A sense of church

Posted Aug 17, 2012 | New Media Project

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By Monica A. Coleman


I really enjoy the use of new media in churches. When I can’t make it out of the house, I watch worship services via livestream on my smartphone. I prefer to tithe via credit card on the church website, and I love that my church sends pictures and announcements via email twice a week. And if my church had its own app ... I’d be in technology heaven. This allows me to feel connected even when I can’t make it to church.

Nevertheless, in the challenging and crucial moments of my spiritual life, I find myself yearning for the sensations of my church past. I want to feel the wood of the altar at the church I attended during college. I remember how many times I collapsed there, pouring my heart out to God. I want to smell the incense and holy water of the church next to my Catholic elementary school. It’s the holiest scent I know. I want to hear the low moans of the deacons on the mourner’s bench at my grandmother’s church. They knew how to embrace pain without isolating one another. I want to travel 3000 miles away and dress my infant in the same white dress I wore, all to be dedicated at the same church where I was introduced to church community.

Place matters to me. The smells, sounds, and sensate feelings of church matter to me. These are the things to which I return at the rock bottom of my faith. These are the parts of church I most want to give my children.

I can’t help but to wonder what kinds of senses are embedded in people who access church primarily through new media. Will they remember the feel of the smartphone in their hands? The sounds that pipe through the headphones? The tone the mail server makes when indicating that there’s a new message from the church?

I’m torn. Perhaps there are some important things about church that simply don’t translate into new media. Here at the New Media Project, we’ve thought about that a lot. One of our biggest questions remains: Can you do the Eucharist online? Is it still Eucharist? One of our case study subjects seems to say so. We’ve long suggested a thoughtful and savvy combination of traditional and new media as the most effective way forward.

Perhaps I’m not thinking creatively enough. Perhaps I am limited by my emotional connection to my experience of church. After all, new media engages senses as well. We experience unique forms of embodiment with new media. Perhaps the feel of the smartphone, touch screen, and keyboards can be understood as sacred.

Years from now, what will be the comforting and familiar sounds, smells, and feelings of church for people who know church largely through new media? What do you think are the senses of new media church?

Monica A. Coleman, a research fellow for the New Media Project, serves as Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religions and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Associate Professor of Religion at Claremont Graduate University in southern California.

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.

3 Comments

  1. 1 @tim_hutchings 31 Jan
    Nice post, Monica, thanks.

    I've been going to church online for a few years, so maybe I can answer your question from a little personal experience.

    What do I remember? The feeling of sitting in that hallway in my rented student house, using the one computer with an internet connection, to chat online to new friends late at night. I remember the excitement of going to meet them on the train. I remember the look of the chatroom we used, the little images that people shared, the avatar I had. I remember the cards and gifts my online friends sent to me in the post.

    This might mean nothing at all to you - just as your "mourning benches" mean nothing to me. But the key point, I think, is that none of our sensory experiences are inherently sacred. There is no reason why stone pillars and wood pews should be special, and not carpets or touchscreens. We learn to meet God (and community) through the objects and places around us, and as people grow up with online worship they find new memories and experiences to cherish.
  2. 2 Anonymous 31 Jan
    As a techie by nature yet one who prefers Facelook over Facebook, I cannot help but to wonder just how one can share another's grief or joy online in the same sense as they can face-to-face. For there are some experiences which can only take place in the physical. When the Bible states that we should not give up meeting together, that is what I believe the writer to have meant.

    Nevertheless, this is not an issue of doctrine so I will engage this debate with a kingdom view with the hope of whether one attends service online or in person, they come to saving faith and the Spirit leads them to conclude their manner and location of worship.
  3. 3 Monica A. Coleman 31 Jan
    Thank you for sharing. It seems that perhaps more of our sensory experiences are sacred than not. How wonderful!

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