The following post was inspired by “Always On” by Angela Williams Gorrell.
The title of Angela Williams Gorrell’s book is eye-catching and apt at describing many of us – Always On. The book’s big idea is to help us understand the world of social media and how to engage it faithfully, constructively, and pastoral. How are people being impacted by the new media, and how does the engagement on social media say or tell us about you. So she is calling people to reflect theologically on the development of the new media and, in so doing, use it for the purposes of spiritual formation.
The book progresses from chapter one, where she provides questions to help the church reflect on new media’s possibilities and its brokenness. Being real about what has been going on in the new media but moving the conversation to a new level of imagination of how it could be redeemed theologically and be Spirit-guided, leading to fruitful discussions. In chapter two, she examines the term new media terrain encompasses and provides insight into why new media is connected to the Christian faith and is meaningful to people and Christian Communities. Chapter 3 describes the shaping stories examining how we share stories online and how that shapes us. She looks at the designers and developers of new media and how they become channels of enhancing the stories, arguing that the media’s form and structure contribute to what will be told and how it would be received.
Chapter 4 turns toward imagining Jesus’s life and ministry as a methodology for articulating Christian visions of the true life. She carefully draws the reader to transcend the designers and developers, and owners of the platform to see how Jesus would act and feel when using new media and what kind of unique media circumstances Jesus would seek to create. In chapters 5&6, she aims to set a convergence that there is a hybrid living that is faithful and fruitful. It will bring joy and peace in the Holy Ghost and requires grit and a commitment to practice discernment and nurture a hybrid, healing community regularly. She shares the principles and the ways to live out practical ways to develop hybrid Christian practices and design a rule for life in a new media landscape.
Gorrell’s book highlighted the fact that the new media is the harvest field ready to be harvested that Jesus talked about. Alongside personal faith formation, Christians are called to be the light and salt of the world. Because the means by which God communicates and reveals himself through his Spirit is us, then our media platforms should be products that show a life transformed by Christ and should draw others to it. Her book made the concept of incarnational living real. In the new media, one can exercise an Incarnational mission, living amongst and alongside people as witnesses. Our presence, among others, instead of inviting them to come to us.
The radical message is in line with Romans 12 that note we live within the community, building relationships yet being distinctive and transformative. Being true to oneself does not mean hiding and protecting self behind the screens and keys but undertaking daily life alongside the people, working with people where they are rather than trying to get them into specific practices and buildings where church typically lives. In essence, our lives are watched, and our faith is put into practice because we are not working from a position of power wanting to save people but are coming from a place of weakness, banding with the weak and broken and pointing each other to the Savior Jesus Christ.
As I pondered the implication of the digital era, I have some repenting to do. If billions of people are online asking all manner of questions, including theological questions, it makes sense for a Christian witness presence. My judging the online community by standards that even us who are offline cannot abide by is hypocrisy. Jesus’s parable in Luke 10:25-37 depicts the truth about many of us offline people. Those who communicate online are like the good Samaritan; they are, in effect, the good neighbor, and we should join in and do likewise. Being offline is sideling with injustice and against the “others.” The Samaritan who shared what he had drew a fascination on the hearers and more so for the wounded Jew.
I would agree that the new media has opened up avenues for seeing and being seen, knowing and being known, being in a and belonging to a community, and for the voices of many to be heard. As a connections pastor, I should be at the forefront of using the new media to build faith communities that shine brightly into the dark world, as witness and salt to the world. I need to challenge the assumptions that true community cannot be found online as to how many Christians look at online communities as a threat. There are opportunities for deeper, more interesting, more honest, more authentic, and supportive relationships online. As a pastor, I should look for how I can take advantage of how people’s true color is seen online than face to face and craft a curriculum that will reach them as they are. Think of the confessional box and how, for years, the roman catholic church has discipled their flock and how spiritually formed their congregation have turned out to be because of the practice of confessing.
The reality of “cheating” online is the same as cheating offline, and hence that should not hinder the church from engaging with and evaluate digital cultures critically. Our work as a church is not online police activities but to be salt and light, be the good Samaritan, and keep sharing and living incarnational lives among and alongside those online communities.
Gorell, Angela. Always On: Practicing Faith in a New Media Landscape. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019