The digital cathedral: Networked ministry in a wireless world

Posted Feb 04, 2014 | New Media Project

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By Keith Anderson, guest blogger


This is the first in a five-part series on Keith's forthcoming book, The Digital Cathedral.

Keith AndersonFor our honeymoon, my wife and I spent six weeks traveling across Europe. We visited 16 cities in 11 countries over the course of six weeks. It was amazing—and exhausting.

Having developed an interest in medieval Christianity while in divinity school, I was anxious to see many of the places I had only read about in books. So, Jenny indulged me as we schlepped across the continent from church to monastery to cathedral. At times our trip felt less like a honeymoon and more like a pilgrimage. With Jenny’s forbearance, I toured these sites and took a ridiculous number of pictures, returning home (in the long ago time before digital cameras) with Ziploc® bags full of film canisters.

Along our European journeys we visited some of the great cathedrals: St. Mark’s in Venice, Notre-Dame in Paris, the Duomo in Florence, St. Peter’s in Rome, Chartres Cathedral in France, among others. One is easily awed at the beauty, the size, the vision, and the longevity of these ethereal spaces. They are meant to inspire, and they do. Then you walk outside the cathedral and quickly come back down to earth. You have to navigate around tour groups, sidewalk vendors, diesel fumes from idling tour buses, and, in Venice, the hoards of pigeons in St. Mark’s Square. It can be a let-down.

Later, I came to understand that these experiences of post-sanctuary urban clamor, too, are part of the cathedral—that the stories of cathedrals and their cities are deeply intertwined.

In fact, the cathedral was not just a monumental building, as we often think of it today, but rather a networked, relational, incarnational community that included people with a surprising range of beliefs and practices. Within premodern cathedral grounds were breweries and bakeries, granaries and gardens, monasteries and markets. Beyond the walls, the cathedral proper extended to the forests, fields, and villages where a diverse array of ordinary believers found the sacred in their waking and their sleeping, their toils and their leisure.

People lived life fully "in cathedral”—in relationship to one another within an expansive, everyday understanding of “church.”1

What does this have to do with social media?

Well, today, the places that are "in cathedral" are both local and digital—coffee shops, pubs, and parks; Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—as well as in the digitally-integrated connections people with smartphones and tablets make between their local participation and their digital networks.

In this digitally-integrated reality, ministry leaders can no longer rely on people finding them or their churches, no matter how beautiful their website, how good their SEO (search engine optimization), or how lovely their off-the-beaten-path, old stone church might be. They must be present, making connections, and building community in both online and offline spaces beyond the church building.

Yet today when we say, “church,” we often use it in the narrowest sense to refer only to “the building” itself rather than the people who move through it in the course of their worship and everyday life, and the neighborhood or city in which it is located, both filled with a dynamic diversity of cultures, concerns, and connections.

What if we were to reclaim this larger sense of “cathedral” and “church”—one that encompasses our daily working and living, that includes both local spaces like pubs, coffee shops, and parks, but also digital gathering spaces such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube? How can we understand all of these online and offline spaces as part of an expansive, networked whole? And how would this shift our practice of ministry, our leadership, and our assumptions about the loci of spiritual practice?

In this view, the spiritual life experienced “in cathedral” would include not just worship at the local church building, but also a family bustling through breakfast on the way to school and work. It would extend to bus stops, classrooms, coffee shops, offices, cafés, and so on, all of these holding the potential of further connection through smartphones, tablets, and laptops. In this digital cathedral, any node in the network can mediate the divine in everyday life, can function as sacred space. Here, our lowly digital devices invite pilgrimage every day across these networked sacred spaces.

Imagined this way, the digital cathedral is not a call to return to a time when church was at the center of the culture—even if that were possible. Rather, it is a warm, digitally-integrated embrace of the rich traditions of Christianity, especially the recovery of the premodern sense of cathedral, which encompassed the depth and breadth of daily life within the physical and imaginative landscape of the church.

1 This is a phrase coined by my co-author on Click2Save: The Digital Ministry Bible, Elizabeth Drescher, as a play on the term “ex cathedra,” which is literally “from the chair” of the bishop installed in the diocesan church; that is, speaking from “his” official station. By contrast, “in cathedral” speaks to the spirituality of everyday life in Christian community as this develops out of networked, relational experience in distinction from the formal spirituality of the institutional church.

The Rev. Keith Anderson is a pastor at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church in Ambler, PA. He is the author, with Elizabeth Drescher, of Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse 2012). His forthcoming book is called The Digital Cathedral. He blogs at pastorkeithanderson.net.

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.

2 Comments

  1. 1 Martin Davis 04 Feb
    Excellent piece. Did my doctoral work in English monastic history, and you point out the most important part of this world that people forget. Monasteries and churches and cathedrals were hardly places removed from the world--they were at the center of it. So thank you.

    The problem, of course, is that Christianity was institutional and political. The notion of "being" Christian or "becoming" Christian were foreign. You just "were" by virtue of birth. Hence, the notion of being "in cathedral" would have been foreign. Rather like we don't think about attending the Super Bowl as taking part in a uniquely American "religious" (and I do think it's religious) ritual. We just do it.

    Nonetheless, your point is well-taken, and well made. And the ramifications for Christianity are profound. From theology (largely irrelevant) to professionalism (why pay ministers?) to, as you note, property.

    Well done.
  2. 2 Keith Anderson 07 Feb
    Thanks, Marty. I appreciate your comment that being "in cathedral" was just taken for granted in that time. That's going to be an important piece to carry through into the book. One of these things I hope to do in the book is reflect on how we have created divisions between sacred and secular, the sacred and profane, and to think about how we can re-blur the lines between the two, moving to, as some have called it, a re-enchantment of everyday life, so that once again, we post-moderns, like pre-moderns before us, begin to see life as suffused with the holy.

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