[CONFERENCE PAPER] Inclusive Placemaking: Placing the Christian Church in a Digital Age

I’ve just had the following paper accepted for the Institute of Place Management 4th International Biennial Conference, for which I’m also on the academic committee (although of course I didn’t assess my own paper). Come and join us in September 2017:

The church in the United Kingdom is regarded by many as geographically placed and located, with an emphasis upon local church services, and services to the local community such as food banks, debt management, and children’s work. The Church of England, the Methodist Church and the URC churches, amongst others, are organised around geographical dioceses, circuits and parishes, whilst also contributing to national and international public policy debates. With the digital age, this model has been challenged, with the digital offering a new ‘public sphere’ at a personal, organisational and political level, and has effectively become ‘the front door’ for many offline churches. The global and perceived virtual nature of the digital also raises questions of ‘sacredness’ and ‘spirituality’ online.

The digital, whether as an overarching ‘space’, or within specific platforms, is a place (terminology varies to include world, sphere, environment and culture) in which communication, action and community participation can be undertaken online. Experience since 2010 has shown that the strong sense of ‘place’ for the church continues, with many looking to the digital to support and enhance geographically placed initiatives, and demonstrate engagement with the local community. As Hutchings (2017) has demonstrated, for many who attend church online, whether through livestreamed services, or via interactive (including virtual) platforms, this is a supplement to the face-to-face experience, rather than a replacement for it. Where churches are ‘built’ in the virtual environment, they tend to replicate the offline churches that they are representative of, and national churches tend to retain a national feel, particularly noticeable stylistically between UK and USA churches.

This paper draws together varying strands of work undertaken in the last decade, including workshops and speaking engagements held as Digital Fingerprint consultancy (2008 – 2017). A substantial part of this work revolves around ‘The Big Bible Project’ undertaken at Durham University (2010-2015), in which over 3,000 blog posts were collected from ‘voices in the pew, the pulpit and the academy’ addressing questions as to what it means to be a Christian in a digital age: how does this impact upon organisational decisions, personal behaviour and discipleship, and the call to be missional within whichever community one finds oneself (arguably including the digital). Many Christian discipleship texts will encourage those of faith to be ‘the face of God’ to the rest of the world. In the contemporary digital age, Christians are encouraged to think about how they are ‘the face of God’ in all spheres, including online. Sherry Turkle has suggested the Internet as a ‘transitional space’ where individuals can experiment with their identity and self-presentation (Turkle: 1995, 263).

Drawing upon a journal article in progress, the paper will consider the way that social media and the digital impacts upon the public personas that the church as an organisation (at various levels), and also that of the individuals within it as representatives of ‘the church’ within their local communities (offline, and specific communities online). Churches have a long tradition of being in places of need, and can look at what they can offer the local and digital communities on a practical and spiritual level. The paper will finish with an exploration of an idea for a larger research project (with a more academic focus than the above projects), which considers what it means to be a welcoming church in a digital age. The project would consider questions such as what do churches think they are doing to be welcoming, including online, and does online/offline match; what do people ‘research’ when looking for a church to visit; does digital and social media seem to be a core part of this, and could the project provide guidance as to how the church could make use of these tools better, but also, could the experience of the church inform more general marketing practice.

Dr Bex Lewis is Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing, Manchester Metropolitan University, Visiting Research Fellow, St John’s College, Durham University, and Director of social media consultancy Digital Fingerprint.