|Publication Date: 19 Feb 2015|
|Publisher: SPCK Publishing|
|Page Count: 144|
|Author: Pam Smith|
|ISBN-13: 9780281071517, 9780281071524|
Online Mission and Ministry
Are relationships online as valid as those offline?
Is it possible to participate in a 'virtual' communion service?
How do you deal with 'trolls' in a Christian way?
What is it appropriate for a clergyperson to say on social media?
ANYONE who has groaned at the site of an out-of-date church website will welcome this book. Pam Smith has been engaged in online ministry for two decades and is now a priest in the Church of England. She is clearly frustrated by the hostility she still encounters to using the internet for Christian purposes. She patiently goes through the most common objections and gives answers that sound like understatements (such as “The idea that being in an online Christian community is ‘easy’ is quickly dispelled by experience”). She is keen on quoting the Acts of the Apostles, drawing inspiration from early Christians promoting the gospel in a confusing environment.
Smith says that the book is “nota ‘How to . . .’ manual”, but it none the less feels like one. After going through theological arguments and basic principles, she provides helpful chapters on pastoral care, online discipleship, dealing with disruptive people, and building community. There is a lot of sound advice, including some that will be familiar to many but is worth reiterating. “Never post in anger,” for example, is advice that I easily overlook.
The author alludes several times, sometimes obliquely, to operating in a post-Christendom context with new attitudes to belief and authority. She writes that the old method “where one person who is authorized by the Church distributes his or her knowledge . . . is difficult to impose online, where people are used to questioning and responding”. I cannot help feeling disappointed that the book does not build on these points to explore how the internet can help us to develop less hierarchical and more questioning Churches.
This book has one serious weakness. While it is full of good advice, almost none of it is backed up by examples. The chapter on pastoral care includes useful thoughts about balancing varied needs and instincts. I would have found it several times more helpful if this had been illustrated with case-studies. I found it hard not to shout “Give me examples!” at the end of almost every section. If, like me, you are someone who learns through stories, you may find this book less appealing than do those who are suited to learning in more theoretical ways.
The saddest thing is that there are still so many Christians unwilling to accept the importance of using the internet in the service of the Kingdom of God. As Smith puts it: “We must avoid reaching the point where what we do inside the church is so distant from what we do in our homes and workplaces that people assume our gospel is as outmoded as our technology.”
I started this book full of reservations, most of them related to the fact that I am not a social media man and am therefore both ignorant and prejudiced. I finished with most of my reservations calmed.
The concept of online mission and ministry is somewhat strange to someone who puts great emphasis on the notion of interpersonal contact in community. How, I asked, is it possible to have a meaningful Christian community without personal contact?
Evangelism – yes; advice and counselling (of a sort) – yes; but the sort of relationship that develops into real warmth, I was not so sure.
And I am still not sure. But then, if I am honest, to what extent if the traditional model of Church good at these things?
Pam Smith makes the very valid point that “to be incarnational we need to meet people, where they are” – and that, for many, is online. There is a whole raft of people for whom the Internet is the natural place to go in their search for meaning, so it is good that there are people out there who are willing and able to respond to that need.
Pam Smith gives a lot of wise advice. She is alert to the dangers of this unregulated environment and to the many unresolved question that still exist. She is aware that this is work in progress.
This book, although avowedly not a handbook for practitioners, offers much practical and spiritual wisdom to those who are involved at any level in online ministry (indeed, its ‘how-to-deal-with’ sections should be required reading for anyone with an online presence) and, as such, should be welcomed.
Although it is undoubtedly possible for people to feel that they belong to a valid community online, and to gain strength and meaning from that, I still feel that such belonging is incomplete. It is no substitute for actual belonging to a physical community with all its indefinable pains and pleasures.
To me, this book does not adequately address the issue. A faith that only gets its sustenance online is missing something vital – but then, I suppose that all our experience of faith are in some measure incomplete.