Why The Local Church Is More Important Than Ever In The Digital Age

Andy WaltonThe steps at the St Elias Melkite Greek Catholic Church, Ibilin, Israel.

There are so many excellent resources to read online these days it's almost hard to know where to begin. One of my favourite discoveries of the last couple of years has been City Metric. The consistently excellent website is devoted to urbanism – the study of cities. It looks at the role transport, housing, jobs and more play on life in urban areas across the world.

The Bible, of course, begins in a garden, but ends in a city – the New Jerusalem. With this in mind, I was interested in this piece which discusses tech companies.

It shows how, even in an age when so much work is done virtually, there's still a need to be close by to other companies doing the same thing. Although the internet has made it perfectly possible for someone in San Francisco to be part of a team with colleagues in London, Lagos and Shanghai, there is something significant about geographical proximity.

The piece says: "for many roles, proximity and collocation are still hugely important... most organisations find that some direct personal connections are still necessary for establishing trust, rapport and common understanding. This is true not only among co-workers, but for other business relationships, such as mentoring."

This (along with a number of other factors) explains why tech companies still cluster together and why the local area is still vital to the health of the organisation.

As wave upon wave of technological advance wash over us, it would be easy to believe that there is no need for the local any more. We simply exist as citizens, consumers, or maybe even cogs of a globalised economy. The impact this could have on our working lives is one thing, but the way this mentality could seep through into our worshipping lives is another.

With innovations in the tech world finding their way into churches, we are seeing the possibilities open up. Churches which have multiple sites and share sermon content via video with more remote outposts are just one example. The ease of access we have to the latest worship music is another. The ability to interact online is now so advanced that no-one bats an eyelid when someone is skyped into a church service.

For many, this is quite literally a God-send. In recent months, we have been sharing the services at my own church via Periscope. This means that members of our congregation who are at home with sickness or away for other reasons can be a part of the service and join in with the family of the church.

Digital communication can be incredibly powerful. The number of great Christmas-themed videos being produced by churches and Christian organisations shows that, far from the popular stereotype of being boring and out of touch, churches are using contemporary means to tell the ancient story of faith.

This is great news and needs to be encouraged. Yet, in the same way that tech firms are finding they still need physical offices and contact with colleagues in the real world, Christians need to remember that the core of church life is local interaction.

The incarnation of God in a human person at a particular time in history and in a particular place in the world tell us something significant.

Although Jesus was to be the saviour of the whole cosmos, his main ministry took place in a relatively small area. He spent time with many people but concentrated his energy on a small group of disciples in whom he invested time, teaching and love. He preached in the temple, yes, but it was not the focus of his message – he was just as likely to be found in the Synagogue at Capernaum.

The lessons we can learn from this are simple, but profound. Human contact via the local church is vital. It is in this more intimate setting that we are able to reach out to others and minister to the elderly and isolated (as this Grove Booklet points out).

Our physical participation in worship with others is important too. Laying our actual hands on another actual person as we pray means we need to be in the same room as them! Even more significantly, the central act of worship of the church – Communion – is impossible in a virtual context. There is no alternative to the physical participation in the sacrament.

As the technological revolution gathers pace, we need to keep our eyes on what matters. The church has always been at its best when it's local, when it brings us together with people different from us, and when it enables us to go beyond contact and into communion with God and neighbour.

Follow Andy Walton on Twitter @waltonandy