The following paper was given at the Institute of Urban Theology in July 2002. The Institute of Urban Theology takes place each July as part of the Summer Programme at the Urban Theology Unit, Sheffield.

What cyberspace can teach us about urban mission

I’ve not been in on the rest of the sessions for this Institute, so you’ll have to forgive my ignorance of the context in which you are hearing this! And I’m not actually engaged directly in Urban Mission myself at all – I tend to think of myself as a sort of secondary line of mission, servicing those who do the real thing by typing their stuff up and sending their emails! And I’ve cheated a bit, as well. I *am* going to look at what cyberspace can teach us, but before I do so, I’m going to climb on a soapbox and rant for a bit.

I was thinking about this session last week while sailing lazily around the Norfolk Broads. There’s nothing like putting a distance between yourself and the city to give you a sense of perspective. When it comes to Rural Mission, you can’t afford to be picky at all – the population of each community is so small that if you only minister to a few of them, your church tends to disappear up its own fundament.

But Urban Mission sets itself up – or perhaps better, historically set itself up – as a mission to the poor urban masses. Wesley was expressing something very like liberation theology’s “preferential option for the poor” two hundred and fifty years ago. In the cities of this country today, urban mission is worked out in practical terms by ministering to the inner-city urban poor – the unemployed and unemployable, the elderly poor, those with learning difficulties, the homeless, refugees and victims of abuse. I believe there’s a genuine desire and attempt to put into practice the liberation gospel.

But what about the not-poor? They are part of the city too – indeed, even here in Burngreave, there are more households with one member in work than not. There are plenty of elderly poor – and lots of young, vigorous entrepreneurs. The illiterate and semi-literate may be concentrated more densely than elsewhere in Sheffield, but there are also many educated, intelligent people living locally too. And yes, we have plenty of people in temporary or vulnerable housing – and plenty of people who own their own homes. We have more refugees than other parts of the city largely because Burngreave accommodates them – not only in terms of housing, but also in terms of social acceptance and cultural values – and in that sense, we’re richer than many of the wealthier parts of the city. And there are as likely to be victims of abuse behind the shiny porches of Ecclesall as there are behind the peeling paint of Woodside.

I’m a fairly new incomer to this area – we moved here about two and a half years ago. And do you know, in all the time I’ve been here, the only religious group that thought I was worth including in their task of “mission” was the Jehovah’s Witnesses! We attend our local parish church, which is just in the process of re-thinking its mission strategy. And as usual, it’s targeting the poor, the unemployed, the vulnerable.

I’m starting to think that as far as the mission is concerned, people like me are the excluded, the outsiders, the unwanted and unloved. I’m just not uneducated enough, not scruffy enough, not hungry enough to be worth sharing the gospel with!

Can you hold that in your head for a moment while I bring in another thread which is relevant to all this?

Who, exactly, is *doing* all this urban mission? As far as I can tell, the movers and shakers are mostly people who have come into the area for that purpose. In the local Anglican churches, it’s clergy from other parts of the country who for one reason or another feel that God has called them to minister to these people at this time. The wise ones lie low and get the feel of the place before they start marshalling the troops for an all out assault on poverty and ignorance, others draw their resources from outside agencies and experience in previous places to draw up a one-size-fits-all plan for urban mission. However it’s done, it’s done by the professionals with the labour of the church community to those deemed to be in “need”. And who decides who’s in “need”? Well, my own parish church – which is local to UTU, incidentally – has called in the services of a CMS advisor from London to tell them.

Urban mission is essentially the province of professional aliens. Or alien professionals, whichever you prefer. Part of the strategy when it comes to activating mission is to equip and nurture those within the church community. Parish day conferences, days of prayer – these are the ways in which the workers in the vineyard are identified and nurtured. They are to act as the ones sent out by the vicar, parish priest, minister or whatever to action the missionary plan of the church.

A quick count of the people expected for this summer school was something like one third lay to two thirds clergy. I’ve been trying to figure out why this might be. As I hinted earlier, there are, even in the poorer parts of the city, those with education and skills equivalent to those held by the clergy. Some of them even attend the churches! But in the same way as we’ve been blinkered by the preferential option for the poor, we’ve also been misled by inappropriate use of Marxist social analysis into believing that the educated middle class in our midst is something to be slightly ashamed of and ignored. By all means affirm, enable and equip the helpless, hapless, hopeless, but whatever you do, don’t let the confident, competent comfortable have a role in mission!

