Distributed church and the new normal of a pandemic world

April 7th, 2020
This article is featured in the Acting Missionally issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

There is no going “back to normal.” We must now learn to live into a “new normal.” The future has come in the night and we are here now. COVID-19 has thrust us fully into the new world that has been forming beneath the surface for quite some time.

Every church is a “distributed” church now, whether we like it or not. Distributed simply means “spread” or “shared.” It has been a word that we of the Fresh Expressions movement have often held together in creative tension with the “collected” church. We have also used the words “gathered and scattered,” “centered and dispersed,” “attractional and missional.” The key word for us has been “and” as we have advocated a blended ecology of church, where these modes of church live together.

We have been a canary in the mine, alerting the church to the need of a distributed way for several years now. Unfortunately, many churches in a Christendom paradigm have functioned in a “collected only” mode.

Quite frankly, a collected form of church is a fragmented imagination of the body of Christ. In Acts, from its very beginning we see a church both collected in the temple and distributed in the home (Acts 2:46). Jesus designed the church to be spread (Matt 28:18-20). The very Eucharistic nature of Jesus’ body is to be broken and shared (Lk 22:19, 1 Cor 12:27).

In my most recent book, A Field Guide to Methodist Fresh Expressions I explored the work of pioneering sociologist Manuel Castells. I want to offer a couple key points from the book relevant for a distributed church in a pandemic world.

Castells posits that at the end of the second millennium, a new form of society arose from the interactions of several major social, technological, economic and cultural transformations… the “network society,” a social structure made up of networks enabled by micro-electronics-based information and communications technologies. [1]

At the simplest level, a “network is a set of interconnected nodes.” So, networks of technologically enabled flows of multimodal communication connect in real physical and digital localities that Castells calls “nodes.” A node could be anything in a specific network, from a city, to a restaurant, to a park, to a laptop, to an iPhone screen. The nodes are the connection points determined by the network.

For instance, the nodes of a financial network may be an auto debit paycheck deposited in a banking site, an e-trade account on a home personal computer, to a stock market exchange, then cash coming out of an ATM. The nodes of the illegal drug trade network that penetrates economies, states and societies across the world, could be “coca fields and poppy fields, clandestine laboratories, secret landing strips, street gangs and money laundering financial institutions.” [2]

So, what does this looks like in our everyday life? We most likely live in a place ― our home, apartment, condominium, and so on. But our home is also a “node” in a larger network. We surf the web, Facetime and send emails that have global implications at the speed of digital light.

For example, a friend through one of our social media sites (Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, for example), invites us to a local coffee shop tomorrow afternoon. The coffee shop is a node where other networks interact. For instance, a yoga group is using the front porch, a group of entrepreneurs are convening in the backroom, also connected here by the digitally enabled flows. The shop owner makes credit card transactions that travel as digital currency into the flows that connect a larger global financial network. Many networks are interacting in one location, all participating in a larger network of connections. Right at your local coffee shop!

The massive social shifts have literally transformed the human experience of space and time. In a network society, Castells shows that we must now recognize the difference between two kinds of space… the space of place and the space of flows. Castells believes that space, throughout human history, has been “the material support of simultaneity in human social practice.” So, cities for instance, are communication systems, increasing the chance of communication through physical contiguity (direct contact). He calls the space of place, the space of contiguity. [3]

Through the amalgamation of these technologies, along with computerized transportation, “simultaneity was introduced in social relationships at a distance” (distanced contact). This transformation of the spatiality of social interaction through simultaneity creates a new kind of space… the space of flows. Castells defines the space of flows as, “the material support of simultaneous social practices communicated at a distance.” [4]

Castells writes, “The key innovation and decision-making processes take place in face-to-face contacts, and they still require a shared space of places, well-connected through its articulation to the space of flows.” [5] Microelectronic and communication technologies serve as flows that enable us to connect across geographies and time. “Flows” of capital, information, organizational interaction, images, sounds and symbols move along a complex web of interconnected networks enabled by these technologies. Flows are the means through which the movement of people, objects and things are accomplished from one node to another in social space. The network society is an interconnected matrix, enabled by these technologically enabled flows. The flows are the social organization, the expression of processes dominating our economic, political and symbolic life. [6]

In Fresh Expressions we describe the first, second and third places, concepts originating from the work of sociologist Ray Oldenburg. First Place: The home or primary place of residence. Second Place: The workplace or school place. Third Place: The public places separate from the two usual social environments of home and workplace, which “host regular, voluntary, informal and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals.” Examples are environments such as cafes, pubs, theaters, parks and so on.

