Contextual engaging with digitalisation as theologians and Church practitioners demands an axis of participation rather than a reactionism to the potentials and problems of the digital era.
Those forging innovation at the interface of Church activity is distanced from theologians presenting ethnographical theologies of such realities.
The global Covid pandemic necessitates a comprehensive reflective and action-driven response by the Church throughout the World in all contexts, both geographic and denominational, to upskill the Church in a digital era and present theologies of the impact of the on-demand Church.
The distance between theologians and those harnessing the demands of this new revolution will either fracture the Church or create a legitimate way of embracing a third online space of Worship as a genuine incarnation of the institutional Church.
Scampering to appease and validate already alienated Church practices with the notion that all will return to the true Church as an authentic ecclesiology deludes both the societal prediction on the realities of a digital revolution that has liberated rather than imprisoned a gospel witness beyond the confines of borders and geography.
An appropriate ecclesial community engagement and unique geographic expressions of how the Global Church responds post the Covid pandemic on all digital platforms in every Continent must invite the capturing of theological thought and news ways of expressing an on-demand Church presence. Therefore, broadening the experience and debate of how theology is present in this emerging ecclesiology and in what way faith is shaped through a preached, engaged and interactive way of being Church both globally and locally invites theologians, digital expertise and recipients of digitalised faith to a common platform that can dispel the algorithms of trending bait balls to a reflective engaging of how Christian expressions develop in evolving paradigms, this proof is discovered in digital development in ecclesiology present for over thirty years.
The online Church explained as the destination of a new land needs exploration documented and captured. Ongoing suspicion and lack of resourcing this form of Church will hamper momentum, betray transitional change, and alienate innovation for the Church. Furthermore, those with unlimited resources will become a dominating influence as a preferred choice. Left behind, the local Church alienated in a digital era will suffer.
The Methodist Church of Southern Africa holds to a vision of a Christ Healed Africa for the Healing of Nations. The essence of this ideal demands a connexion and identity by an association of humanity and geography beyond traditional borders. This vision births the purpose and function for the Churches mission beyond the limits of practical presence, catapulting the significance and potentials of the digital era as a missional tool in achieving this objective, especially in breaking down borders and boundaries. These barriers have, through colonial histories, divided and alienated. As theology forges into a decolonised framing in the engaging of indigenous theologies and contextual theology, the complexities of identity and praxis roll out in digital platforms embracing new cultural trends and pathways to a sending message of the Gospel from previously colonised regions to more equitable sharing of lived out faith influencing objectives underlined in this vision statement that move outside of power dynamics present in financial dominance. Simply influence is no longer limited to institutional power but finds trending appetites consuming and validating Church as legitimate when faith makes sense to everyday life.
2. Contextual engaging with digitalisation
Contextual engaging with digitalisation as theologians and Church practitioners demand an axis of participation rather than a reaction to the potentials and problems of the digital era.
Ministering in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, I present this topic as a practitioner and not an expert in digital ministry. After pioneering a Church in 2004 in a post-apartheid South Africa in the Methodist Church, using digital platforms to shape this ecclesiology, experience and tradition offer a microcosm of changing ecclesiology and responsive identities in forging a new ecclesial identity in the Southern African context.
The focus to ensure diversity for an emerging Church in a digital world deduces that Global influences and globalised missiology are dominant features of Church planting in the twenty-first Century. Motivated by imagining how a vision for the healing of Nations can access how theology shaped in Africa shows African missiology as a prevailing indigenous theology within a decolonised framing, influencing a settled, and missionary gospel message revolutionises how the Gospel message is integrated and then exported to other contexts, continents, and regions as healing. For this to happen requires evidence of ideals beyond slogan rhetoric. Therefore, digital platforms offer pathways of pedalling a globalised vision and, in turn, a measurement for such engagement.
Observance of ancient Christian rituals indicates the significance of identification with inherited sacred practices that recognise the Holy Spirit leads the disclosing of Church in every era, including secular modernity. Sabbath Worship, Prayer, Fellowship, Communion, sharing meals in common, friendship, and participation of everyone shape this Community identity and personality.
