Imagining a new normal: analogue and digital
How do we integrate old and new into a better future? In this long read, Bruce Murray highlights some of the areas churches may wish to consider
And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” Matthew 13:52
A recurrent conversation during 2020 centred on what the eventual future ‘new normal’ will look like. It was a conversation that highlights the widespread acceptance that there will be no return to the old normal.
The prospect of a new normal, of course, may we welcomed as an opportunity for positive change, or regretted as the loss of what was valued, or feared as a move in the wrong direction. Some voices are calling not for unthinking acceptance of the inevitable, for better or worse, but a rethinking of values and possibilities in order to make wise decisions about how to integrate old and new into a better future.
Followers of Jesus shaped by biblical understanding are in a good position to appreciate this approach. The Bible itself is divided into Old and New Testaments, because Jesus fulfilled the old covenant between God and his people and brought in a new one (Hebrews 8). The old was neither simply rejected nor perpetuated, but rather superseded by bringing its original intention to new expression. The old and new were not just bolted together – Jesus said that new wine needed new wineskins (Matthew 9:17). But what was of value in the old was carried into the new in fresh ways, and the new was in continuity with, and completion of, those values. Jesus said that every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old. (Matthew 13:52).
Of course, these texts were referring specifically to the coming of God’s kingdom in the person and work of Jesus; but, more generally, both biblical and extra-biblical history show not only that change usually involves a measure of continuity, but also that periods of renewal often reach back to recover foundational convictions and then reach forward to embody them in fresh ways.
Moving online - benefits
One element of the (post-)Covid new normal that almost everyone seems to agree is now inevitable is the moving online of much that was previously done face-to-face, whether for learning or working, shopping or entertainment, socialising or worshipping. Most people seem to envisage a future that is some combination of analogue and digital, and recognise that there are potential positive and negative aspects to this development. Now would be a good time to reflect on how what is valuable about the old and the new can inform any future normal.
According to a recent Guardian report, Lloyds Banking Group, which has 50,000 of its 65,000 staff working from home, has polled staff and found 89 per cent felt they were adapting well to the change. About two-thirds said they wanted to work from home more in the future. The chief executive said the staff survey would influence an existing plan to consolidate its office footprint into six strategic hubs across the UK, in London, Scotland, West Yorkshire, and the north-west, West Midlands and the south-west.
The chief executive of rival Barclays said his bank was also reviewing its property footprint after seeing how 30,000 of its 50,000 UK staff have been able to work from home effectively during the coronavirus crisis. But he also stressed the importance of getting staff together physically to improve culture and promote collaboration.
Of course, a large number of people do not work in offices so cannot work online from home, but if some of the influential players in the business and financial world do make this shift, and others follow their example, it could have significant social, economic and environmental impact. The relocation of staff from the south-east to other parts of the UK could catalyse regional regeneration (unless it also, for example, inflated housing prices beyond the affordability of local people), and the reduction of travelling could save time and money as well as benefitting the environment and public health.
Individual health might also benefit in some respects if GP appointments could take place online, where physical examination is not needed, and waiting times could be reduced. In England alone (a country of 56 million people) there are 100 million outpatient appointments per year. John Appleby, director of research and health economist at the Nuffield Trust, says that it’s probably not necessary for all of those to be conducted face to face, or to have a follow-up. Tele-medicine could similarly relieve the pressure on A&E, where a quarter of the ever-rising attendances are deemed unnecessary.
There are also suggestions that working online from home could have some beneficial impact on working culture, making it more flexible and family-friendly as working parents see more of each other and their children, and workers see each other via their screens in the more intimate spaces of their homes. Catharine Lumby, a professor of media studies, comments that ‘we may not be seeing each other at work these days but in some ways we’re seeing a lot more of each other than we anticipated… screens might be perversely better at connecting us than face-to-face workplace life.’
Moving online - downsides
However, there is of course another side to all this. Research commissioned by LinkedIn, in partnership with the Mental Health Foundation, has found that three quarters of managers feel remote working has the potential to negatively impact employees’ mental health by causing burnout and anxiety. They think it has encouraged ‘EPresenteeism’, meaning employees feel they should be online and available as much as possible. On average, those working from home are doing an extra 28 hours of monthly overtime since lockdown began. It equates to nearly four days’ work. It does not suggest any improvement in work-life balance.