In a pandemic world, for those of us who are fresh expressions practitioners, our two primary mission spaces have been closed off, the second and third places are shut down. We cannot have Tattoo Parlor Church; the tattoo parlor is closed. We cannot gather in Moe’s Southwest Grill for Burritos and Bibles; they are doing take-out only. The dog park is empty, as people are quarantined at home… no Paws of Praise.

This limits us to the only spaces we have left:

  1. The first place, or the home place. 
  2. The digital place, or the “space of flows.” 

This has challenged us and forced us to ask some big questions.

Are we really present in our home places when we are physically there? For instance, if I’m in my home in Wildwood, Florida, but using FaceTime with my friend in London, what time zone am I in? Or if I’m corresponding through email with a friend in California, am I fully present in Florida? If I’m watching a livestream video of my colleague in Momostenango, Guatemala leading a prayer march as it unfolds in real time, where is my consciousness? My body could be present as well, since I can literally fly (in an airplane), jumping space and time, to any of these places in less than a day. Castells suggests that, “computers, communications systems and genetic decoding and programming are all amplifiers and extensions of the human mind.” [8]

These technologies literally enable us to be present to some degree across the world at any given moment. A part of us, our technologically extended mind, is actually in both places simultaneously. The technology enables a kind of extension of ourselves to be present on the digital frontier. This leads to the compression and transformation of time, that is “the development of flex-time, and the end of separation of working time, personal time and family time, as in the penetration of all time/spaces by wireless communication devices that blur different practices in a simultaneous time frame through the massive habit of multi-tasking.” [9]

In the space of flows, Castells speaks of a “timeless time” and a distinction between the “instant time of computerized networks versus clock time of everyday life.” [10]

These transformations can have a significantly adverse effect… a disembodied life. Thus, the very nature of a hyper-connected global community, creates disjuncture by the loss of commitment to a particular locality. The separation caused by the emerging societal structure leads to deterritorialization, which refers to the disconnection between peoples, culture and place. Or it means the distancing from one’s locality made possible by these flows in virtual, cultural, and physical globalization. If people are spending 10 hours per day on screens, how present are we to the physical environment and people where our bodies are at any given moment?

In a culture where most people don’t know our next-door neighbors physically, we have vast networks of next-door global neighbors digitally. Relationships are largely enabled and sustained through flows of communication technology. People connect physically through the flows, across geographies, to engage communal practices in neutral places. These network-based relationships bring healing to our isolation and satisfy our longing for human connection. If we believe the Spirit is at work in the seemingly random encounters of our day-to-day lives, why would we doubt that the Spirit is “going native” through these technologically enabled flows in the digital frontier?

In the network society, the web as a global integrated communication system is a new communal place. Manuel Castells notes the existence of a phenomenon called “real virtuality.” While “virtual” infers presence in the online platform which may be defined by the lack of materiality, this separation is not so clear for emerging generations.

The web and wireless communications are more than traditional media, they are a global means of interactive, multimodal, mass self-communication. Castells writes,

“For hundreds of millions of Internet users under 30, on-line communities have become a fundamental dimension of everyday life that keeps growing everywhere… on-line communities are fast developing not as a virtual world, but as a real virtuality integrated with other forms of interaction in an increasingly hybridized everyday life.” [11]

Thus, the distinction between real and virtual made by more chronologically mature generations is changing. Virtual reality is reality. Also, the idea of defining oneself by a locality is a fading phenomenon. Due to the power of mobilization and technologically enabled flows, we may work in one city, go to school in another town, gather for communal practices in several and yet live in another.

The culture of real virtuality, “weakens considerably the symbolic power of traditional senders external to the system, transmitting through historically encoded social habits: religion, morality, authority, traditional values, political ideology … unless they recode themselves in the new system, where the power becomes multiplied by the electronic materialization of the spiritually transmitted habits” (italics mine). [12]

Paul and his missionary teams were recoding themselves, programming the truth of Jesus into the Greco-Roman system. John Wesley and the early Methodists recoded the Christian faith into the dawning industrial society (as well as the emerging European colonial expansion), in “plain words for plain people” by harnessing the emerging technologies.

This is what fresh expressions pioneers are up to today in a pandemic world, finding ways to recode the gospel in a digital frontier.

In an age where the space of flows and the space of places coexist and interconnect, and a presence in the digital landscape makes a physical building unnecessary for the encounter, pioneers are harnessing social media and networking technologies to create digital Jesus communities.

In social media flows, we connect with those outside typical church circles. Just as technology has become an extension of the human mind, so it is becoming an extension of the human communities of faith. Emerging generations who get their news through social media will also have their first encounters with churches through social media.

