BY LOKE CHI SHYAN
Digitalisation Has Arrived
People will look back at 2020 not just because of the COVID-19 pandemic but also regard it as the year when our island got a boost in the area of digitalisation. From the hawker centres, to the wet markets and our favourite restaurants, digital payments became widely accepted. There was an increased exposure to the advantages of connectivity. Seniors relied on the hassle-free delivery of groceries to their doorsteps and children did their home-based learning using the mobile phone or the laptop. However, this development has created redundancy. One of its victims, the iconic brick and mortar institution Robinsons, succumbed to the convenience of online shopping.
In the past, digital spirituality was the exclusive realm of mega-churches. They were of course preceded by the American tele-evangelists who were the first to bring or at least market the idea that the Word of God can be brought into the living room of adherents using technology. One could not only receive, but also give by dialling a toll-free number. Prayer was literally a call away as it could be requested over the telephone. Today, we have advanced to more sophisticated platforms. The advent of YouTube has brought the praise and worship experience nearer home. By drawing the curtains, switching on the air-conditioner and investing in some good audio-visual equipment, one could be transported to Hillsong Australia or Bethel USA. In ordinary times, the small or medium-sized local church would not even dream of venturing into the digital realm, but all this has changed.
The pandemic, ‘circuit breaker’ and safe management measures have forced most churches to move online or get left behind. The desire to nurture pushed many pastors to the front of the camera rather than stay behind the pulpit. A member cheekily mentioned to me that I am now a “tele-evangelist”. Prayer meetings, leaders discussion and cell gatherings take place regularly on Zoom and have become the new norm. The most sought after human resource was those with digital skills and not necessarily people skills. Our music teams became creative in leading praise and worship songs, supported immensely by a team of sound engineers and recording editors. While it was a steep learning curve for staff and congregants, we have done well. Digitalisation has arrived.
The Digital Conundrum
The move to online worship has presented advantages and disadvantages for the parish and the parishioner. The positives are centered around accessibility and convenience. With digitalisation, a tiny virus did not cripple the church’s ability to connect and nurture her flock. Churches which carried on with live streaming of their services after the ‘circuit breaker’ ensured that people with reduced mobility, those who were unwell and nursing mothers could continue to worship online. Members abroad could tune in and join their faith community in worship too. The web-based pulpit extended ministry beyond the physical confines of church and transcended the limits of geography and time. All of a sudden, churches could reach those whom they previously could not. Technology has enhanced accessibility.
Secondly, telecommuting is convenient, economical and efficient. Some things done in church could be better served via the video conferencing medium. It is a known fact that if we are disseminating information, the advantages of doing it onsite in comparison to being offsite are somewhat diminished. Breakout rooms can mitigate and replicate small group prayer and sharing to an extent. The pragmatic side of us would agree that if we were meeting someone to discuss something for less than an hour, then Zoom or Google Meet makes more sense. For some, travelling to the meeting point takes more time than the meeting itself. Moreover, some apps can broadcast updates, publicise events and enable registration in a quick and fuss-free way. Technology has made things more convenient.
When we consider church life from the perspective of accessibility and convenience, we can undoubtedly conclude that the pandemic has done parish life a lot of good. It has allowed us to take advantage of technology not only to overcome social distancing but to redefine what constitutes a spiritual gathering. Digitalisation is a silver bullet for busy practical Christians to practice their faith on their terms, whenever they want to, with a push of a button. Herein lies one of the biggest conundrums. The faith as defined within the bounds of scripture seldom allows us to define it the way we like it to be. Any spirituality that removes the cost of discipleship, the call to the way of the cross, and the commitment to the Body seldom reflect biblical tenets. Significantly, even the strongest Christian advocates of technology will admit that while the online medium can create conversations, it cannot create warmth; while it can create meeting rooms, it cannot create authentic sharing; and while it can create the flow of information, it is harder to create the flow of intimacy. If it does, it is simply because it is building on the bonds that have been established from years of face-to-face meetings.
