July 15, 2010

United Methodist Ordination – pt. 1

Posted in Ordination at 8:43 pm by billgepford

Several of the top young grads I’ve met at Perkins (a great United Methodist Seminary) have refused ordination in the United Methodist Church.  They have all of their paperwork done, and nothing stands between them and ordination…and yet the refuse to be ordained.  This, after spending nearly $100,000 for the education necessary to arrive at that point.  Throw in the desire of the UMC to raise up new clergy, and there is clearly a question to be asked:

Why are so many bright young potential clergy, who have been called by God and fulfilled the required all the steps, refusing ordination in a church that so desperately wants them?

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July 12, 2010

Avatar Driven Worship- Conclusion

Posted in Avatar Driven Worship at 10:43 pm by billgepford

So we’ve looked at the benefits of worship mediated by avatars as well as the drawbacks.  The conclusion?  I’m thankful that there will be both.  Avatar driven worship will have its place, but it wont take the place of physical worship.  I see it fulfilling two roles:  One, it will serve as an effective and useful tool for evangelism.  Two, it will facilitate worship for a specific niche of people.

One (Evangelism) – Avatar Driven Worship is great for easing yourself (or others) into church.  It is convenient and low-pressure, and it gives people the opportunity to test drive worship from the comfort of their own home.  Its easier for people who have no prior experience with church, and who might have negative perceptions of Christianity.  Interested people can get a basic idea of what a church service looks like, without taking a big step and committing.  As such, people are more likely to check out Church, and (if we do our jobs right) come back or visit a physical church.

Two (Niche Worship) – Virtual, avatar driven worship will have a small but important mission.  It can function as a church for those on crazy schedules or living in crazy locations – people who want to go to church, but cannot make a Sunday morning service at their local church.  Sometimes the local church is several hours away, but virtual churches have an international reach.  People who can’t make a Sunday morning service no longer have to worship alone.  While some cities have enough people that they can offer church services at times other than Sunday mornings, the fact is that many people don’t live in such cities and still want to go to church at different times.  Avatar driven worship may be less than ideal, but it is preferable to never being in church at all.  Thoughts?

Alright, I’m bored with Avatars.  Next: Caffeine! (and then maybe a post or two on the United Methodist Ordination system)


July 6, 2010

Avatar Driven Worship Pt. 3 – The Disadvantages

Posted in Avatar Driven Worship at 11:24 pm by billgepford

Regardless of the possible advantages of Avatar driven worship (see previous post), I still have my reservations. There is something slightly questionable about the concept of worship in a purely virtual world.  First off, Avatars (digital alter-egos, not the blue people who fly dinosaurs) are disconnected from the users, and this makes them disposable.  How authentic can worship be when people can change avatars at will with no real consequences?  I (as a real person) can have multiple avatars, one for each major religion.  If I direct my avatars through worship at services for different faiths, does that mean that I personally am a member of all faiths?

Avatar worship can also be somewhat campy and feel disingenuous- some people will be able to look past that, but for many, it will feel too fake to permit effective worship.

The sacraments pose yet another problem.  For most people, communion requires community, and most people don’t appear to be ready to consider virtual community ‘real’.  If you wouldn’t consider having your wedding on SecondLife, you probably shouldn’t be worshiping on SecondLife.

I don’t feel like I really need to go too far into the drawbacks of worship in a virtual world, for while there are some potential benefits, the vast majority of people still prefer to worship in a physical location.

July 1, 2010

Avatar Driven Worship Pt. 2 – The Advantages

Posted in Avatar Driven Worship at 11:29 pm by billgepford

Avatar Driven Worship (ADW) has a lot of advantages that make it quite appealing.  It is unprecedented in its capacity to create a community that is international, specific, and accepting:

International – ADW is not limited by things like geography or physics. Through an avatar, I can worship alongside anyone, anywhere in the world, at anytime.  Think of the possibilities of that statement – Grandparents in an assisted living facilities could worship with their children and grandchildren scattered across the globe.  Business people traveling for work can still worship with their families back home. For the first time since the First Century AD, it is theoretically possible to gather all the world’s Christians in one (virtual) place.