As I said before, I’m just not uneducated enough, not scruffy enough, not hungry enough to be worth sharing the gospel with! And I’m too confident, competent and comfortable to be entrusted to share the gospel with anyone else. As far as the church is concerned, the urban not poor are useless when they come to church, and invisible when they don’t.

So here’s my thesis. I think that urban mission as it is practised and envisioned now is wrong. It’s over compensating for the brutal injustices in society by rejecting and neglecting a whole section of the urban population. In inner city areas, about the only way for the not-poor to play a part in the mission of the church is to be ordained. The church rations God’s grace and the church’s charism in ways that marginalise and exclude. And I don’t think that the church ought to be in the business of rationing grace and excluding people, whoever they are.

But let’s face it, many churches are well out of the habit of dealing with the urban not-poor. How do we re-envision urban mission in ways that include *all* of those who live and work in the city? Well, you *could* try to tweak the structures and methods and practices we use now to make them more inclusive. But I personally don’t think it would work. The city – our whole notion of what it means to be urban – has shifted and continues to rearrange itself as we watch. Harvey Cox and The Secular City is history now, “Faith in the Cities” is nearly 20 years old. We’re working with models of city and society and ministry that were formed before the internet, and before frequent mass international travel. We need new models, new paradigms, new ways of working…

And here’s where I think cyberspace comes in.

Until the present, the way we’ve divided up the territory has been to use geographical distinctions based on things like population density, and sociological factors such as levels of education, household income and ethnic origin. We’ve used the word “community” for years to describe a basic social unit, although we’ve made little effort to define precisely what we mean by community, because it’s such a nice word and because we all think we know what each other means by the term.

But recently, the concept of community has started to be re-evaluated. Groups of people whose point of contact is computer mediated communication – email, newsgroups, net forums and the like – keep describing what they experience as “community”. Howard Rheingold, in his book “The Virtual Community”, also uses the word “communion” – which is one we’re quite familiar with here, but is a curious choice in a culture that has no religious basis. Sociologists of cyberspace have leapt on an analysis of the idea of community described by the political scientist Benedict Anderson. In his book “Imagined Communities”, he argues that all communities, except possibly small primitive communities, exist not so much in objective fact as in “the way they are imagined”. It’s not the proximity of houses or people or even necessarily a commonality of interest that makes a community, so much as the consensus of a group of people that the relationship they share is imaged as a community.

This resonates with many people who use computer mediated communication. An email mailing list, a usenet forum, an AOL chat group or something similar, all provide points of contact between people who have interests in common. Some of these – not all, by any means, but some – come to a point where they define themselves as a community.

My own research is concerned with one such community, and what I’m really trying to do is a sort of baseline study, using the methods of contextual theology and ethnography to look at what is going on in the group. This should produce at least two useful things for those engaged in urban mission. Firstly, analysis of the demographics of this community shows that they are predominantly educated, middle-class, in work or education – the very constituency that urban mission has traditionally discounted and now ignores. So finding out how the members of this group tick may offer insights into how mission to and by this group could work. Secondly, the way that such a community works may indicate ways that urban mission may be modified to take into account changes in the ways that community functions in the early 21st century.

The group I’m studying is a usenet group called uk.religion.christian. I imagine some of you are familiar with usenet – so if you are, please forgive me while I explain a little for those who are not. Usenet is a system that predates the world-wide-web – in fact it’s arguably the earliest form of public networked cmc. When there were only a few big mainframes connected together in the US, those using them had a system of computer mediated bulletin boards, which worked for all the world like real ones – one person would post a message which anyone passing could read and reply to by sticking up another message. These were originally intended for scientists to share research information, but it wasn’t very long before general chit-chat about things like last night’s TV and next year’s holiday started to creep in. So the system was set up to separate out such chat into loosely defined topic areas. Usenet remains separate from the www, and is by international agreement carried by all the major networks in all countries to a greater or lesser extent. There is now something like a million separate discussion groups listed, although many have little or no traffic, and many of them are dedicated to the exchange of rather dubious graphic material.

Each group is supposed to run according to a charter which is drawn up and approved by vote in the relevant hierarchy authority – here in the uk, that’s a group called Most groups are unmoderated – that means that anyone who wants to can post anything they like, but some, and ukrc is one of them, are controlled by a system of moderation, where one or more human moderators with or without the help of moderation software, act as gatekeepers to keep the discussion within the terms of the group’s charter.

