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Networked Congregations: Together and Apart

Worship is a central activity of congregations everywhere, but what has happened during these months when gathering hasn’t been possible? A survey conducted during the first two months of the outbreak in North America showed that pastors’ top priority was to find a way to continue their weekend worship services in the midst of the chaos. 

For those of us who believe that worship is the center of congregational life, this seems like a natural move. But in a reflection on these survey results, Heidi A. Campbell questions this premise, criticizing it as a narrow, event-based approach to religious community that she argues is out of step with the networked age in which we live. She draws an unhelpful division between these two approaches to religious community, but she rightly suggests that an exclusive focus on the worship event as an indicator of the strength of a religious community or the commitment and spirituality of its members is misguided.

Campbell, a professor of Communications who studies digital religion and new media, is certainly right that most people’s experience of community is no longer centered in a single institution or place. This reality was clear as nearly every aspect of our lives, including work, worship, classes, relationships, and exercise, transitioned to an online format, allowing us to be in community with people all over the world. 

I want to suggest, however, that this networked spread need not supplant a tighter, focused community. Christian congregational worship is in fact inherently both event and network-based. I offer here two brief thoughts and some questions for reflection:

1. The worship gathering is important. 

The very fact that congregations instinctively looked for ways to continue gathering, even if out of sheer habit, indicates the importance that the gathering holds for the community. Communities and congregations are built on shared rituals, and now that restrictions are being lifted, people are eager to return to spaces and faces they love. 

In addition, from a theological standpoint, for many groups, the gathering is crucial because it is the embodiment of the church’s confession that they are the Body of Christ and the occasion on which the congregation gathers both to offer worship to God and receive a word from God. In the gathering, individuals are drawn into a transformative communion with God and one another, ritually embodying the belief that their shared Christian identity precedes (but does not replace) all other identities.

2. The gathering implies a sending.

The worship event is part of a larger ecology of congregational life, and the congregation, in turn, is part of a wider network of relations, as Campbell suggests. However, this ecological and networked framework does not diminish the centrality of the worship event. In fact, the gathering provides the impetus and model for life in the wider network of relations. The radical one-ness symbolized by the worship gathering is crucial, but it does not end there. This unity of identity also implies a unity of mission, and the traditional pattern of Christian worship in many denominations ends with a sending, a commissioning of the congregation to go and live out their faith in the world. Thus, Christian religious community needs to attend to both the event and the wider network, held together by a shared identity and mission. 

Reflect:

Understanding how your congregation best combines gathered and networked approaches to community requires thinking about your own theology, culture, and place in a larger world. The Frames for Study on this site can help you. Instead of just focusing on how to increase viewership and attendance, consider asking questions like: 

  • What do our shared rituals say about why we gather?
  • How and where are congregants encountering God beyond the worship event?
  • How can our worship together equip congregants to recognize such encounters and discern how God is calling them to partner in mission outside the church?
  • How can our congregation use our resources to continue our worship in the world?

Deborah Ann Wong is a Th.D. student in Liturgical Studies at Duke Divinity School, with a minor in Christian formation. Her work focuses particularly on contemporary and charismatic expressions of Christian worship. deborahannwong.com