Michael Beck

How Cultivating Digital Fresh Expressions Can Help Heal the World

I’m excited about my friend J.R. Briggs’ forthcoming book and accompanying master class, A Time to Heal. In the ashes of a pandemic world, what we need most right now, is healing. the church needs to reclaim a central aspect of our identity as a community of healing.

In my latest book, Fresh Expressions in a Digital Age: How the Church Can Prepare for a Post Pandemic World I asked the question, “Where are the healers?”

This reflection emerged in the middle of the pandemic, as thousands of people were dying every day and morgues were running out of refrigeration spaces to store the bodies of fallen loved ones. We were forced to ask questions, such as: “How did Christians respond to previous pandemics?”, “Where is the church’s response to this crisis now?” “Where is our power to heal?”, and “What message does it send to the world when we are no longer first-responders but can even be non-responders (or worse, be in denial)?”

The Missional Blueprint

During the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, my mentor Len Sweet streamed a reflection using Facebook Live, in which he playfully reflected on the fact that most seminaries offer courses on pastoral care, preaching, and church management, but with few exceptions no courses on healing.[1] Isn’t that a central call of the church? If so, why neglect training Christian leaders in how to be healers?

Isn’t healing a central call of the church? If so, why neglect training Christian leaders in how to be healers? Click To Tweet

At Fresh Expressions US we spend a lot of time with Luke 10:1-9. We consider this to be Jesus’s missional blueprint for a pre or post-Christian world.

This passage lays out what we call the loving first cycle proposed for cultivating digital fresh expressions. But there is an often-neglected aspect of the text, “heal the sick who are there” (Luke 10:9). Luke connects entering a space, eating at tables, and curing the sick who are there, all in a single missional movement.

Break it down like this:

Enter

Eat

Heal

Proclaim

We often emphasize the incarnational nature of entering the world of our “other” in a posture of vulnerability. Of course, we get excited about the eating part, after all, here is theological validation for the potluck! The preachers among us get very excited about the proclamation piece. But what about the healers? Where are they?

Churches made the front page a lot over the course of the last year. Especially during the first stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, when we saw the unfortunate stories of churches being “super spreader events” of the virus, in which many lost their lives. When’s the last time a church was on the front page for healing the sick?

During the first stages of COVID-19, we saw stories of churches being “super spreader events” of the virus, in which many lost their lives. When’s the last time a church was on the front page for healing the sick? Click To Tweet

Jesus of Nazareth healed the sick during his earthly ministry (Matt 9; 10:8; 25:34-26). Christian pioneers who took Jesus’s call to be healers created the first medical systems. While ancient Rome had military hospitals, St. Basil of Caesarea founded the first hospital to care for the poor and sick in 369. Christian hospitals spread across both the East and the West so rapidly that by the mid-1500s there were thirty-seven thousand Benedictine monasteries alone that cared for the sick. Albert Jonsen writes,

The very conception of medicine, as well as its practice, was deeply touched by the doctrine and discipline of the Church. This theological and ecclesiastical influence manifestly shaped the ethics of medicine, but it even indirectly affected its science since, as its missionaries evangelized the peoples of Western and Northern Europe, the Church found itself in a constant battle against the use of magic and superstition in the work of healing. It championed rational medicine, along with prayer, to counter superstition.[2]

One of our core identities as the church is to be healers in a COVID-19 world. Steve Hollinghurst notes that one of the most disturbing aspects of recent surveys around suffering, spirituality, and the church, is that none of the respondents understood how these things were even connected. The church simply had no relevance to the big questions of life, suffering, and sickness. It was not understood to be addressing society’s ills in any meaningful way.[3] Further, amid the coronavirus, we have largely failed to claim a moment of reset.

Healers & Heroes

However, there have been many stories about the “healers” in our society. They are the frontline care workers. Overnight, these people, who usually played a role in society that is often overlooked, became our heroes. Nursing is often a tough and thankless job. Yet these nurses soon came into public awareness in a new way.