The charter of ukrc is fairly general – I’ve put it on the ohp for you to have a look at. I started moderating the group shortly after the beginning of my research – ask me afterwards of you want the full story! Posts are generally only rejected if they contain personal abuse, or if they come from a non uk address and are completely off topic in terms of the uk/Christian focus of the group. So the discussions are free and wide ranging – current topics under discussion include:

the availability of bibles for palmtop computers whether or not it is possible to have a common Christian creed (a discussion that was started by a pagan, as it happens!)
whether or not God has a sense of humour
Jubilee, capitalism and social economics
whether or not it’s a good thing to pray to/with the saints
the use of English and the ability to express oneself

The traffic varies between 120 and 350 posts a day, depending on how many hot topics are current and how many of our more prolific contributors are on holiday! At any one time, there are around 120 people posting, and although there is some turnover, there is a remarkably consistent core of around 30 people who have been posting for several years. Not all posters read or contribute to all discussions – news reading software gives you the opportunity to pick and choose discussions (threads) and individual people to read or ignore. Almost all the contributors are based in the UK, and most but by no means all, identify themselves as Christian. Regulars who contribute but are not Christian include a pagan, several atheists, a bahai and a Muslim. There are representatives of 19 Christian denominations, ranging from Christadelphianism to Eastern Orthodox, non-aligned extreme evangelicalism to liberal universalism, Roman Catholicism to Quakers, and this includes a number of clergy, a bishop, various organists and church musicians, church post-holders of one sort or another and lay people.

That in itself is probably unique to usenet! I wonder of there is anywhere else in the UK where such a diverse group of people would choose to meet frequently but informally as a social choice to discuss the Christian faith and spin offs from it?

And it’s not all superficial chit chat, either, although there is that. Have a look at this conversation – (ohp slide) – where an Anglican is explaining the RC point of view to an evangelical – a pov he explains that he’s gleaned “(mostly from explanations here over the years)”.

Sometimes it’s quite serious and intense theological discussion - and sometimes it’s social bonding stuff (ohp slide) In fact, I love the jelly baby thing – when I’m trying to search through 100,000 odd archived posts to find new contributors, I can pick them out by doing a word search for “jelly babies”! And one feature of the group’s discourse which I find especially interesting is the fact that people often ask for prayer for their own particular concerns or for help or advice about personal matters: (ohp slide)

Now I could go on and on and on about all this, and I’m happy to do so between the end of the institute and 5 o’clock when I go home! But I want to draw it to a conclusion by pulling a couple of things out of the findings of my research.

The first is that people are interested in Christianity and issues that Christianity speaks to – ethics, the whole life, the universe and everything stuff, social and economic injustice and so on. Educated, middle class Christians, Pagans, Muslims, Bahais and atheists actually choose to spend considerable amounts of time reading and responding to messages on these topics over a long period of time. They tolerate areas of dispute, handle sometimes quite angry disagreements, resolve personal issues and support one another in prayer and action in community by sitting in front of a computer. And when I asked them what was going on, 57% said it was a place where theology takes place.

If it can happen in cyberspace, it *could* happen in real life, and where better than in the dynamic, responsive, forward and outward-looking context of a reworked kind of urban mission?

Secondly, all of the people in ukrc are real people. They have normal lives, go to work, most go to church, they have families, and kids at schools, and circles of friends and colleagues. When I asked them in a survey what effects their participation on the group had had on them, I was absolutely stunned to discover that well over half had changed their views, behaviour or ways of worship as a result, and that almost all 89% claimed that they had a better understanding of how other people think about religion. More than half claimed that it had become a part of, or an important part of, their life. And when I asked them whether they discussed their activity on the group with friends and family, 70% said they did.

So these people are already doing their own sort of mission. They come together, meet, make friends, get involved with a community, gain insights and understandings, and then take those insights and understandings into their own personal context, where they share them with others. It’s a mission that depends not on conversion or on doing things for people, but on learning to understand and appreciate other people even when they are different from ourselves – or, to use more conventional language, learning to love one’s neighbour – and that often involves being open and willing to change ourselves – or, as the Bible would have it, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things”.

Let’s face it, these things are happening whether or not various parts and functions of the church engage with them. The church has always been willing to take advantage of new technologies – the earliest texts of the Bible we have were produced in codex form rather than on scrolls, the printing press, television, radio… so there’s plenty of precedent.

I’m not fool enough to believe that taking on board the insights of my work and the work of others in this area will by itself deal with all the weaknesses of the way urban mission is happening now. But I do urge those of you who are on the front line of urban mission to at least consider how you can use the insights from the sociology, ethnographies and contextual theologies of cyberspace to review the way you plan and carry out your calling.

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