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Online Formation with Angela Gorrell

(NOTE: We asked Angela Gorrell, author of Always On, to work with churches in our Thriving Congregations project as they sought to expand their online formational practices. Here are Angela’s reflections on what they learned together…)

Two hopeful teams from two churches met online with me on Zoom over the course of 12 weeks. The teams were made up of caring, committed lay leaders and church staff. Their hopes were similar.

How can we use technology to deepen relationships?

In our first meeting, we discussed what this could look like and the “why” for each church. Motivation flows from our whys. We have to know why we are doing something so we can be inspired to keep moving forward. Afterward, I offered examples of social media platforms that could help congregants to connect with one another.

Over the next few weeks, both churches determined that Slack was the platform they wanted to experiment with. We talked about how Slack works and discuss possible challenges and opportunities of the platform. Every social media platform has challenges and opportunities—talking through them helps organizations navigate challenges and seize opportunities.

Slack is wonderful because it can be used on smartphones or laptops. It’s like having a text thread with your whole church, but it doesn’t fill up your text message inbox and merge large church community conversations with one-on-one texts with close family and friends. It’s easy to use and allows people to get announcements, share their thoughts with each other, join events, and feel more connected to a community of people without having to have a Facebook account, which for some feels intrusive or overwhelming.

One challenge is that like all media platforms, it has a learning curve. You have to learn how to use it. Another is that people can text one-on-one and conversations one-on-one cannot be monitored by the group administrators so churches have to be mindful of this, especially as it relates to youth.

Each church thought about how Slack could help people in their specific context. One church decided to focus on using it to encourage people to be more involved in service and justice work in their community. The other decided to use it to help their church lament their lead pastor transitioning from their church to another one, and to support and update one another during the transition. Both churches hope it will help their community members to pray for and encourage one another.

Both churches are holding onto all of their hopes lightly, though, realizing that this is an experiment. In other words, things could happen that they have not anticipated—beautiful and hard things. And maybe it won’t work as well as they hope and they will have to try something else in a year. Or maybe it will work in ways they have not even imagined and it will help their community to come together in ways that don’t seem possible in the aftermath of and continued pain of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Either way, these churches are acting from a place of hope. Hope, as Jürgen Moltmann has written “is the anticipation of joy.” Both churches are living expectantly, open to God’s joy finding them as they long to connect more deeply with one another.

The churches have created Slack channels and are putting together a Slack care team that will manage the channels each week. They have rules for participation and consent forms for parents of kids under eighteen to sign. They are working on Excel spreadsheets with plans for the channels. Their plans include prompts that the Slack care team members will use to get congregants talking and sharing. The prompts include Christian practices and spiritual disciplines that can be done online, in person, and in hybrid ways. And they are working on sharing everything with church members soon. They are looking forward to getting as many congregants as possible to join Slack and feel comfortable using it. In a year, they will take time to reflect on what has happened. They will decide if anything needs to be edited, deleted, or added to.

In short, these churches are listening to the longings of their own hearts and the longings of the people they serve as well as the Spirit of God who is active among us. It is through this kind of active listening and hopeful responsive imagining that God has always made a way where there seemed to be no way, leading the Church through myriad transformations across centuries.

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Rev. Dr. Angela Williams Gorrell helps people and teams at top organizations have deep, life-changing experiences. Dr. Angela is the author of Always On: practicing faith in a new media landscape and The Gravity of Joy: A Story of Being Lost and Found. She speaks and writes about joy, meaning, finding a life worth living, and the intersection of spiritual and mental health.

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