Who didn’t cry when we saw the medical workers praying together in New York City? Who wasn’t moved when people lined the streets in cities all over the world to applaud and praise the hospital workers as they walked home exhausted from their shifts? We experienced our generation’s own version of a war, a pandemic equivalent to the Spanish Flu of 1918, or the Bubonic plague of the mid-1300s. We rallied together to demand appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for these modern-day healers.

Alicia Keys provided the ballad for our age, live on CNN’s Global Town Hall. The song “Good Job” showed images of nurses, doctors, janitors, and cashiers, risking their lives to work on the front lines of the pandemic.[4] In a sense, Keys sang humanity back to God with a hymn to the sacredness of work. She showed that a true “priesthood of all believers” sees every job as a holy act of co-creation as a “good job.” She exposed the false dichotomy between the sacred and the secular that damages the very relational fabric of society. The divide is what Jesus already healed long ago on a cross.

As Martin Luther once said, “Every occupation has its own honor before God. Ordinary work is a divine vocation or calling. In our daily work no matter how important or mundane we serve God by serving the neighbor and we also participate in God’s on-going providence for the human race.”[5] For just a moment of solidarity, our world seemed to understand this.

Two of my adult daughters (Emily and Caitlin) are registered nurses who work in the COVID-19 unit of our local hospital. Each day they go to work, risking their lives to care for others. They are like masked warrior princesses, battling the virus, who “cure the sick who are there” (Lk 10:9).

Many modern-day healers have embraced digitality, and are creating bastions of healing in that space.

Here are three very important lessons from the medical field that church workers helped birth:

  1. Many church leaders misunderstand the meaning of “virtual”; it doesn’t mean “not real.” Some from the Anglo-Catholic persuasion will argue about the efficacy of online communion while others with impulsive worship needs will rush into “in-person worship” (which in aging places like Florida puts vulnerable people in a kill box). Meanwhile, “Virtual Healthcare” is now a required curriculum for all incoming medical students, which includes developing competencies in telemedicine, FaceTime, digital communication, virtual clinical interactions, and “webside” manner.[6]
  2. While some churches await theological approval from ivory towers or ecclesiastical overseers, who are insulated from pandemic life in the local congregation, in the medical trenches health care workers are asking what is the optimal pathway to accomplish consensus on core competencies for medical virtualism? Groups of practitioners and experts are starting to self-organize and call for standards of practice in this area. Effective practitioners are being consulted and consensus is coalescing around the need for formally recognized competencies. Thus, we are witnessing the formation of societies that generate consensus around these competencies and develop appropriate training.[7]
  3. Let’s not forget the “healers” of our minds. A large body of research demonstrates that mental health professionals for over a decade have been effectively using digital technologies to offer psychiatric care, therapy, and online groups. Many of these studies show that these telemental health techniques are shown to be just as effective in the diagnosis and management of various psychiatric conditions as in-person modalities.[8] COVID-19 rapidly accelerated the use of telepsychiatry tools, which had already demonstrated advantages that include “increased care access, enhanced efficiency, reduced stigma associated with visiting mental health clinics, and the ability to bypass diagnosis‐specific obstacles to treatment, such as when social anxiety prevents a patient from leaving the house.”[9] Telepsychiatry remains challenging because of the need for specific computer skills and access, privacy fears, and of course some cases do require physical contiguity. Yet many mental illnesses can be treated in this way. Further, the pandemic encouraged insurance companies to recognize that these digital means are legitimate and should be covered.

 

While people in the healing professions have adapted their methods to utilize digital technologies, overall an aging clergy has been late to the dance. Sadly, it seems like the church is the last place a post-Christendom society turns for healing.

Sadly, it seems like the church is the last place a post-Christendom society turns for healing. Click To Tweet

With respect to evangelism, discipleship, and church planting, a diminished understanding of salvation causes these ideas about healing to be disconnected in our minds. The biblical vision of shalom (a world at peace) is much more expansive than saving souls for relocation to heaven when they die. It’s about God’s kingdom breaking into the world now. It’s about the healing, renewal, and well-being of the entire cosmos. It’s a holistic vision of God’s reign on earth, of which the church is a foretaste. When we understand that evangelism is connected to this greater restoration of individuals, societies, and creation itself, we can break free of the small-minded individualism so prevalent in the Western church.

