Paul Brandeis Raushenbush on What Happens When a Virus Forces Faith Communities to Go Virtual

A woman uses a virtual reality headset outdoors. Photo courtesy of Pexels/Creative Commons

The Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, a Baptist minister, is senior adviser for public affairs and innovation at Interfaith Youth Core and former president of the Association for College and University Religious Affairs.

When two or three are gathered on Facebook, is Christ there? When 10 Jews meet on a Zoom call, is it a minyan?

Over the past few days, as states have asked houses of worship to suspend services, synagogues have held muted Purim celebrations and other religious meetings and services have been canceled, people have already begun mourning the loss of community.

It’s a good time for people of faith to reflect on how well digital technologies serve faith communities and consider the future of religion, which by definition is that which binds people to one another.

Community has always been one of the internet’s significant features. Last year, I hosted a virtual reality talk show called “You. Are. Here.” On the opening show, I gathered a pastor, a yoga teacher and a rabbi who led meditation and worship via virtual reality. They talked about the deep experience of connection that their VR congregations experienced.

It struck me that VR allowed anyone to join these meetings regardless of physical ability or appearance, offering a chance to be seen without judgment in ways that offline communities do not. We worry that the internet has rendered physical presence secondary to manufactured sights and sounds, but for some this can be liberating.

Indeed, all people seem to feel less inhibited online, which can lead to deeply connected and spiritual community. One of the earliest online Christian communities was founded by the Rev. Chuck Henderson, who started the First Church of Cyberspace in the mid-1990s. Members met in an HTML chat room on Sunday evenings and “did church” together with what Henderson called an “intimacy” that allowed people to open up and be real with one another.

Digital communities also render proximity secondary to affinity. When I was serving as an associate dean of religious life at Princeton University, a Buddhist student needed to go home for a semester to West Virginia, where she didn’t have a community that shared her spiritual practice. An online group of like-minded Buddhists in New York City allowed her to join them for weekly meditation, download the teachings and assuage her sense of alienation.

Online communities can sometimes even meet spiritual needs in ways that in-person congregations fall short. Early in her career, Christian theologian Deanna Thompson had nothing but disdain for the internet. But when she got a very serious form of cancer, her brother created a page for her on the online community site Caring Bridge, where people could support her and get updates on her treatment. In her book “The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World,” Thompson wrote that her internet community was more “there for her” than her local church.

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Source: Religion News Service