For every employee finding freedom in keeping work and life in one place while totally eliminating travel time, there is likely to be another struggling to compartmentalize the two without distinct settings. Chris O’Sullivan from the Mental Health Foundation, says ‘we cannot have the same business-as-usual expectations of ourselves or of our employees – there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to work full time, look after children at home and keep up our other responsibilities.”
Some people find digital meetings more intense than face-to-face, especially if one Zoom meeting follows another in quick succession, while other people find them more focused. Some people experience online conversation as more intimate, others as more distant. Personality type, individual circumstances, physical disability and mental health issues are some of the factors that determine whether analogue or digital communication is more or less connective, comfortable, helpful and productive.
One obvious conclusion to draw from these reflections is that flexibility and personal choice, where possible, rather than black-and-white or one-size-fits-all approaches, will be important considerations in developing better ways of working and communicating in the future, both digitally and face-to-face.
Of course, work is just one of many areas of life that are increasingly online, along with shopping and entertainment, socialising and education. Before the COVID-19 spike, virtual events represented 0.1 per cent of all events organised through the invitation company Evite. By April 2020, 70 per cent of events thrown via Evite were happening online. Virtual gatherings include parties, quizzes, weddings and funerals. Interestingly, Evite’s CEO Victor Cho warns that stressed people feel virtually overscheduled, and even people starved for company need a break from screens occasionally.
But as well as the effects of online overload, there are also concerns of a more general kind to do with important aspects of human being and social relating that can get lost in digital connection. Consultant psychiatrist Mark Salter says ‘it’s very hard to reach out to establish and maintain an empathic, understanding, caring, loving, link with someone at the other end when you are not in the room. Those squeaks of the chair, those quiet sighs, those breaks of vision, those silent moments.
Using video conferencing is like speaking a foreign language. The whole process requires more cognitive effort, meaning the brain burns more glucose…It’s exhausting.’ Tech ethicist David Polgar comments that the Zoom boom has left us with a feeling of emotional deficit, especially the need for real-life human touch.
Most of us know how different the live experience of the arts or sport is from a screened version: there’s something about the atmosphere, ambience, excitement and shared experience that is hard to capture digitally. Yet edited recordings, action replays, multi-angled camera shots and close-up interviews with performers offer something not usually so available live. Fitness industry leader David Minton thinks that, despite the sales of gym equipment to individuals and the popularity of Joe Wicks and other online trainers during lockdown, as social beings in need of motivation people will flock back to gyms when they can, although these may increasingly be smaller, community-based gyms offering more personal training.
Lockdown has caused massive disruption to young people in education, their teachers and parents; but as Julie Mason, assistant head of a school in Birmingham, pointed out, its effect has been to accelerate the rate of teacher engagement with technology which was already the goal. Many schools were already using online platforms like ClassDojo, Show My Homework, Google Classroom and Firefly to set homework and award merits for good behaviour. Some have been able to adapt quickly to using these platforms more extensively for online learning, setting work for students and uploading resources like films, worksheets, texts and quizzes and linking out to resources from providers like BBC Bitesize Daily, the Oak National Academy, Pearson and White Rose Maths.
Three interesting observations have been made by those involved in this extension of digital learning.
First, it has highlighted the impact of social and economic inequalities. Even in a major economy such as the UK, a significant minority don't have ready access to a device of their own, which they can use for schoolwork, and some do not have a good broadband connection. (Ofcom estimates that 59 per cent of 12-15 year-olds have their own tablet.) Younger children are more dependent on help from parents in online learning, so experience disadvantage when their parents’ health, poverty or work commitments make them less able to help. A report published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in May 2020 found that children from less well-off backgrounds were spending less time learning online than children from better-off backgrounds.
Second, a smaller number of schools have been providing synchronous learning via video conferencing software, for child protection reasons and because of concerns about the online security of some of the online platforms.
Third, the limits and disbenefits of digital learning have also become apparent. In a BBC interview of teachers in June 2020, one English teacher commented that ‘teacher presence is an important part of the lesson. You need to guide the students through analysis of a text, annotating as you go. This was not possible with the platform we were using.’