The Power Of Presence
The birth of Christ was the inflection point between the Creator and the creation. Emmanuel - God with us - was accomplished by the Son of God revealing Himself as the Son of Man. Transcendence and incarnation were met in Christ. The reasons for the incarnation are found throughout the Bible. In Matthew 4:16, Matthew echoed Isaiah the prophet and wrote that “the people in darkness have seen a great light”. John the Baptist declared Jesus as “one whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11). Paul exhorted us that Christ “though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of man.” (Philippians 2:6-7) If anything, the incarnation teaches us the power of presence. The aloof and almighty God, walked with people and brought His presence through Christ the servant-saviour.
The power of presence was also emphasised when Jesus sent His disciples to minister to others. They were empowered to bring the presence of God through their visitations. In Luke 10:1-23, Jesus enhanced the Jewish culture of home visits and hospitality by telling His disciples to bring the “Peace” and the “Shalom” of Abba God with them. “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you.” (Luke 10:5-6) This incident underlined the capacity of God’s people to bring His presence to the people they meet. In the Great Commission prior to the ascension of Jesus, He reiterated that “I will be with you always.” (Matthew 28:18-20). Similarly, the ministry of disciple-making, teaching and baptising has close association with the presence of Christ.
Bill Hull stated in his book, “The Cost of Cheap Grace: Reclaiming the Value of Cheap Grace”, that disciples make present the Kingdom of God to those around them. One of the ways Christians do this is by following the example of Christ’s ministry. He cited the pattern that Henri Nouwen observed, “Jesus consistently moved from solitude to community to mission. Solitude → Community → Mission.”  Mike Breen used “Up, In and Out” to illustrate the point. We learn to connect (UP) to the heart of our Father, be knitted together (IN) authentic community, and be prepared to be sent (OUT) in love for the sake of the world.  These authors postulated that effective discipleship included staying connected to God, being immersed in the faith community where authentic relationships were built and embarking on Christian missions together. Ministry apart from this community is somewhat absent in scripture. Jesus gave the Great Commission to a band of disciples, and the Holy Spirit’s arrival ushered in the fellowship of believers that eventually became the “ecclesia” or the “called out people” that formed the church. Seemingly, the power of presence is manifested in the world through communities of disciples.
What Technology Cannot Replace
The 21st century church has been described as “onsite, phygital, hybrid and digital” as the coronavirus forced churches to up their tech game so that people can tune in to online worship and sermons. Digitalisation is a relatively new ball game. The jury is still out on whether the online community can be regarded as an authentic biblical faith community. While the pandemic has driven churches to explore improvements to their technological capabilities and enjoy its usage, these benefits were actually reaped from communities that existed with years of interactions and bonding formed through onsite engagements. It is unclear if technology alone can truly foster friendships and resolve disagreements. Equally debatable is whether technology can encourage a missional outlook and missions from adherents and not just be content generators. Without the physical Body of Christ present, it is questionable if the power of the Eucharist can be fully understood. To gain theological acceptance, the church has to address the purposes of its online ministry not merely based on accessibility and convenience but on authentic community life and disciple-making.
The challenges remain even as churches gradually re-open for onsite worship. The dangers for the vulnerable group, the difficulties of the physically disabled, plus the possibility of another lockdown make digitalisation an attractive solution. Nevertheless, we must be cognisant of its limitations. For those who are only able to connect online at this time, it would be good to meet a small group of people periodically for spiritual conversations, prayer and accountability. Those who can resume onsite worship but are resisting the idea to do so should reflect on the reasons for it. The pandemic has given us cause to rethink how we do church and contemplate why we are in church.
Chi Shyan has been serving in the pastoral ministry for the last thirty years. His portfolio includes pastoring children, youths and young adults. A graduate of Trinity Theological College, he also holds a second degree from the Singapore Bible College where he researched and wrote on the impact of postmodernism on discipleship.
 Hull, Bill. The Cost of Cheap Grace: Reclaiming the Value of Discipleship (p. 171). The Navigators. Kindle Edition referring to Henri Nouwen, “From Solitude to Community to Ministry,” Christianity Today, April 1, 1995, https://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/1995/spring/5l280.html.
 Breen, Mike. Building a Discipling Culture: How to Release a Missional Movement by Discipling People Like Jesus Did (Greenville, SC: 3DM, 2017), chap. 7.