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A sense of church

August 21, 2012
By Monica A. Coleman

I really enjoy the use of new media in churches. When I can’t make it out of the house, I watch worship services via livestream on my smartphone. I prefer to tithe via credit card on the church website, and I love that my church sends pictures and announcements via email twice a week. And if my church had its own app ... I’d be in technology heaven. This allows me to feel connected even when I can’t make it to church.

Nevertheless, in the challenging and crucial moments of my spiritual life, I find myself yearning for the sensations of my church past. I want to feel the wood of the altar at the church I attended during college. I remember how many times I collapsed there, pouring my heart out to God. I want to smell the incense and holy water of the church next to my Catholic elementary school. It’s the holiest scent I know. I want to hear the low moans of the deacons on the mourner’s bench at my grandmother’s church. They knew how to embrace pain without isolating one another. I want to travel 3000 miles away and dress my infant in the same white dress I wore, all to be dedicated at the same church where I was introduced to church community.

Place matters to me. The smells, sounds, and sensate feelings of church matter to me. These are the things to which I return at the rock bottom of my faith. These are the parts of church I most want to give my children.

I can’t help but to wonder what kinds of senses are embedded in people who access church primarily through new media. Will they remember the feel of the smartphone in their hands? The sounds that pipe through the headphones? The tone the mail server makes when indicating that there’s a new message from the church?

I’m torn. Perhaps there are some important things about church that simply don’t translate into new media. Here at the New Media Project, we’ve thought about that a lot. One of our biggest questions remains: Can you do the Eucharist online? Is it still Eucharist? One of our case study subjects seems to say so. We’ve long suggested a thoughtful and savvy combination of traditional and new media as the most effective way forward.

Perhaps I’m not thinking creatively enough. Perhaps I am limited by my emotional connection to my experience of church. After all, new media engages senses as well. We experience unique forms of embodiment with new media. Perhaps the feel of the smartphone, touch screen, and keyboards can be understood as sacred.

Years from now, what will be the comforting and familiar sounds, smells, and feelings of church for people who know church largely through new media? What do you think are the senses of new media church?

Monica A. Coleman, a research fellow for the New Media Project, serves as Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religions and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Associate Professor of Religion at Claremont Graduate University in southern California.

The New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmedia@uts.columbia.edu.


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