Another teacher underlined the importance of the relationship between teacher and pupils, and acknowledged that ‘there is no doubt that a whole day of virtual learning would be difficult for anyone to focus on.’ A teacher of children with special needs said that they had less online engagement from SEND children and parents said they prefer physical packs. And for many teachers the increase of digital learning has also meant an increased workload.
These three observations could also be applied more generally to the wider population.
First, access to digital connection and communication, for whatever purpose, is dependent on people’s ability to afford or to make effective use of technology. There is a real risk that a significant number of people, through age or poverty or ill-health, may be silently bypassed and excluded.
Second, the increase of online activity has raised many concerns about privacy from contact tracing apps, mobile location data tracking, police surveillance drones, thermal cameras and facial recognition technology. Mark Surman, executive director of Firefox maker Mozilla, says that any decisions made in the next few years for COVID-19 will all have a privacy implication attached, and it'll take constant vigilance to ensure that the privacy norms established for the future are actually protecting people.
Third, whatever learning benefits may be had through digital platforms and processes (for example, in accessing data in multiple genres, connecting with a global learning community, receiving high-quality information, various kinds of collaborative working, and sophisticated tools for assessment), there are important aspects of human learning that can only happen face-to-face, in person, in presence, in real time.
Less attention seems to have been paid to the longer-term impact of digital processes on the nature of human learning and relating. Ten years ago Harvard researcher William Powers, in his book Hamlet’s Blackberry, explained how digital processes contribute to an increase in distractibility, a loss of depth and creativity of thought, and a reduced presence in interpersonal relationships. Jay Kim suggests that increased speed, choice and individualism have made our culture more impatient, shallow and isolated. Daniel Goleman (in Focus), Cal Newport (in Deep Work) and Alex Pang (in The Distraction Addiction) are among others who have highlighted that these impacts of digital processes are affecting the neurology of our brains, the quality of our relationships and the meaningfulness of our lives. Interestingly it is sometimes those at the forefront of technological innovation who are most aware of these issues, and are careful to limit their own and their children’s immersion in digital processes.
Digital and analogue church
A moment’s reflection on all this will underline its relevance also to Christian individuals and communities who may be wondering about the implications of a new normal of analogue and digital for forms of common worship, spiritual practices, mission, discipleship and fellowship that are both faithful to the unchanging gospel and appropriate in a changed culture.
Perhaps this may involve some rethinking about the old as well as creative thinking about the new; rather than preferring one to the other, it may be more helpful to focus on the kind of life Jesus calls us to and to explore the most fruitful ways in which both analogue and digital can help us to live it. These ways may take varied shapes and forms according to different needs, circumstances, opportunities and vocations. Just as in the workplace, one size does not fit all, and some people are recognising that giving employees more choice over where and how they work can lead to greater benefit for all, so it may be that an appropriate mixed economy of analogue and digital could bring creative and renewing benefits to the Christian community.
Among those exploring these issues, in 2020 a series of essays has been published (edited by Heidi Campbell) under the title The Distanced Church: Reflections on Doing Church Online (a free ebook), and Jay Kim has published a book, Analog Church: Why we Need Real People, Places, and Things in the Digital Age.
Distanced Church identifies some of the benefits of doing church online:
It can increase connection, inclusion and participation for some people, including young people, creatives, old people, those with childcare commitments, the geographically dispersed, and people with physical disabilities and social or mental health issues. Stephen Garner (co-author of Networked Theology: Negotiating Faith in Digital Culture, 2016) believes that
‘a new energy has been injected into many local pastoral care networks. Contact details are updated for church members and the families, members are connected to others in the church for regular prayer and pastoral check-ins, and a much stronger awareness of who has access to and the skills to use information technology for everyday tasks is developing.’
It can save time and money, with more focused meetings and delivery of information. Scott Thumma (Professor of Sociology of Religion) suggests that the three digital adaptations most likely to continue post-Covid are ‘online giving, livestreaming, and conferencing platforms for meetings. Online ways of giving will thrive because of the tangible benefit to the budget… Making the service available on members’ timeframes means more of them can “show up” virtually, and it can be captioned for the hearing-impaired…. Virtual-meeting software for committees and gatherings will survive because it allows greater involvement by busy members.’
