Digital Clericalism For The 21st Century

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More than twenty years ago, a young Anglican priest wrote, ‘Some laity still find it fanciful that their parish has a Web page, and some clergy proudly boast that they don’t know how to use the Internet and never plan to learn. (If you want to know how that sounds to me, substitute “telephone” in the sentence. Substitute “car.” Substitute “electric light.”’ The technology has changed since then, but many of the attitudes remain the same. Some laity find it fanciful that their parish has a mobile app, and some clergy proudly boast that they don’t know how to use social media and never plan to learn. The coronavirus pandemic and the shutdowns that came with it may have finally been able to drag the Church into the 21st century, but unfortunately, this sometimes means being dragged into the 2000s or 2010s instead of the 2020s, while the rest of the world’s technology progresses at the same breakneck pace.

There are two significant challenges facing the church in an increasingly digital age, and it’s difficult to tell which is more dangerous. One is the temptation to ignore the opportunities for digital ministry, waiting until the pandemic is over and life can go ‘back to normal’. This approach conveniently overlooks the fact that the people we are called to preach and minister to and with have been living in a hybrid online/in-person life for years. Not engaging with them in a significant segment of their life means abandoning the mission of the church and slipping into irrelevance. We should be fighting that temptation with everything we’ve got.

But there’s another temptation. Some congregations have been content to let Someone Else figure out how to start the work of setting up a livestreamed liturgy, or organizing the online Bible Study or Zoom Coffee Hour. That Someone Else might be the clergy, or it might be a parishioner who’s technically savvy, or one of the youth because ‘they’re always on their phones anyway’. But this approach runs the risk of making one person completely indispensable for the church’s entire digital ministry. If that person gets sick, or needs a vacation, or moves away, everything could come crashing to a halt. What’s more, letting Someone Else do it reinforces the message that ministry is Someone Else’s responsibility, and not the work of the whole people of God. Whether it’s the clergy or a clericalized group of laity doing the work, this is a new kind of digital clericalism for the 21st century.

If the Church is going to be serious about mission and ministry, we all have to take digital ministry seriously as well. This is about communication, social media, online worship, and about how we build and nurture communities electronically. If the Church is going to make this a priority, then every parish and every congregation should have someone taking responsibility for digital ministry. Not just a Director of Digital Ministry, but someone who equips the saints, and helps keep everyone engaged and engaging with each other. There ought to be someone at the diocesan level responsible for making sure that every parish and congregation in a Diocese has people in place to take digital ministry seriously and make it a priority. They should be keeping those people connected and helping provide them with tools, knowledge, and a community that supports them.

There are those in the church who want to treat any mission, digital or otherwise, as an optional extra: something trendy and peripheral to the real business of ‘church as usual’ on Sunday. There are those who want to make it Someone Else’s responsibility, so that they don’t have to think about it. The Church’s struggles with digital ministry may be a symptom of our struggles with ministry in general. What kind of Church do we want to belong to: an irrelevant one that has abandoned our call to mission, a clericalized one that relies on Someone Else to do everything for us, or one that calls us all to ministry and gives us the tools for that ministry?

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