Embracing new ways of evangelism and liturgy in a pioneering context of innovation emerged as vital. The established legitimate Church is in constant formation, forged through tested faith.
The central precept in the methodology of 'voices of theology' articulates where, how, and what defines and offers coherent annunciation to this method as embodied theologies of Christians—appreciating practical theology concerned with how the 'proper authority and pastoral articulations of our age' (Watkins 2014. p.236). The praxis as Foley (2013. p.11.n.1) places in chronological importance aligns to the ARC contestation of grounded theory approach.
The Normative working theology holds authority in the Conference, creeds and Scripture, and accepted doctrine for the tradition of South African Methodism. Gracepoint functions in this normative tradition, the focus on practices as central to the personified existence of this Church shows how espoused and operant theologies offer the Church in the twenty-first-century legitimacy and purpose. Emerging as a new ecclesial identity, the task of defining distinctiveness, beliefs and reflecting experience to filter such embedded faith is a function of formation held in the containment of formal and normative theology. Weaving together these voices of theology typifies that a post-modern secular Church almost by osmosis integrates formal and normative theology whilst focusing on people's movement. Such espoused and operant practices become theology—the idea of a movement of ecclesial identity links to the Methodist heritage. Like John Wesley, the personality, experiences, and passions of those in leadership dominate the direction and function of religious identity.
This process imagines how the Wesleyan Quadrilateral of experience, reason, Scripture, and tradition are present in all four theology voices in Methodist traditions. Therefore, knowledge cannot mean espoused or operant theology; neither can tradition be assumed to be normative theology. Such practices are constantly forming through identity, experience, reason, and Scripture in normative identity. Normative theology should not overpower the culture or insist on such importance that developing theologies suffocate. Methodist heritage both as a Church in the reformation tradition and aligned to the principles of John Wesley's intention should insist on the presence of ongoing formation. As a movement of identified faith for what a community needs to facilitate God's discovery for such a time, ecclesial communities should allow all four theology voices to present their orthopraxy.
Forging faith identity through engagement and participation as conceptual requirements of a Church, involving adults and children in the practical needs of preparing for Church ignites the induction into Christian practice of espoused and operant theology for this new ecclesial Community. Cleaning the School Hall, setting chairs and tables, shared work, and collaborating ideas by imagining what makes space and place sacred and ensuring weekly Worship focused not only on adults but also on children and Youth represented a foundational value.
The purpose of embodying Christianity's revival spirit as an ongoing expression of the Gospel in a new South Africa supports embracing change that can adapt to cultural morphing. Accordingly, this ecclesial Community focused on establishing a culture of diversity. Although well recognised for a decade in South Africa, democracy had not significantly impacted styles and gathering practices in Worship attendance, which remained predominantly racially segregated, particularly in traditional denominations like Methodism.
The Methodist Church Denomination
Although a non-racial Church in principle, language, music styles of Worship and rituals of Methodism fostered racial segregation on Sundays and at religious observance of Easter and Christmas, neighbourhoods, schools, and workplaces were useful blended expressions of multi-racial diversity in South Africa. Yet, traditional Worship continued divided along with language, race, and worship styles. Lonehill/Gracepoint Methodist Church strived to create a commonplace of Worship that recognised the religious identity of all and aligned social justice as a focus which represented the changing expressions of democratic South Africa. The racial integration of secular Society now well established brought the need for worship places that reimagined Sundays to cater to the needs of emerging sub-cultures of racially integrated and liberated communities.
As a Methodist Church, evangelism and Mission heritage is no more than a recovery of the original Spirit of Christian theologising (Bevan, 1992, location 923). Embracing evangelism, this Community existed with determination for people who would not usually have attended Church, by intention a seeker-friendly church, where belonging before believing was paramount, a non-threatening environment for new Christians and those exploring faith.
Digitalised language and visual intentionality on available social platforms fostered this Church growth. Digitalisation provides a scaffolding for legitimacy in the emerging Church, as a record of function and a construct for legitimate engaging and scrutiny. As sacred proof of the espoused and operant churches witness, digital footprint affords current and historical documentation of the visual expressions of ecclesial developments in the identity of a Church worshipping community. Reflecting the Church post the Covid pandemic and lockdown of Worship and Church gatherings, as online spaces of Church became the norm for Worship, demystifies the alienation of online ecclesiology as a peripheral platform establishing a central expression of the Church as digital in the twenty-first Century. The switch to digital has happened.