Specific – In the closing years of the 20th Century, we saw the growth of niche worship services – cowboy churches and punk worship services and other services developed around specific and unique cultures.  Avatar Driven Worship makes it much easier to launch services specifically targeted at micro cultures, as people from all over the world can unite around a combined interest online.  While there might be a very small number of people in any given town that want any particularly obscure form of worship music, there might be enough people world-wide to create such a service. In this way, every person could theoretically worship God in the way that best appeals to them.  Immigrant communities offer an even better example: what happens if a family moves to the USA from Malaysia, but does not live around any other Malay speakers?  Would they be better off struggling through a worship service they do not understand, or worshiping online in their native land?

Accepting – Avatar Driven Worship allows people to transcend any personal limitations, insecurities, or histories that may hinder their worship.  Many people suffering from Tourette’s syndrome feel self conscious attending worship in person, especially if their tic is loud or disruptive.  That wouldn’t be a problem online, however – you only broadcast what you want to.  While I believe that any church should be accepting enough that it shouldn’t be a problem, some people may feel more comfortable just eliminating the issue.  Anyone with an avoidant personality disorder or an extreme case of shyness might feel more comfortable worshiping online instead of in person.  Finally, people wouldn’t be limited by their pasts.  If you grew up in a small town, you can attest to just how quickly the details of your life become public; anonymity can be a very appealing thing for someone wishing to make a fresh start.  What about prison inmates who might crave the opportunity to go to worship and fade into the crowd of normal people?  That might be impossible in the real world, but in an avatar-based world, anyone can be anything.  While such anonymity has a downside as well, it can offer people a much-sought refuge from their own pasts.


Thoughts?   Next post – the Problems of Avatar Driven Worship

June 28, 2010

To Avatar, or Not to Avatar…

Posted in Avatar Driven Worship at 6:36 pm by billgepford

Before I start this series on Avatar driven worship by focusing on the advantages, disadvantages, etc, I should probably define what I mean by ‘Avatar Driven Worship’.  An avatar is simply a person’s alter ego while on the internet – it is used to represent the physical person while in a virtual world.  An avatar could be quite simple, even a single line of text, such as an email address. However, Avatars have also become quite complex, such as the fully customizable avatars of SecondLife.com.  Some people are already being drawn into virtual worlds, even forsaking their real world lives for virtual ones.

That begs the question – at what stage does virtual worship become possible?  I think most would agree that the simplest form of Avatar (an email) is probably insufficient for a worship service; I’m unaware of any churches that email text-based copies of their service out to congregants.  However, some people are clearly starting to launch church online – Lifechurch.tv, for example.  Clearly, some people already believe that this is possible.  What are the requirements for Avatar driven worship that will enable it to become ‘real’ worship?

June 22, 2010

Book Review: Douglas Estes’ SimChurch

Posted in Book Reviews at 6:21 pm by billgepford

I recently finished the book ‘SimChurch’ by Douglas Estes, and while I’m not sure I always came to the same conclusions, the book made several good points and was well worth reading.

Unlike Resurrection, Estes is fairly focused upon the church in the virtual world.  He claims that virtual interaction is real interaction, and makes arguments for telepresence.  Most of his work appears to be on virtual avatar-driven worlds, which adds a distinct flavor to the book (most of my experience is in Web-augmented geo-local communities).  In other words, Estes concentrates his attention on worlds like SecondLife.com, where users control Avatars (3-D graphical representations of humans that perform actions, interact with their environment, and maintain an inventory of virtual items).  Avatar based worship has both benefits and drawbacks, both of which will be discussed in their own subsequent posts.  Estes believes that you can truly experience church through your avatar – that communion is the same when you direct your avatar through receiving the elements as when you receive them tangibly yourself.
I’m not sure I’m ready to consider an action taken by an avatar under my contol as the same as an action taken by me, though there is undoubtably some connection.   The Avatar will, in most circumstances, follow my commands.  However, this is not reciprocated – if my virtual avatar were to die, for instance, my own physical health would not be changed.  Though there is obviously some connection between the two, Avatars and their drivers are not intrinsically connected, and that has implications for Avatar-driven worship – especially in regards to both the sacraments and physical touch.  I’ll abstain from a heavy discussion of the Sacraments mediated by a virtual world for now (probably a post coming on that soon though).  However, it could simply be said that the Church can only move into the virtual world if the sacrament issue is theologically dealt with.
Despite a few areas where I disagree with Estes, I found his book to be quite thought provoking.  He points out that the Virtual world will greatly lower the startup cost of new churches, which is both good and bad.  It is good in that we will be able to launch churches for people outside the church with greater ease and effectiveness.  It is bad, however, in that anyone can start their own church and claim to speak for Christ , thus leading to some shady orthodoxy.  Overall, I feel like the future of the Church is still in physically present communities (perhaps resourced via the web), but Estes does raise good questions.

