Yesterday afternoon, I joined around 400 people online to attend the funeral of a mutual friend, whom most of us, myself included, had only ever known online, through social media. Dr Bex Lewis described herself as a 'digital disciple' and was already part of 'virtual communities' long before the pandemic forced the rest of the world to play catch-up. Although less developed or sophisticated, I have for around a decade enjoyed online friendships with people I have not met in 'real life' (a phrase Bex objected to, arguing that all life is real).
Today we held our 51st Zurch (Zoom Church) service - or 'virtual church' as we more formally refer to it. It was a joint service which I co-led with friends from a Baptist church in an island community off the West Coast of Scotland. And it was very real. Multi-voiced, multi-cultural and richly authentic (if I say so myself) it was wonderful... And something that would have been impossible to do 'in the flesh'. I really hope that, as 'in person' or 'embodied' church becomes possible again, we will see that as a part of 'Zurch' not a replacement for it. Today we had readers in different UN defined nations, and shared communion across the Atlantic Ocean - this is church, this is Zurch, and I don't want to lose it!
Another word that emerged only this week in an online meeting of Baptist ministers was 'e-ssociating' - electronic/online associating. Baptists so love to talk about how we 'associate', that we are interconnected even though autonomous, but in practice it doesn't always work that well. Geographical groupings and theological groupings have their place, but are often, in the end, institutionalised and lose their essential, relational heart. During lockdown, e-groups have emerged that transcend geogpraphy and even aspects of theology, as intentionality, diversity and mutuality become new drivers. I hope that this, too, continues, not at the expense of 'embodied' 'local' association, but as well as.
As we near a full year online, and start to ponder what the much anticipated 'beyond' might look like, I really hope that e-ssociated Zurch might be part of it!