Imagine the scene at our church on any given Wednesday. As people begin to arrive, prelude music is playing softly while candles flicker and float in a pool of water. This group has been worshipping together for over a year now, and their joy upon returning to our space is always palpable. People greet one another as they enter the space, sometimes taking a moment to let others know where they are from—Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Dallas, Washington, and even as far away as Australia! Of course, they haven’t actually traveled from those places. They are joining us from their homes, forming our little church online–worshipping, studying, praying, crying, and laughing together from all corners of the globe.
I’m a pastor serving the United Church of Christ, a circuit rider of sorts. But my tools are not the well-worn saddle and leather-bound Bibles of my forebears, nor are the places to which I travel connected by highways and byways. I am the minister of digital community at Extravagance UCC, and I serve a congregation that is scattered around the country, around the world even, in little communities we are cocreating on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Livestream.com.
We at Extravagance—myself and the other two ministers, Jo Hudson and Lawrence Tanner Richardson—work to create and sustain community through a variety of online ministries, such as live Bible studies on Zoom.us, asynchronous Facebook retreats, and ancient spiritual practices using Livestream.com. We even engage in frequent pastoral care through private messaging on Facebook, email, and text messages.
The worship service I described above is called Thin Places. At Thin Places we create sacred space through the weekly practice of lectio divina, and in that space we experience a thinning of the veil between the worlds that separate us from one another and from God. Over time, a strong sense of community and a deeper experience of faith has developed, even though we are separated by hundreds of miles and digital screens.
I know online church sounds weird–I hear it all the time. People tell me that it’s not real church if it’s not real brick and mortar. But my hunch is most Christians would agree that a building is not the church either. The community of believers is the real temple, the real church (2 Corinthians 3:16, Ephesians 2:21). Biblically speaking, the Christian holy place is as omnipresent as the ascended Lord. Church happens in spirit and reality inside God’s people, for that is where God lives.
Tim and Jan Kerr, two friends of Extravagance UCC and long-time participants in Thin Places, put it this way: “Thin Places is a spiritual oasis in the middle of the week, a way to intentionally slow down and connect with friends from all corners of the world—which gives us a picture of the church universal. We find it much easier to be honest and share online than we do in person. And, last but not least, there is great music and we get to go to church in our jammies!”
What I know to be true is that when our little congregation of Thin Places comes together each week, something holy happens despite our geographical distances. Sacred space settles around each of us and all of us as we listen, reflect, pray, laugh, and cry with one another. We celebrate one another’s successes, and we carry each other’s burdens, week in and week out, while attending to our inner lives through a synthesis of ancient and post-modern rituals.
In his study of base communities of Latin America, Ecclesiogenesis: The Base Communities Reinvent the Church (Orbis, 1986), Leonardo Boff wrote, “Grace and salvation are always expressed in sacramental form. They do not come like a bolt from the blue. They find their path to the hearts of human beings through all manner of mediations. The mediations can change, but grace and faith cannot.”
That’s why church and worship can happen in so many different ways—through a face-to-face encounter with a witnessing Christian, life in a well-established and traditional church, worship via the airwaves of radio and TV, or in a Celtic spirituality gathering via Livestream.com. Knowing and believing that the Holy Spirit can and does work in all of these ways compels me to create, participate in, and sustain online Christian community.
Kimberly Knight is a Minister of Digital Communities. For the last two years, Knight has served as the Director of Digital Strategy at Agnes Scott College. Knight is a social media coach and marketing consultant, online organizer and technology specialist with a passion and deep commitment to online ministry.