June 11, 2010

Can we really do Congregational Care over the Internet?

Posted in Internet Campus Basics tagged at 4:56 am by billgepford

I get asked that question a lot, and I’ve been doing a bit of thought on it lately. Here are some initial impressions:

First off, I don’t think virtual care will ever truly supplant physical care in any future that I can foresee; there is simply no way to make up for the lack of physical touch. However, for a myriad of different reasons, there may be a growing need for virtual congregational care as well.

Some people suffer from legitimate social disorders that make physical social interaction difficult. Sometimes these are temporary (people who just want to be alone after traumatic experiences); others are more permanent. Regardless, both groups of people could benefit from congregational care, and neither group will receive it from a physical church. Here is where web-based congregational care can be useful. We’ve already had some requests for congregational care from people who don’t want to talk about things in person, and while I have no way to verify if they absolutely would not appear in person, I have to assume that they wouldn’t. Therefore, the internet has enabled us to extend care to people who would otherwise fall through the cracks.

The internet is also enabling continued care for business travelers who have to be away for extended periods of time, and yet want to be in connection with their home churches. The same applies for soldiers stationed overseas, or any other person who has to be away from home for extended periods. We obviously recognize the value of a traveling person staying connected with their loved ones via the phone. Why shouldn’t they stay connected to their churches as well?

From a practical standpoint, video chatting is actually quite effective for facilitating communication. Marriage counseling and job interviews are already becoming commonplace over video chats (I recently got hired at a church where I had interviewed over Skype). Perhaps I am most excited for the possibility of using video chatting for accountability – business travelers whose jobs take them out of town will still be able to maintain contact with their celebrate recovery and AA groups, etc.

Actually, the idea of web-based congregational care (or at least something similar to it) is not entirely unprecedented. In some sense it ties back to the earliest days of Christianity. Paul used the latest communications technology of his day (writing combined with the excellent road system of the Roman Empire) to provide guidance and support for many different congregations that he was physically distant from. Furthermore, he cared for churches that he had never even been to; he wrote the book of Colossians despite the fact that he had never set foot in Colossae. Therefore, why should we not follow in the footsteps of Paul in using the latest innovations to take the Gospel to the world?

Is online congregational care ideal? Obviously not – in the majority of cases, physical care is much preferable. However, is it better than nothing?

I absolutely think so.

June 8, 2010

Local Contextualization through the Internet

Posted in Internet Campus Basics at 7:34 pm by billgepford

Multi site campuses may be effective for helping the evangelistic arm of a local church transcend geography, but micro churches are effective at reaching across stylistic and cultural boundaries. Micro churches offer a tremendous amount of flexibility by combining the expertise and experience of an established megachurch with the contextual individuality of a Bible study. Micro Churches are designed to be fellowships of approximately 12 people that will meet at least once a week to act as an authentic community of Christ. In this way they will act as small, individual churches that will worship, grow, give, and serve together. The service is streamed live over the internet, allowing anyone interested to take part and thus negating difficulties caused by geography (we’ve had people join us from Saudi Arabia, Mongolia, Tokyo, etc). Furthermore, it serves as a way to get new people interested– it is easier to invite someone to something that already has a huge amount of interest and momentum.
I believe that the future of many churches will look like this. The future of the live stream will allow people to incorporate whatever elements they wish, while also taking responsibility for whatever parts they desire. Under this fusion, the megachurch will act as support (through providing materials), for the micro church, allowing the two to work in tandem. Therefore, micro churches could arise that use the nearly all the elements of Resurrection, or they could use just one part to help augment what they already have. Under this setup, there is a nearly unlimited set of possibilities for differing worship styles, contradicting the common assumption that mega churches will simply impose their own methods everywhere, regardless of culture. The microchurch initiative is a way to engage people all over the planet, and yet to do so with respect for each individual context. Christians will not be limited by evangelistically confining church practices (out of touch music, etc); equally importantly, churches will no longer be confined by what they don’t do well. Under the current system, a church must have someone who knows how to play guitar if they want contemporary worship, etc. However, under an internet-augmented system, congregations will no longer be limited by what they lack – a 15 person congregation in a small town will be able to provide its members with worship from an orchestra many times their size, if that is how they best connect with God. In this sense, they will combine the freedom and contextualization that made the house church movement so appealing, while avoiding one of its primary pitfalls – the tendency to move towards insularism. Additionally, the Church would benefit from a return to the apostolic vision for ministry, in which people fulfill the roles for which the Holy Spirit has equipped them instead of trying to do everything necessary for the spiritual well-being of a community – “Some to be Apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers” (Ephesians 4:11). Therefore, a fusion of micro churches with megachurch empowerment would allow for the ultimate freedom to create a service tailored to the local community and unhampered by any hindrances caused by a lack of sufficiently equipped or trained staff – the internet provides micro churches with the framework to construct a system in which they can serve with excellence by adapting to their unique contexts and demographics were desired, yet simultaneously avoiding any gaps left by insufficiencies.

