The Fear of The Online

Tiffany Sparks online from Grafton

While there are few good things to come out of a global pandemic, one positive is that more people are becoming online savvy. What was previously seen as space that is hard and scary to occupy has now become part of our everyday lives.

First were the technology concerns.
In the past when I’ve talked about reaching out online, I would hear protest along the lines of – it is too hard to do, our parishioners won’t use it, our parishioners are too old, what is the point of coming to Church then? But contrary to being crippled with fear, this crisis has seen communities respond with remarkable adaption, and a desire to learn new technology, or simply find ways to use their phone or webcams.

I have been overwhelmed with the amount of people going out of their way to connect in creative ways—people of all ages. Every Sunday when I tune into the livestream, I love that Merle is watching with me and Merle is nearly 90 years old.

‘What is the point of coming to Church then?’ We know that there is no satisfactory substitute for being physically present to each other. Nothing can compare with it. Yet, in this situation when we keenly feel the loss of physically gathered community, online mediums reveal familiar faces, convey encouraging words, carry on the patterns of our faith, and offer a connectivity that for me, sufficiently overcomes any hesitation to try.

But what if I say the wrong thing? What if people disagree with me? What if people realise that I’m progressive! The fear of being theologically ‘outed’ in the online space existed long before the covid-19 environment, and no doubt going online involves being brave and steadfast in our theological journey.

But as a result of occupying the online space, we’ve seen some dispelling of myths surrounding the ‘progressive boogie man’ who doesn’t believe in Jesus, or the Bible, let alone any of its contents. It has revealed that progressive Christians aren’t a bunch of angry humanists but faithful, sincere people passionate about the Gospel imperatives of fullness of life, equality and a God that loves each and everyone of us.

In fact, going online has caused people to think they might even be a little ‘progressive’ themselves.

Nonetheless, the online space remains a little daunting for it’s uncontrollability. The comments section can be notorious for hateful and hurtful expressions. You never know who is viewing your content and once something is out there, it is hard to take it back.

My husband and I have always said to our kids, whatever you put online, be prepared to yell from the mountain top. Likewise, whatever we preach, we should be prepared to preach from the mountain top and if we can’t do that, then we probably shouldn’t be saying it anyway.

What we have learnt over this crisis is that people are much more interested in hearing the message than picking holes, searching for heresies and typing hurtful words… and you can always turn the comments section off!

The online space has revealed much about ourselves, our communities and our abilities. We’ve learned that we are braver than we thought. We’ve learned just how much we love gathering as a community—and nothing will change that—but we’re also willing and completely able to take on what seems like impossible situations and rise above them. I never thought I would see the day where the ABC broadcasted the St. John’s Cathedral in Brisbane.

People are out there hungering for practice and theology that they can connect with. Going online has given people a way to dip their toe in, and see what this could look like for them. The online environment encourages the seeking of connection, and plants a seed in a way that feels safe.  My prayer is that we grow confident in this online space, and continue on finding new ways to communicate and connect with people.

The Venerable Tiffany Sparks, Archdeacon of the Anglican Diocese of Grafton