Online Mission and Ministry: A theological and practical guide, by Pam Smith. Reviewed by Richard Steel
Online Mission and Ministry: A theological and practical guide, by Pam Smith
SPCK, 2015, ix + 130pp, ISBN 978-0-281-07151-7, £9.99.
Reviewed by Richard Steel
A book such as this has been needed for some while, and Pam Smith is a good person to write it. She began going online in the 1990s when the Internet became accessible to people on their home computers. And her focus, the title of the book, has always been ‘mission and ministry’, not simply a community of the likeminded: “If we insist on communicating only in ways that we find familiar, we will find that fewer and fewer people are willing to listen”. She is priest-in-charge of www.i-church.org (supported by Oxford Diocese) and so passionate about it that she stayed on as Self-supporting (ie unpaid) when the funding ran out. She is also passionate about the interactive aspects of the current ‘Web 2.0’, rather than the broadcast model of earlier (and still the bulk of Christian) material.
Being generally ‘jargon-lite’, even ‘Newbies’ (!) should be okay. Not until Chapter Six are concepts such as ‘Trolling’, ‘flaming’ and ‘sock puppets’ discussed. Beginning with a brief history, she moves to theological discussion, with helpful explorations of Body and Kingdom in relation to the online world, before returning to ‘how to’ aspects. She discusses how, in this world so very different from traditional (in her terms ‘offline’) Church, one can do things like pastoral care (you can), exploring discipleship and spirituality (you can) and sacraments (you can’t). She also covers building online communities with useful chapters on dealing with disruptive members and self-care. She seeks to address questions that people have asked her over the years, above all ‘How do you do community when you never actually meet?’ She compares such communities with other forms of ‘Fresh Expression’ and suggests that the ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ worlds (my language, not hers) are not that far apart, believing that communities formed online are real and can make a real difference to people’s lives. The further you read into the book, the clearer this becomes. She tackles criticisms that so often govern the Church’s approach to such new technologies, but in a rueful rather than a polemical way. She is honest about the limitations and potential pitfalls of such ministry but clear that it is really Church: “we don’t ‘do’ church ─ we are church to each other, despite the lack of sacraments or a building because we are committed to each other’s journeys in the faith and in Christ’s love.”
This is not a book for those who simply want to be informed, but for those who feel called to explore ministry online and want to learn from someone who is passionate about it ─ for those wondering whether to dip their toe into the water, or those who have already ‘dipped’ and wonder what they are getting into. It is a very easy read, which is not to say there is not a lot of wisdom encapsulated in it. My main criticism would be that in nearly every chapter I was left wanting rather more. Having connected with the author through the web site (how else?), I learned that this was a constraint imposed by the publisher, to fit it into a low cost strand (it is a slim volume, just 115 pages plus Appendices) rather than a limitation of the author.
At the end of her first chapter Pam says, “There are no ‘experts’ in online mission and ministry ─ everyone learns by experience.” This book should encourage more people to gain experience in this important area of mission that the Church needs to take seriously.
Richard Steel has been involved with the Internet for over 20 years and was part of a group that provoked the Church of England to take its first steps into the Web. He Blogs, Tweets and ‘Facebooks’ (judiciously).
This review appears in MODEM Matters Issue 30, dated September 2015.