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23 March 2018 | Binfield, UK [Helen Pearson]

Do you read the Bible on your phone? Do you connect with other church members on Facebook? Do you watch church online? Is it possible that, in a networked world, God will somehow look different? Tim Hutchings, Research Fellow in Digital Discipleship at Durham University, looked at these and questions like them in Newbold’s March Diversity lecture. His lecture offered important reflections for believers using technology on their journey of faith.

Newbold March2018 Diversity1Tim Hutchings [Photo credits: Victor Hulbert]He began by looking at the concerns that people had when technology first began to impact the life of the church. Is it possible, people asked twenty years ago, that God in a networked age will look, somehow, different? Would ‘mediatization’ take place – i.e. the reshaping of ideas to fit the logic of the media? Alternatively, would religious communities reinvent and reimagine technology according to their own core values and beliefs? Would our ideas change or would we change the technology to protect the shape of our ideas?

Some people thought that the internet was going to compete with religion – that church-going would vanish as people watched church online from the comfort of their armchairs. Religious leaders were very worried about the effects on their authority of the more democratic social media? On the internet, the church would be unable to impose its rules on the community.

Newbold March2018 Diversity2People who saw in the internet potential for the creation of community were more optimistic. They believed, rightly as it turned out, that the internet would create new voices, new rituals and new communities. Small experimental online communities, like The Church of Fools, was developed, said its creators, to follow the example of John Wesley in ‘taking church to where people are in the 21st century – on the net’. Already, that online community has lasted a lot longer than some people’s affiliation to one more concrete church community.

What is really happening, Dr Hutchings said, is that the internet is now just part of everyday life. Online church is part of religious life, not an alternative. Online church services attract people who were going to church anyway or who wanted to but were prevented by sickness, disability or other limitations. Online religion has just become part of the mix. Some groups are adapting and thriving and some people, like the Pope on Instagram, have discovered a way of using the media that works for them.

Newbold diversity web 4What about electronic versions of the Bible, like YouVersion, to which a lot of resources have been devoted. Dr Hutchings quoted the Princeton professor, Bryan Bibb, who suggests that 'electronic Bibles have the effect of reshaping the effective canon, the form and content of the scriptures as they are experienced in a particular community or by an individual.’ As the Bible stops being a heavy paper book and can be easily accessed on one’s phone, new practices are emerging. The Topverses website which lists those texts read most frequently on the internet suggests that people are most likely to access verses that give them hope and encouragement. Technical and theoretical parts of scripture which have very little everyday application to 21st century life tend to be sidelined. Electronic reading of the Bible may be enabling the development of a less traditional canon.

Dr Hutchings completed his lecture with a case study of the Scripture Union’s Bible adventure app Guardians of Ancora, developed in the hope that it would be a safe place for children in families, and church groups to explore their own faith and reflect on the impact of the Bible stories outside the game. He pointed out that, if it is to be handled with integrity and if the game is to have any credibility, the Bible story it tells cannot be changed. He suggested that the game might offer factual Biblical knowledge; he seemed less certain that the game would contribute to the development of personal faith in children.

Newbold diversity web 3As usual, the Q&A ranged far and wide. Questions about the limitations of faith mediated through technology, the place of emotions online as opposed to emotion in personal faith, the nature of ‘liquid scripture’ and the successful use of Twitter by religious leaders. There were lots of ideas meriting further thought by those in the room and, of course(!), those benefiting from the technology and watching on the Newbold livestream. [tedNEWS]

The lecture can be seen in full on the Newbold College of Higher Education Facebook page.


tedNEWS Staff: Victor Hulbert, editor; Sajitha Forde-Ralph, associate editor
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