Does our ‘digitology’ match our ecclesiology?

Posted May 11, 2012 | New Media Project

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By Jim Rice


Note: In the month of May 2012, the six New Media Research Fellows will be blogging about their newly posted theological essays. Look for the link below.

Aligning our beliefs and our actions is usually described by a simple word: integrity. But how much do we stop to think about how well our online activities, especially in the newest forms of social media, line up with our beliefs about how followers of Jesus ought to configure and organize themselves as a body? In other words, do our theological understandings and commitments in the realm of ecclesiology have anything to do with the corporate electronic practices of our church or religious body? Should they?

An earlier post here on the New Media Project site (“New models of the church in a new media world”) looked at the various “models” of the church suggested by Catholic theologian Avery Dulles in his book by the same name (Models of the Church). Dulles offered these various paradigms, drawing on a range of theological schools and traditions, both Protestant and Catholic, to illuminate different aspects of the church.

The various streams and traditions of the church today align themselves, explicitly or implicitly, with these diverse models and their differing beliefs about ecclesial authority. Some church institutions take the form of an episcopate, in which ecclesial authority is passed on through ordination by bishops. Others have a more congregational polity, in which congregations raise up leaders from their midst. Still other churches are somewhere in between.

But how are these various approaches to church authority and structure reflected in how social media is used? Do the ecclesiological assumptions of your religious organization, community, or network affect how it approaches the use of social media? For instance, if your church sees its primary ecclesial model as “herald,” to proclaim the Word, is that reflected in its use of new media? Or if the “church as community” is your principal ecclesial model, is digital media primarily used to build bonds among the community of the faithful? Likewise, if you see the church as essentially acting as “servant” to the world, does your use of social media go beyond the boundaries of your own body to be a vehicle of justice for the marginalized?

Conversely, do the corporate electronic practices of your church or religious body reflect your theological understandings and commitments? What are the theological assumptions behind the practices of your organization or community? Could your body act in ways that reflect a more conscious awareness of such assumptions?

These questions form the heart of the essay “Models of the church and social media: toward a digital ecclesiology.” Taking Dulles’ models as framework, the essay looks at various new media practices and examines the implied ecclesiology behind them. The essay serves as an invitation, and perhaps a starting point, as we take steps to align our theological beliefs and our actions in the fast-changing world of new media.

Jim Rice, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is editor of Sojourners magazine in Washington, D.C.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

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