3. Forging Innovation
The demands of changing Church contexts and practical responses to Church as every day and seven days turn around events require a discerned presence acutely aware of changing trends, language, cultural recalibrations, and ancient spiritual formation practices. Those forging innovation at the interface of Church activity is distanced from theologians presenting ethnographical theologies of such realities. Access to resources and skills in digital trends dominate ecclesial expressions that grow and support the function and purpose of the Church in the twenty-first Century.
To frame the defining qualities of pioneering Church in an African context, the conditions for acceptability and practice of Methodism in Southern Africa, the terms of evangelism, style of Worship, and the development of Mission and discipleship through operations of the local Church responding to pastoral demands explain a dimension of Mission in practice. How these are present at Gracepoint and align with the Connexional Methodist identity is key to understanding the Methodist heritage and theology as an ecclesial movement that incorporates laity and Clergy as authentically African. Therefore, replying to the praxis of Mission reflect whether digitalised platforms support Church growth and development.
The South African religious context expects a critical reflection of the post-apartheid Church and a redefinition of human engagement in evangelism. The Methodist Church of Southern Africa's Vision (MCSA Yearbook, 2016) of a Christ Healed Africa for the Healing of the Nations articulates foundational beliefs for every Church operating in the denomination. Therefore, authentic Christian communities, focused on healing and transformation in Africa's framework, underpin the normative and formal mission theology of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and must be present in the operant and espoused articulations of each Church.
The effectiveness of Gracepoint as an ecclesial community in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa displays espoused and operant theology's dimensions as a response to these demands and incarnational rigours.
I have identified ten characteristics in this analysis as operant and espoused theology, drawing from normative and formal embedded theologies in the actual practices of Gracepoint as a pioneering ecclesial community.
1. Primarily establishing and integrating a compelling Vision.
2. Collaboration with what motivates human connection through the sharing of life together creates the presence of the Church.
3. Foundational for a pioneering Church is a firm commitment to intergenerational focus that intentionally drives Church engagement and incorporation of people younger than thirty-five into the functional significance of Church.
4. Insisting Music and Worship are an axis to the human soul and prioritise spiritual formation and stimulus.
5. Rediscovering evangelism.
6. Transformation as the saving and sanctifying evidence of authentic Christian faith.
7. Discipleship and spiritual growth as an ongoing journey rather than a destination.
8. Leadership focused on serving rather than power and knowledge.
9. Embracing Social Justice as a way of ecclesiology.
10. Innovation through digitalisation as a pioneering identity.
4. Church in a post-pandemic framing
The global Covid pandemic necessitates a comprehensive reflective and action-driven response by the Church throughout the World in all contexts, both geographic and denominational, to upskill the Church in a digital era and present theologies of the impact and trends present in the on-demand Church. Compelling identities and practices require a theological construct detailed for all communication and praxis on digital platforms. Social Media cannot only be a form of advertising, communication, or awareness strategies; it must be theology in purpose to establish legitimate engaging that can withstand the influence of forced algorithms and myopic responses to a moment in time as determined truth. Formal teaching and discussion for developing a Gospel narrative integrated into ecclesiology as theology on digital media are critical for theologians, digital practitioners, Clergy, and laity. Theology in the digital space, unearths a presence of measurement that on reflection identifies the evidence of the Gospel for this generation of the Church. A post-Covid on-demand Church mirrors a post Reformation ecclesiology as the Church becomes an ancient message in a new era.
4.1 Forging identity
The normative voice of theology, the official creeds and teachings of the Church and the formal theology, the interdisciplinary dialogues arrange what the nature of the identity of the organisation holds. The espoused and operant voices of theology capture why and what the Church does to express distinctive materialisation.
The entry of 'now' allows the espoused and operant voices of theology to facilitate an ongoing incarnational narrative of ecclesial formation. This forming theology's four expressions allow Churches to be dynamic and not a destination in espoused and operant theological terms.
