calendar. The balance here has been offering engagement opportunities with enough regularity to keep interest alive, but not with a frequency that forces our offerings into the online noise of the inbox archive.

We resolved to “Name Things,” which means sometimes we offer opinion offerings that would be difficult to proclaim from a pulpit.  Our format doesn’t tie us to long-time donors who we need to avoid offending, which offers us a lot of freedom.  We’re also finding, though, that it doesn’t offer us the stability that longstanding supporters afford.

And finally, we resolved to “Lead with Curiosity.” We find that so much of the world, even the church world, leads with pessimism and skepticism, especially when it comes to new frontiers like this digital landscape we find ourselves tilling. And yet, there is much to learn here, and many surprises.

Mixed in with these guiding principles is a dedication we have to be “diverse from the first.” This means that we don’t operate without a multitude of voices joining our own in collaboration, experimentation, and exploration. This medium allows that to happen with some fluidity, as guest curators join us regularly for our podcasts and worship creation, and some have even joined our team as staff curators.

Surprise! 

In this exploration of the church’s digital “back forty” we’ve found a few surprises.

First, our community has, so far, been composed mostly of fellow church-workers. This may seem surprising to some, but when we thought about those who engage with our work and what they’re needing it became less surprising. Pastors, deacons, and church workers of all stripes are feeling overworked, underappreciated, and often don’t align theologically or aesthetically with the communities they serve. In addition, most are feeling absolutely tapped out inspirationally, pulling droplets from a dry well of theological imagination that the pandemic has depleted.

In exploring the landscape we found pastors needing some fresh inspiration to graze upon, and we set out to offer it.

We’ve realized we can’t fight the medium. Digital content is meant to be experienced on the viewer’s time, not the curators. We attempted to do “live worship” offerings a few times, and found that the majority of those who engaged with our work did so not synchronously, but asynchronously. They were finding meaning, just not all at the same time.

In light of this, we adjusted our timing and expectations, allowing folks to gather and experience our offerings as they desire, not as we dictate. 

Finally, some wonder how we can call those who work with our offerings a “community” at all, seeing that we’ve not “gathered together” in the same space, digital or otherwise, at the same time. To that assertion we remind the church that we’ve never functioned in what would be considered “real time” throughout our history. Kairos time has always been the church’s bent, this “time out of time” where the saints of the past and future commune with those gathered in worship, where God’s miracles are both “now-and-not-yet,” and where Christ is born not just at Christmas, but every moment of every day where God’s glory peeks through the now.

Our community will gather together, all in one place, at some future moment.  We’re working on what that will look like and just how that might happen.

But one thing we know is that our current medium is one that must be both immediate and immensely patient. People engage how they want to, when they want to, and in time we know that we’ll all want to engage together to be a gathered community, which in itself will be a new thing for this church and this “digital back forty.”

But it’s not yet.

This largely unexplored medium for the church cannot be cultivated in a hurry. We must take our time, find the streams of living water, analyze the terrain, and then use the space as it allows us to use it. 

But one thing is for sure: God is digitally active in the hearts, minds, and databases of our world. 

  • Tim Brown

    Tim is a pastor, executive coach, professional fundraiser, and a writer. He does non-profit fundraising and coaching to pay the bills, and writing and pastoring to fill his soul. He's curating a new digital-first church plant through the ELCA called Anam Cara Community that is in early development, and blogs regularly at reluctantxtian.com. He lives in Raleigh, NC with his partner, their two children, and a garden that produces every year, mostly on accident.

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