Community formation and social media: Online altar rails

Posted Aug 19, 2014 | New Media Project

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By Monica A. Coleman


This is the ninth in a twelve-part series on Community formation and social media.

Monica A. ColemanIn many traditional churches in my denomination (A.M.E. Church), there are altar rails. An altar rail is a wooden railing that distinguishes the pulpit area from the rest of the sanctuary. They are most common in Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and Methodist communions. Altar rails are sometimes ornate with carvings in marble. Other times, they are made of plain wood. While they often serve to indicate who is ordained into ministry and who is not, I’ve rarely understood altar rails that way. For me, they have always been a place of healing.

Altar rails are also suitable for kneeling. Many A.M.E. churches serve Eucharist at the altar, while parishioners receive it to the singing of “Let us break bread together on our knees.” I’ve also been a member of churches that invite attendees to the altar rail for prayer. Here, I’ve knelt for as long as I’ve needed—30 seconds to ten minutes—pouring my heart out before God. I can kneel and pray at home, but doing so at an altar rail reveals that I’m also pouring my heart out in front of and with my church family. I’ve rushed to the altar rail in seasons of heartbreak, grief, disappointment, and illness. I know there’s nothing magical in the wood, but there’s something about the altar rail. Maybe it’s the balance between individual and community that helps me feel held and supported, even if no one knows exactly what is troubling me.

So even I was a bit surprised when I didn’t take my latest grief to this construction of wood. Instead I went online. I recently experienced an ectopic pregnancy. Although I know many women who have had miscarriages, I didn’t know anyone who had an ectopic pregnancy, losing a desired child in this manner. Less common than miscarriage, this kind of loss affects future fertility and has a much longer healing process. I felt comfortable sharing this with my pastor and colleagues in ministry. But I needed more than empathy to heal my broken heart. I needed community.

After a quick Google search, I found several communities of women supporting one another in post-ectopic pregnancy experiences. The community I joined is largely anonymous and doesn’t require or ask much. One can “lurk” and read comments, post, or engage others through replies or “likes.” There are no moderators. My own involvement was not long or active. It was like an altar rail—I could be an individual in community. Only here, other people knew exactly what I was going through. I needed that kind of knowledge to heal.

This online community isn’t a church; there are few postings about religion. But I think we find bits of salvation here—unconditional acceptance (even if short-term), community, encouraging good news, healing. We are able to voice some pains that are still silent in churches and wider society. And everyone is able to minister to one another. Ordained, or not.

Whenever healing occurs, I think God is involved. Many people experience healing in brick and mortar (or wood) churches. Other people experience them online. Or perhaps, like me, people experience different kinds of healing online and face-to-face. I try to remember that God is in the healing in both places. As a minister, I probably need to be too.

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.

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