Are We A Cyber Church?: Old First E-pistle 09.18.14

I have a friend who met someone on-line, but never in person. And from those interactions, he says, he really got to know the person… they experienced a depth, emotional intimacy, “a meeting of souls.” If I remember correctly, my friend felt they were “dating” though they lived on different continents and had never been in the same room. Maybe it’s a remembered exaggeration to make a point, but I think my friend even said they were “engaged” at one point.

Or I had a parishioner from the first church I served. She became a pen pal with an incarcerated man. The letters flowed back and forth, and next thing we knew, she wanted to marry him.

As her pastor, I joined her family in trying to talk her out of it. Not because someone incarcerated could not be worthy of her love. Or even that the relationship she was experiencing was not real. But because the separation, enforced by his long sentence, made courtship impractical and marriage, at least immediately, unnecessary. She responded: “As a pastor, you shouldn’t be getting in the way of love.”

I no longer remember all the details, but somehow they were married… I think, by the prison chaplain on one of her few visits to the prison. And — as might not be so surprising — after the waiting period for the first conjugal visit, where she got to spend the weekend with her husband in a trailer on the prison grounds (rather than a short time across a table in a hectic room under the rules and supervision of a prison guard) she decided he wasn’t really who she thought he was.

I found myself thinking of these two “at a distance relationships” recently — but questioning my own doubts — when I received an e-mail from someone telling me that Old First’s Facebook page and website — our online presence– had become her church. And, she informed me, that meant I was her pastor.

It might sound surprising. Even “kooky.” But it was actually a lovely note that thoughtfully articulated why Old First (or at least our web presence) was so meaningful for this woman. She wrote “there aren’t churches like yours around where I live.” And she explained, “your understanding and experience of faith helped me meet God.”

Hmm, that does sound like church! And, at least from her e-mail, she doesn’t sound starry-eyed or naive. She actually posed some pretty astute, pointed questions about our limitations and blind spots. And she got me thinking about, even reconsidering, the nature of relationships, community and church, especially in our electronic age.

So, first, my confession. I have some people who I’ve gotten to know online, but never met in person, who I consider friends, even dear to me. There’s a guy in Texas, a Taiwanese American immigrant with whom I share a lot of political interests and opinions. Our friendship is exclusively online, but we have messaged openly about our lives and aspirations. I also have a friend in the Philippines who was referred to me through church connections for a specific request, but with whom over time I become a friend. If I were ever to visit the Philippines, I’d want to see him.

Or even my friend Jane Ann, who certainly at times in my adulthood has been a best friend, once noted that in our overbooked and peripatetic lives, most often we have been to one another “disembodied voices at the end of a phone line or internet.” And all of us probably have those people we haven’t seen in years — perhaps a life time — and still consider close friends. So what makes for a relationship?

And though my “corresponding parishioner” did not indicate any desire to do so, I have been wondering what would happen if this woman began reaching out to or initiating conversations or “friendships” with others in our church community? She cannot do so from info. on our website. But Facebook is a “public space” — in that way not completely unlike the Sanctuary on a Sunday morning. I guess then, that it would be up to the individuals she might “introduce” herself to how they wish to respond. So what makes for a community?

Finally, the UCC has dreamed of and even attempted to create online church for those who are geographically dispersed. The latest of these is Extravagance UCC. The impetus is surely, in part, because we don’t have congregations near enough to everyone in the U.S. who we might be able to serve.

I’ve always thought cyber church was an admirable goal even if I can’t quite figure out how it might work. But I know that isolated individuals in hostile circumstances have often used the internet successfully to find and support one another. And I’m all for taking advantage of new and emerging technologies: they might turn out to be as important, even revolutionary for the church of the future as the printing press was for the Reformation. And at Old First, we are very deliberately using internet technology to stay in touch. So what makes for a church?

Still, I admit, I’m not sure. I am glad that we’ve ministered to someone who is far off. And I believe in the power of sharing the good news. And helping people feel not alone. Or even leading someone virtually to find God.

But how do we establish real fellowship, the depth of relationships, and the back and forth of community that make community transformative? (I even advice some folks who are new at church: “wait a while before joining… until you really know us.” Is that even possible from a distance?) More practically, how do we share communion? Or welcome someone through baptism? Or into the responsibilities as well as the rights of membership? Or… how to hug someone who is never “in the room with us?”

The woman who wrote me, obviously, will encounter these reflections as part of her experience of our church. Maybe she can help with the questions. And maybe we are already a cyber church, even without all the answers…

See (most of you!) in church,