June 3, 2010

Multisite Ministry

Posted in Internet Campus Basics at 10:11 pm by billgepford

Resurrection’s multisite initiative allows a mainline church to transcend the limitations created by geography by simultaneously showing the same sermon across different campuses, such as Rez West or Rez Downtown. While these services are facilitated through the use of a DVD, and not the live stream, their technical nature merits discussion here. Furthermore, as web streaming technology improves, it will become increasingly probable that churches will begin to facilitate different campuses via stream. Before the internet, one church could only truly serve those who lived within a reasonable traveling distance. The advent of different modes of transportation (especially the automobile) has broadened the potential effective geographic coverage of a local congregation, as more people can become involved by shortening traveling times. However, churches are still comprised of people who live within reasonable distances; with the advent of the internet and multisite ministry, however, a church can launch different services over an unlimited area. Unlike modern denominations, which are united by commonalities such as belief or creeds (often largely not understood by the bulk of congregants), these different campuses are all experiencing the same sermon on the same passages, and often at the same time. Music is performed live at each site, and the service is presided over by a campus pastor, who fulfills many of the same functions as a local pastor (presiding over the celebration of the sacraments, pastoral care, greeting, etc). By having tangible links between campuses, people living hundreds of miles apart can engage in one united community – the church. Technologies such as blogging, Facebook, and twitter all allow a constant stream of chatter between congregants that transcends geographic boundaries and helps further unite these different campuses into a united whole. Furthermore, some staff overlap between the various campuses, combined with shared materials, camps, mission work, etc further ties these campuses into a united whole. Members meet in person at various large group activities (Youth summer camp, etc), and an internet community is forming as the technology improves – there are Facebook group pages and twitter streams allowing for more interaction between members at all times, thus making these sites into a unified community as much as is possible – they are not separate churches sharing a pastor, but one united church with distinct geographic locations.

June 1, 2010

Microchurches

Posted in Internet Campus Basics at 8:51 pm by billgepford

Methodism started with a fusion of the local with the national, of the professional circuit riders with the local lay class leaders, and though it may look completely different, it has now come full circle.  Through the use of the internet, Methodism is once again in position to erupt over the landscape, though wireless networks have replaced horses and circuit riding.  The internet can be leveraged to facilitate the founding of Christian communities.  However, this new technology is not without its drawbacks, which must be carefully monitored to ensure that the internet stays a source for good, and not a hindrance to ministry.

The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, is one such church that is seeking to use the technology (including the internet) for ministry, and it does so in three primary ways.  First, Resurrection  has used technology to launch multiple campuses that all serve as integral parts of the church; these different campuses serve much the same function that services at different times would, except that they allow the church to escape physical limitations.  Second, COR is providing their livestream of worship, in addition to guidance and expertise, to anyone interested in forming a micro church.   These micro churches are individual communities that can be shaped in a multitude of different ways, corresponding to the needs of the particular group and merely using COR’s resources where necessary.  Third, COR is seeking to create an online community that will foster connections between members of different campuses and micro fellowships. I will be discussing each of these in the coming weeks.

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