Incarnation = digital + face-to-face

Wireless world, networked ministry — Part V of a series

by Rev. Rick King

Much is changing in the institutional church today, and the pandemic sped up the change in the past year and a half. This series of columns is based on the book “The Digital Cathedral,” by Rev. Keith Anderson, to expand our concept of Church beyond the bricks-and-mortar, exclusive-membership, financial and flesh-and-blood institution we’re used to, allowing God to birth the NEW reality, already underway in the world.

I used to say that unless digital relationships like those on social media sprang from flesh-and-blood relationships, they would just get in the way of the “real” relationships.

No longer. I’ve witnessed digital relationships blossom into face-to-face relationships, as well as vice versa. In his chapter on Incarnation, Keith Anderson writes that digital OR face-to-face is a false choice, because the internet is not distinct and separate from some supposedly more “real” life in the physical world.
As a prominent example (at least among ELCA Lutherans) of a leader who transcends this binary choice, Anderson offers Jim Hazelwood, bishop of the New England Synod of the ELCA, who from his consecration as bishop in 2012, began building relationships in person and online, starting with ELCA youth at the synod-wide youth gathering at Hammonasset State Park in Connecticut.

At the gathering his first year, he asked the 500 or so youth to take out their cell phones, flashed his own cell number on a screen, and instead of giving an address, invited them, in that moment, to text him their questions, “anything you want from the silly to the significant.” He says that within two minutes, his phone was on fire with 369 text messages.

It was a great way to begin a dialogue that continues to this day: “I’m not telling them to deny the reality of the world they live in by condemning social media or text messaging. Actually, I’m embracing it. They appreciate it. I may be having fun with them, even a little silly, but I remained the adult in the room. In other words, when I answer their questions honestly, they appreciate and respect me. It’s interactive. We no longer live in a world of presentations; we live in a world of engagement. I’m completely vulnerable, and they appreciate the risk I am taking. They see me goof up, struggle, and when I don’t know, well, they like that I don’t know.”

But Hazelwood also set a goal of visiting all 185 congregations in person, in a synod that extends over 70,000 square miles that extends across all five New England states and northern New York state. He has a website and blog called Bishop on a Bike (his motorcycle), and often rides to his visits.

The point is not the motorcycle or the blog (though he gets kudos for creative ministry that connects with people not part of any church, as well as good Lutherans in New England). The point is that CONNECTING to those in the system is important enough to go to any lengths necessary to accomplish it.

What do YOU long to do to connect with those you know with the unaffiliated/Spiritual But Not Religious/de-churched/Dones in YOUR life (and I know you have them; we all do)?

What would you like to see Katie and me do creatively to reach out?