It’s difficult to imagine a time in which the church would need to rely more on digital forms of social media than the coronavirus pandemic. From the initial days of the outbreak, recognizing an almost instinctual need to protect vulnerable members, congregations began leveraging various platforms in ways they might never previously imagined. Some of the most unlikely of church members gamely forged into the digital landscape, creating online profiles that they might stay connected with their church family. Pastors, whether they were previously reluctant or finally empowered, hopped on a steep learning curve to deliver online content. It was—and remains in some areas of the country—a vital way to keep one another connected for worship, Bible study, and Christian fellowship.
No doubt, today’s media has been a provision in a crisis that amazes us by its reach even as we are frustrated by technical glitches and a glaring, growing awareness of our own affectations. As we seek to figure out what a new normal looks like for the duration of the pandemic, we wonder how we can tame this beast for which we are deeply grateful even as we eye it with suspicion and wariness.
What is a congregation to do with this all-consuming media that allows us to stay in touch with ease even as it exhausts and threatens to overload its users? How does a congregation chart their way forward through terrain no seminary class or district learning event prepared them for?
Enter Angela Gorrells’s Always On: Practicing Faith in a New Media Landscape (Baker Academic, 2019) and her call for congregations to engage in thoughtful and theologically considered, meaningful dialogue around how they practice faithful discipleship through the use of new digital media. Gorrell does not anticipate the pandemic (Who would have believed her if she had?) yet addresses the complex reality pastors and congregations now find themselves in.
She confirms what any Christian with an online presence in 2020 has observed the past few months: The new media landscape offers a glorious possibility for the body of Christ even as it is fraught with profound brokenness. Scoping out the terrain of online communication, she addresses the frustrations many of us have encountered when online conversation devolves into fruitless conversation that diminishes humanity. She reminds her readers that social media platforms were designed with that media’s interest in mind and that their vision of the good life is not consistent with Christian faith. Readers familiar with Hauerwas and Willimon’s Resident Aliens (Abingdon, 2014) may identify common, overlapping themes of what it means to be Christian in a world of rampant individualism, profit-driven capitalism, and utilitarian goals. But Gorrell’s research and the anecdotes she includes offer relevancy for our current reality and the necessary conversations confronting churches today.
To that end, she shares on behalf of us who know what it is to receive an outpouring of support, prayer, and love as we have traversed through the valley of the shadow of death with loved ones. Not just a personal balm for a weary soul, online communication bears witness to the power of prayer and peaceful advocacy that persons and communities committed to truth-telling, compassion, and justice labor for.
Gorrell’s text addresses congregations ready to do the work of figuring out how they want to be in ministry, integrating new forms of social media in authentic, life-giving ways as they seek a Christian vision of the good life.
Her encouragement to seek imaginative, Spirit-lead faithfulness that fuses both online and offline forums is practically supported with thoughtful discussion questions and spiritually reflective exercises for persons and congregations ready to discern what twenty-first-century ministry looks like. Always On might be her title, but Gorrell is adamant that we all need tech sabbaths, or, at the very least, a rule within our communities that provide rhythms of rest and unplugging our devices.
I picked up Always On at a professional conference in fall 2019 with the idea that it might be something to incorporate into my classes this upcoming academic year. After reading it the last few weeks, I am certainly adding it to my fall syllabi. It’s not simply for the seminary student. I can’t think of a timelier, culturally relevant, and theologically astute text ready to address pastors and congregations for where they are now and how they want to engage ministry for the sake of Christ in this digital age.