It offers greater cultural relevance in a digital world. Scott Thumma hopes the pandemic will have the silver lining of ‘bringing religious communities into the 21st century technologically’, including trying out ‘screens in the sanctuary, image magnification of the preacher, digital daily devotionals, e-news announcements, and social media photo sharing.’
It can encourage new ways of participating in spiritual practices. Stephen Garner suggests that a more home-based focus is ‘pushing churches to be more intentional in resourcing people outside of regular church gatherings and to examine what are healthy rhythms of everyday life that attend to spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental needs shaped by a common life during isolation.
Common elements … include regular online morning and evening prayers, musical worship — streamed or interactive — throughout the week, daily activities for children, taking regular “Sabbath” breaks from news and digital media, intentionally eating meals together as a household, spending time in prayer and contemplation, help for working from home, shared reading of the Bible, encouraging responsible contact with neighbours, and making people available to provide all manner of support.
While not forming the kinds of rhythms that a monastic rule might have, the presence of these regular rhythms can provide much-needed stability and comfort in a world of confusion and anxiety.’
Peter Phillips (Director of the Centre for Digital Theology at the University of Durham) also points to ‘household services and Zoom congregations, as well as community developments such as virtual coffee shops and prayer stations … and “spiritual communion” (the spiritual reception of the blessing of the sacrament despite not physically eating/drinking the bread and wine). Tim Hutchings (author of Creating Church Online, 2017) says ‘Churches must find new ways to mark grief and support the bereaved … for example by using livestreaming to broadcast funerals to an audience who cannot attend … and inventing new practices and rituals to stay connected with the bereaved, to help process our grief, and mark our losses as a community and a society.’
Analog Church identifies some of the disadvantages, even dangers, of doing church online:
While cultural relevance is important, the church has always been most missionally relevant (and spiritually faithful) when it has challenged the prevailing cultural norms and values, offering something different. ‘Leading our churches headlong into digital spaces in hopes of creating an easy-to-consume Christian product severely diminishes our ability to meaningfully impact the culture around us… The Christian church has always been marked by her ability to create and invite people into transcendent spaces and experiences…. In the digital age, one of the most upside down things the church can offer is the invitation to be analogue, to come out of hiding from behind our digital walls, to bridge our technological divides, and to be human with one another in the truest sense – gathering together to be changed and transformed in real time, in real space, in real ways.’
Discipleship of Jesus requires patience, depth and community – the very things that stand in contradiction to the values of the digital age and are inhibited by digital processes. ‘While music, preaching, teaching, communion, giving and greeting one another do not encompass the whole of biblical worship, they are … some of the most common elements of the worship life of the gathered church.’ They involve whole-body participation. The increased use of digital technology tends to turn a worshipping community into an audience watching professionals perform. Video-teaching detaches content from dialogue and presence. The complex story of Scripture is turned into easy sound-bites and images, largely abstracted from biblical context and mainly focused on addressing immediate felt needs in a simplistic way. The prevalence of online services and sermons tends to encourage passive consumerism, celebrity-following (or ‘media clericalism’), copycat behaviours, and anxious comparisons.
And as for the shared meals, including communion that is at the heart of Christian worship and community, ‘as much as modern technology want to tell you so, you can’t eat and drink together online.’ [And similar observations could be made about the practices of confession, healing and ministry to the lonely, dying and bereaved.]
It’s important to ask what kinds of participation are being enabled, and information conveyed. On the whole digital informs, while analogue transforms – as a result of deeply connected lives. It is important to ask whether we are focusing on engagement or entertainment, watching at a distance or witnessing with real presence, communicating or communing, individualised convenience or common good, packaged commodity or gathered community. ‘The practices of the church, the gathered community of God’s people, require physical presence. Community always has been and always will be an analogue experience…. The church is what the ever-customizable, carefully curated and personalized world of social media and online platforms could never be. The church is community built primarily on commitment, over and above compatibility and comfort. The church is family.’
