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Religious Community in a Digital World

  July 4, 2022

A recent online  conference, “Religious Community in a Digital World,”  was hosted by St. Thomas More College, Lutheran Theological Seminary, the College of Emmanuel and St. Chad, and St. Andrew’s College, Saskatoon. 

The conference gathered academics, authors and religious leaders from across North America to discuss the changes technology, and the pandemic era, have brought to the Christian church.

Presentations by keynote speakers were held throughout the 4 day event.  Other sessions scheduled were small-group discussions, and workshops.  The entire event was "anchored" by daily on-line worship gatherings. 

The keynote speakers featured:

  • Dr. Deanna Thompson,
    Director, Lutheran Center for Faith, Values, & Community in Northfield, Minnesota;
  • The Rev. Jeffrey Mahan,
    Professor of Religion & Communication, Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.

Deanna Thompson broke her back in 2008.
While she was recovering from the injury, she also had radiotherapy treatment for cancer, making her sick to her stomach. The resulting combination meant changes to her body and self-image, and made it hard for her to do her ministry work, let alone socialize in person.

“I couldn’t keep food down...(you) could see my ribs protruding. I looked like I was dying,” she said.  

For many people as seriously ill as she was, the resulting fear and anguish have less to do with dying than with the diminishment of themselves, she said.

This reality confronted her when she struggled with the demands and challenges of leaving the house...(forcing) her to face the emotional pain of living in a newly limited body.

So when the COVID-19 pandemic forced churches switch to virtual services, Thompson, was primed with a different perspective on what it meant to gather remotely. .

“We know that serious illnesses are really, really difficult physically.  But I’m not sure we fully appreciate the psychological, emotional, and spiritual toll of when (your) body is so very altered,” she explained.

“...Being in virtual spaces can be a gift, because it gives you a little bit of protection or a barrier to having this body that is so different. [It stops it] from being so front and centre.”

"...This is one reason why remote attendance options are a source of opportunities—while making space to acknowledge the lament over what churches lost when congregations weren’t able to gather in-person", Thompson said.  

Though some people have concerns about the accessibility of digital gathering options for those who lack the required "technical literacy", Thompson notes that broadcasting church service options provide accessibility to those people who are homebound, or have various mobility limitations. 


Jeffrey Mahan looked at the COVID-19 era’s effects on religious communities as just the latest piece in a shift in the way people think about belonging and identity in general—a shift he said Christian communities are already far behind.

The internet has changed what it means to be a member of anything, he said.

By letting them click “like” on multiple ideas, speakers or ideologies in a day—rather than formally join a church, social movement or political party and stick with it—the internet gives users a more "fluid sense of belonging".

In this  current climate, he says, church organizations need to rethink what it means to be a part of a person’s individual story of faith.

The onus is now on established congregations to make themselves accessible to the newcomer, rather than expecting the newcomer to do the work to fit in.

Mahan offered that a single church won’t be the only—even the primary— community  to which many people will/ do belong. 

....Today’s dispersal of commitment doesn’t fit with the ways established churches expect their members to act.

  • “Presently, we’re telling them that their spiritual disciplines look thin."
  • "What if, instead, we take seriously their spiritual questions and desire for ritual and connection?"
  • "Can we do that without demanding they adopt our habits and assumptions?”

  • Thompson focused on the aspects of digital culture that are new to the established church, both in terms of what it has lost and what it might gain;
  • Mahan focused on a cultural change that has already happened, leaving the church to catch up.

“We are well into a transition—a decline in a way of being that hasn’t meant that religion or Christianity are going away but that they’re finding different and more fluid forms,” Mahan said.

“If we’re going to make a difference, if we’re going to be in the conversation, if congregations are going to survive, they have to figure out how to be in that space."