This is happening now in the COVID-19 crisis in a massive way, as Christians literally “broke the internet” iterating with various forms of digital church.

In a new form of distributed church, pioneering Jesus followers are learning to live incarnationally in digital space. Today, the “node” of the first place is potentially our most promising space for kingdom activity. Families are experiencing a felt need of home-based discipleship. We can harness the flows to offer relationship and resources in this area.

Digitally, through a loving, relational, withness approach to evangelism, we can invite people to live together under the Lordship of Jesus.

In a pandemic world, while we are hyper-connected all the time, never have we been more alone. Isolation is the great soul wound of our time. Fresh Expressions of church once formed organically with groups of people connecting in neutral places around practices. The practices themselves were transformed as disciples sought to live under the Lordship of Jesus in the micro-community. Other participants in that practice experienced transformation as they grew in their relationship with the Jesus follower.

The emergence of this new form of society necessitates a revolution in the missionary approach in the U.S. How is Jesus Lord of the digital realm? How can we be a new form of distributed church? John Wesley saw the change in his own day, and adapted practices to reach people where they were. This is what the fresh expressions movement is allowing us to do today.

Church is not closed, it’s been distributed. Further, maybe “going digital” with worship is not about doing the same polished stage shows as before, but now pre-recording it in an empty sanctuary. Was that really producing disciples of Jesus anyway? Lots of folks have “gone to church” their whole lives and never become actual Christians.

Maybe this crisis is enabling us to reset worship. I’m finding people are really longing for real spiritual conversations about their walk with Jesus, and digital flows enable this. That is actually a form of worship. That is church.

Tech-glitches are a welcome sight for many. Small churches, low tech, low “production quality” are owning their uniqueness harnessing free technologies to provide the connection that people are really longing for. Scientists are showing how FaceTime provides real connection, by enabling the communicants to see each other’s eyes, mouth and facial expressions.

What a profound opportunity to unleash the priesthood of all believers, and hit the reset button on what church can, should, and will be.

In these days, the World Wide Web is our parish and screens are our pulpits. Let’s awaken from our apostolic amnesia.

Finally, I am not advocating a digitally distributed church only. This would be just as fragmented as a physically collected only church. In fact, I’m noticing three important trends:

  1. Young folks are learning the value of old school acts of love: phone trees, care packages, or sending a letter by snail mail. 
  2. Older folks are learning the value of love through digital technology: virtual is real, social media provides connection, church doesn’t need a building. 
  3. Placefulness: Jenny Odell employs this term to describe sensitivity and responsibility to the historical (what happened here) and ecological (who and what lives, or lived here). Odell holds up bioregionalism (this involves the interrelation of human activity with ecological and geographical features) as a model for how we might be able to think about our place again. [13]

In the network society, the de-territorial-ization describes the disconnection from geography in a digital world. As we live in the space of real virtuality, hyperconnected by the screens of our tech devices, we become dislocated from our neighborhoods.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused us to “hunker down” and practice “social distancing” but simultaneously forced us to stay in our “place.” In many cases we had forgotten that physical space was even there, but exhaustion from the constant fixation on our anxiety inducing screens, caused us to take walks, look around, see our place again. I will offer a later reflection entirely on this trend.

The church of the pandemic world will be both/and, but rather than understanding our experimentation as temporary to “get back to normal” perhaps we should embrace our new reality for the long haul. The church should be deeply concerned particularly for the vulnerable elderly of our population. People are not disposable. We are not a device that outlives our usefulness. Perhaps a learning from the Coronavirus is the deep sense of connectedness we all share, and that our longing for physical connection defies the misguided techno–determinism of our society.

Amid the anxiety, we can assure the world two things:

  1. You are massively loved by God. 
  2. You are not alone. We are all in this together. 

COVID-19 has awakened a sleeping giant called the distributed church. Unleashing the so-called “ordinary” Christians, as an extraordinary priesthood. The days of the televangelist have passed. The days of digital evangelism by the whole people of God has come. Every person has a role to play in the collected and distributed church, and historically this has been the most thriving times in the church’s history.

[1] Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 2000. Pp. xvii-xviii.

[2] Castells, 501.

[3] Castells, xxxi.

[4] Castells. P. xxxi.

[5] Castells. P. xxxvi.

[6] Castells. P. 442.

[7] Oldenburg, Ray. The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. New York Berkeley, Calif: Marlowe Distributed by Publishers Group West, 1999. P. 16.

[8] Castells. P. 31.

[9] Castells p. xli.

[10] Castells p. 506

[11] Castells, P. xxix.

[12] Castells p. 406.

[13] Odell, Jenny. How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, (2019), xvii.

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