One thing that emerges from listening to both Distanced Church and Analogue Church is the recognition that the issues involved raise questions about ends as well as means, values as well as pragmatics, not just how to be connected, but what kinds of connection. They raise questions about what it means to be a member of the Christian church, what it means to follow Jesus, what it means to live healthily and authentically as a human being. And the ways we answer those questions give us criteria by which to reflect on both the old and the new, the past we’re familiar with and the future we envisage. They help us to discern wisely in relation to both digital and analogue, and to explore fresh ways of living and relating that form something different from both old and new – like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old. (Matthew 13:52)
For example, we might recognise that healthy, authentic relationships with other people and meaningful participation in community are vitally important for human wellbeing and following Jesus. We might then recognise that some people have experienced increased online living and digital communication as reducing or negatively affecting interpersonal relationships and community participation, in all the ways Analog Church has highlighted. On the other hand, Angela Gorrell (author of Always On: Practicing Faith in a New Media Landscape) notes that ‘the kinds of things that draw people to digital spaces and motivate them to use digital tools are opportunities for active and communal engagement, creating, sharing, mentorship, belonging, and relationship... The participatory nature of digital spaces and tools presents both challenges and opportunities for churches.’ One way of responding to these challenges and opportunities would be to explore a variety and combination of ways that authentic relationships and community participation could be encouraged and enabled through both digital and analogue means – and to discerningly guard against ways in which those values/goals could be hindered in either digital or analogue ways.
Of course this approach is more complex, flexible, multiform and organic than many organisations, including churches, are familiar with, and calls for different or developed kinds of leadership. Angela Gorrell suggests that ‘The major challenge for Christian leaders who nurture learning communities and oversee genuine Christian education and formation in this new media landscape is making shifts in worship services and other aspects of the community’s life together so that they become more participatory. That is, not just designing worship services (and other experiences) in a top-down manner where hand-selected people disseminate information but focusing on cultivating a Christian learning community that invites people into meaningful action and reflection, dialogue, creation, mentoring relationships, and meaningful conversation…
‘Another challenge is for Christian religious educators to see their work and the practice of Christian faith as involving both physical and digital spaces, both in-person and mediated communication. It is important that pastors and other types of Christian religious educators become committed to hybrid ministry and teaching hybrid faithful living — ministry and living out faith that occurs in church buildings and online…. There are limits to digital tools, and certainly forms of social media use can adversely affect users’ well-being, but it is essential for church leaders to begin to ask for God’s guidance in discerning what it means to do ministry and to live faithfully in a new media participatory culture…. It would ultimately encourage new ways of being in the world and living toward Christian visions of flourishing life…
Angela Gorrell’s focus here is on ‘the new media landscape’, but essentially she is encouraging us to use this moment of cultural change to reflect on analogue as well as digital experience, and to ‘ask for God’s guidance in discerning what it means to do ministry and to live faithfully’ in both physical and digital spaces.
In the midst of the current restrictions and requirements related to coronavirus, we may have little choice about how much we can actually do about all this in the present. But that very limitation may be a gift of ‘pause time’ to reflect, pray, converse, and seek God’s guidance for the future. This may be a time not to lament the passing of the old or to fear or unthinkingly embrace the new, but to listen thoughtfully, theologically, imaginatively and prayerfully to God and to one another.
Tim Hutchings suggests that ‘the closing of church buildings requires new thinking in the theology of place and presence…. The new class of “essential workers” maintaining our health services, food supplies and infrastructure calls for new attention to the theologies of work, sacrifice and social justice.’ Bex Lewis (author on digital discipleship, and children in a digital age) recognises that ‘there has always been resistance to online forms of church, with fears that it will replace face to face, but the digital offers possibilities and limits that are different from offline church, rather than its replacement…. In this time of the coronavirus crisis, more need to think how we will move the focus beyond the Sunday service to the 24/7 space of digital discipleship.’ And Moisés Sbardelotto (Communication Sciences assistant professor) cautions that ‘it is better to avoid advancing technologically if it means receding theologically and ecclesially, due to a lack of discernment.’
‘New thinking’, ‘more thinking’, ‘discernment’ – this is what is being called for, not as a substitute for action but to help us act more appropriately. In a difficult winter, with tighter restrictions, prolonged abnormality of life, further uncertainty, along with some months’ experience of and reflection on the issues raised by moving more online – we have further opportunity to think together before God and seek his guidance for the new normal.
Bruce Murray was a pastor for 17 years, and currently works in coaching, mental health mentoring and spiritual direction. He and his wife Lois lead retreats, and offer space for prayer, conversation and retreat at their home in Cornwall
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