4.2 Recognising need
Humanity shares an appetite for religious and faith expression, whether by establishing traditions or formalising people's belief systems in a structured legitimate religious paradigm. At the heart of this recognition could be the Holy Spirit's move that sets people's soul, mind, and imagination to an ongoing exploration of faith possibility. Methodist tradition as a forerunner to establishing new Churches spiritual recognition of God inviting people to explore beyond their current framing and discover ecclesiology as an unfolding journey and invitation from God for humanity to be part of a story of each other is a sacred gift and affirmation of our creation and humanity.
The awareness of universal religious needs brings about a response. The operant and espoused voices of theology are the evidence of response to the fluidity of faith—the potential to recognise a need and then execute the opportunity to act by responding. Going out and preaching and planting churches, making disciples of all the nations, and accepting God's free will present in the Christian faith family fosters receptivity in how unfolding opportunity of faith in action happens.
The challenging concept in Christian religious circles is the word maintenance and the focus and resources it demands. The scales are often layered in the duality that either Church focuses on care or Mission. A clear directive is to inspire Churches to become Mission-driven rather than maintenance trapped. The notion prevails that maintenance tends to stifle Mission and frustrate God's workings in the labours of institutional demands. To release ecclesial movements to a liberated response to the Gospel imperatives is the ministry's spiritual importance. Whether Mission or maintenance is the point of departure, either dredge the shackles of ministry requirements as preserving the status quo and Mission as the energy force of innovation and freedom. The Christian religious life modelled through advent and lent the cyclic framing as places to pause. An invitation to discover faith in all is the ministries as both maintenance and Mission, existing in symbiotic tensions of dependence as a vital signpost of theological importance.
4.5 Reflection as reflective destinations
The ongoing fact of the Church is a spiritual and physical body that holds the memory of people with God and through God. The Methodist Church is a Connexion. Its best witness is capturing Gods people's story not as a destination or goal of achievements but as a pattern of responses in relationship with one another. As the Church, our answer is to reflect our faith together.
The unfolding ecclesial presence captures the realities of eternity with God as God inside of people and people inside of God, as the location of God. The biblical narrative, in Luke 24:28-29 of the Emmaus Journey, unlocks this incarnational innovation. Two men leaving Jerusalem speak with the stranger as they reflect on what happened at the crucifixion of Christ. Divine presence explains and opens another journey to a deeper knowing, as they draw from what has happened with reasoning and purpose beyond the crucifixion event's trauma.
Ecclesial identity moulded in God's collective body is people in relationship with one another as espoused theology. We hold memory together, discovering the sacred moments of life and eternity, developing practices that ignite and heal the soul—shaped personality. The Church as the Body of Christ in physical form is an infinite presence of people recognising, responding, and realising what humanity requires and reflecting on who and what we are now as religious life becomes the canvas of life as an eternal presence.
The essence of the human story in the ecclesial sacrality of Gracepoint and the forging identity reveals what purpose facilitates the living traditions as more than a legitimate scaffolding of formal theology. The body of believers discovers God present in unfolding eternity in the here and now. The normative theological position is beyond the past's relics and is vibrant legitimacy repeatedly affirmed in evolving identity.
God ordained the Church's establishment to call people into communion with Godself and one another according to eternal purpose in Jesus Christ. As the Holy Spirit's creation, the Church grows into a sacred temple, and where the Church is, 'there is the Spirit of God' as Irenaeus of Lyons explains.
4.5 Legitimacy and the online space
The distance between theologians and those harnessing the demands of this new revolution will either fracture the Church or create a legitimate way of embracing a third online space of Worship as a genuine incarnation of the institutional Church
4.6 Incarnation and Institution
Worship as a genuine incarnation of the institutional Church.
Scampering to appease and validate already alienated Church practices with the notion that all will return to the real Church deludes both the societal prediction on the realities of a digital revolution that has liberated rather than imprisoned a gospel witness beyond the confines of borders and geography.
An appropriate ecclesial community engagement and unique geographic expressions of how the Global Church responds post the Covid pandemic on all digital platforms in every Continent must invite the capturing of theological thought. A new era for the Church has dawned, and theology as a witness to evolving human story has a new container, the on-demand digitalised Church.
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