About three years ago, I started saying, “The Internet is the eighth continent of global ministry.” Not everybody bought into this, but for me, it seemed self-evident. I traveled on the Internet all the time. I used a travel minute to support online ministry. Of course the Internet was its own distinct place. It’s a place in which ministry is both essential and distinctly different from ministry in Africa or Europe or Australia. Unlike telephone systems, televisions, periodicals, or the postal service, the Internet—while technically a medium for communications and information—doesn’t function as only a medium. It’s a non-geographic location where people are.
Think about it. We “go online.” We study there, work there, meet people there, build relationships there. We shop there, date there, fantasize there, entertain ourselves there. These days, we even worship there. The Internet has its own (heterogenous) culture, separate from the culture of our in-person social connections and geographic areas. It has its own linguistic dialects, its own traditions, its own economy, its own humor, its own status system. It even encourages its inhabitants to begin to think differently.
I’ve been hearing a lot of conversations in Quaker circles about what’s next, and I find myself thinking about the last year of pandemic and online worship as a giant game of Fruit Basket Upset. (Have you played this game? A group sits in chairs in a circle. Each participant is assigned a fruit: usually some are oranges, some are apples, and the rest are bananas. One player stands in the center of the circle and calls out a fruit: “ORANGES!” Every player who is an orange must leap out of their seat and run to sit in a different unoccupied seat. The last player standing becomes the new center player and calls the next fruit. If the center player is feeling particularly impish, they might call “FRUIT BASKET UPSET!” This requires all players to leap from their seats and scramble for a new one.)
Why a giant game of Fruit Basket Upset? Because even though many Quaker meetings transferred directly from in-person meetings to online meetings, a lot of Quaker individuals did not. We started dashing about, switching seats. Some Friends were just visiting and “went home” to their own online meetings the next week. But that wasn’t true for others. Some Friends returned to beloved meetings that they hadn’t attended in years, having moved away. Some Friends’ meetings didn’t move online at all, just shut down, so Friends there had no choice but to worship elsewhere, at least for a little while. Some Friends began experimenting and discovered a distant meeting that was a better match–maybe in a different yearly meeting or even a different theological branch.
This is great. We’ve had a year of serious chaos. I’m a fan of any source of positive spiritual support and communion. But . . . when this pandemic is over, are the Friends who’ve found new faith communities “going back?” Will they return to their geographic meetings, or will they stay in their new-found Internet homes? This is one drive behind the desire for hybrid meetings, and so far, I’m seeing a lot of conversation about the technical implications. How do we create a hybrid meeting in which everyone can see and hear and minister?
That’s a good first step. But I feel like there are much more complicated questions. If a Friend is worshiping regularly with a meeting online that’s geographically far away, where is that Friend’s membership? Are they sojourning with the meeting online, or are they transferring membership? If it’s the latter, what does membership in a physically distant meeting mean? How does a meeting provide pastoral care to a member who’s two thousand miles away? How does a distant member serve a meeting? I’m not saying it’s impossible. I’m saying it’s different.
In effect, a hybrid meeting is no longer located in its geographic place. A hybrid meeting is located online, and some of its members gather physically in order to access that online meeting together. If we say otherwise—that the meeting is gathered physically in a geographic location, but some members are allowed to “beam in,” so to speak, through technology, then the members online are automatically excluded from everything that happens when the technology is turned off. Which means, if we aren’t led to exclude, that there can’t be a time when the technology is turned off. Which means the meeting is de facto online.
I find this both exciting and stunning. What does that mean for community service? What is an online meeting’s relationship to a homeless shelter or a food pantry? Suddenly, community service and protest and witness and advocacy aren’t necessarily bound by traditional geography—because the meeting’s not in a geographic place; the meeting is in the eighth continent, the Internet.
Almost none of our meetings have had time to think this through. Ultimately, some will embrace this model, and others will discern we’re not led to it.
But wait: this game of Fruit Basket Upset is actually even more complicated.
Because when the pandemic started, we didn’t just leap in the air and run for different chairs. Some of us moved the actual chairs. Some of us started entirely new meetings.
Did we do this on purpose? Mostly no. Some institutions (Quaker schools, Quaker conference centers) started holding regular meetings for worship online, and in most cases, we thought this would go on for a few months . . . and now it’s been a year. Other groups of Friends, or individual Friends, started online worship of various kinds without connection to any institution. I’ve done this myself, with family devotionals. With a few notable exceptions, no one expected these worshiping communities to become worshiping communities, with all the fullness of what that means: developing processes and traditions together, working through conflict, celebrating each other’s joys, upholding each other through grief and loss. We thought we were meeting temporary needs, and in many cases, we’ve discovered something bigger.
Some of these online worshiping communities are not going to want to end. I’ve heard explicitly from individual Friends that this online group or that online group feels more like home than their geographic meeting ever did. Is there a pathway by which these online worshiping communities can become “official” meetings?
As far as I can tell, there isn’t. But . . . couldn’t there be?
We’ve Fruit Basket Upsetted ourselves into a whole new place. Suddenly, worship and religious education and communal discernment and witness and outreach are all happening on the Internet, on this eighth continent, in a place we haven’t mapped and don’t know how to map. It’s a lot like the days of the very first Friends. We’re running around, establishing communities, seeking the Light and preaching the Word of the Lord, and yet we have no workable system of organization—just sprawling, dangerous, fertile, blessed mess!
(And it is a mess, with lots of things working well and lots of other things really not. Where’s a 21st-century Margaret Fell about now?)
I have no idea what we’re going to do, and frankly, I find the unpredictability thrilling. Maybe every geographic quarter will establish its own online monthly meeting. Maybe online meetings will seek membership in yearly meetings—the ones that resonate with them theologically, since geographic proximity is a total non-issue. Maybe one or more yearly meetings will be led to make an explicit statement: “Hey, y’all! If you’re an online meeting looking for a home, come on over here. We’d love to be in discernment with you.” Maybe there’ll be new yearly meetings completely online. Maybe EFCI and FWCC and FGC and FUM (and ETC) will accept into their membership online meetings. Maybe online meetings will decide that traditional membership is irrelevant and find their own ways of living in covenant community.
And what about the hybrid meetings? Maybe they’ll thrive in their new online existence. Maybe this will be the shift that demands radical hospitality, adventurous outreach, and revolutionary witness. Maybe the Friends who’ve been begging for change will finally see it manifesting.
And maybe—just maybe—the meetings that are led to not be online will deepen in their understanding of what it means to be geographically specific. What powerful ministry might emerge from a meeting that is deliberately and consciously present within its physical neighborhood?
This is the part where I’m tempted to say “please, whatever you do, don’t end the game of Fruit Basket Upset and demand that everybody rebuilds the circle and sits down in their original chairs.” But you know what? I don’t think that’s even possible. I think we’ve changed too much this year, that too many of us have made too many discoveries, and that as a whole, we can’t go back, not even if we wanted to.
Maybe what’s next is entirely different from any possibility that we can imagine. Maybe now, more than ever, the call is to “give over [our] own willing, give over [our] own running, give over [our] own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in [us] and be in [us] and breathe in [us] and act in [us] . . .”
But on the Internet.