Evangelism isn’t something done to individuals by a specialist; rather like worship, it’s a work of the body. Evangelism isn’t about extracting people from the world in order to expand the church compound where they can be properly Christianized. It’s the work of the Spirit in community with others and it can happen anywhere human beings are connected together. This allows us to open our inner being to the possibility that Jesus goes before us in the technosphere. God is already at work in the lives of those connected by bits and bytes on this digital frontier.

One of the greatest threats to the church today is a rush “back to normal.” “Normal” was a death spiral of decline, a failure of discipleship, and disconnection with the last three generations. The church is known for infighting, judgment, hypocrisy, and being a place of harm, rather than healing.

One of the greatest threats to the church today is a rush “back to normal.” “Normal” was a death spiral of decline, a failure of discipleship, and disconnection with the last three generations. Click To Tweet

There has been critique lately of “digital church.” “Well, that was a great temporary solution, now let’s get back to real church shall we?” some say.

But what about those of us who found digital church to be just as real, or even more real, than a church centered in a building? What about all the disciples we actually made in digital space? What about the digital churches we planted, like Living Room Church for example? What about how we learned to inhabit digitality in such a way that it brought healing to the isolated and the suffering? What about all the people who will never set foot in our sanctuaries who found a home in a digital community?

Renewal is unlikely to be found in getting “back to normal,” but in embracing the disruptive force of resurrection (which is about continuity, not replication). Renewal is to be found in a Spirit-filled blended ecology of onsite and online forms of church. What if our focus was not getting “back to normal” and “real” church back in a building only, but… digital incarnation? What if there is healing in digitality? What if our focus was to become healers again?

Fill the World

In Fresh Expressions in a Digital Age, we argue that the ultimate act of healing is the cultivation of new Christian communities. If every Jesus follower cultivated micro-churches with the people, around practices, in the analog and digital spaces where we already do life. We could fill the world with healing.

What if cultivating fresh expressions in the digital space is actually a way for us to follow Jesus’s commands to “cure the sick who are there”? (LK 10:9). What if we can become the incarnate presence of Christ in the “space of flows”?

There can be healing… and it can come through community that forms in digital space.

 

[1] Leonard Sweet, “Preaching in a Pandemic World,” https://www.facebook.com/lensweet/videos/10156741846241791/. Accessed Dec. 15, 2020.

[2] Albert R. Jonsen, A Short History of Medical Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[3] Steve Hollinghurst, Mission-Shaped Evangelism: The Gospel in Contemporary Culture (Norwich, U.K: Canterbury, 2010), 208.

[4] Alicia Keys, “Good Job.” https://youtu.be/gmzUMgyOvBo

[5] Althaus, Paul. The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), 328.

[6] Rahul Sharma, Sapir Nachum, Karina W Davidson, and Michael Nochomovitz. “It’s Not Just Facetime: Core Competencies for the Medical Virtualist,” International Journal of Emergency Medicine, vol. 12, no. 1, (2019): 1–5.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Aboujaoude, Elias, Wael Salame, and Lama Naim. “Telemental Health: A Status Update.” World Psychiatry, vol. 14, no. 2 (2015): 223–30. doi:10.1002/wps.20218. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/wps.20218

[9] Ibid.

Michael Beck

Michael Beck

Rev. Michael Beck is South Atlantic Coordinator Fresh Expressions US and North Central District Cultivator of Fresh Expressions for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. Michael serves as senior pastor of Wildwood UMC where he directs addiction recovery programs, a jail ministry, a food pantry, and a network of fresh expressions that meet in places like tattoo parlors and burrito joints. He currently lives in Wildwood with his wife, Jill, and their blended family of 8 children.

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