Church voyeur

By Monica A. Coleman

Please be patient with me God is not through with me yet When God gets through with me When God gets through with me I shall come forth, I shall come forth as pure gold

I still remember learning that song—among so many others—in Vacation Bible School in my home church. As a young person who was raised in church, my summers always included Vacation Bible School. Usually a week at my home church, and then at least one other week in the Vacation Bible School program at a friend or cousin’s church. I learned Bible stories in Sunday school, but I learned songs and made crafts in Vacation Bible School. As I grew older, I became a “VBS helper” with the younger children.

As an adult committed to church, this summer has been all about denominational conferences. Since May, at least four significant American denominations have held their periodic meetings to elect officers and conduct the business of the church. Because of new media, I’ve been able to peek in on the happenings of the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Episcopal Church.

I’ve been kept abreast through some live streaming of the conferences. I’ve learned more through the posts and pictures of friends on Facebook and Twitter. They have posted links to the denomination’s official website and articles, and offered their own opinions on the proceedings as they take place. In real time! Even national non-ecclesial websites begin to post articles on elections, debates and findings of the churches. Especially the controversial ones around sexuality, marriage, and politics.

I’m only a member of one of these denominations, but I’ve enjoyed being a voyeur on all of their activities. I think of it less as spying, and more as keeping my finger on the pulse of American Protestantism. While reports roll in on the decreased religiosity of Americans and low commitment to mainline denominations, these online reports tell a different story. They show the tensions, politics, hopes, aspirations, frustrations, and celebrations of people who care deeply about their faith and their community. I see them struggle with generational, moral, political, and theological differences. All while trying to be friends with those with whom they disagree. Within these churches are groups of people who are discerning when to walk away, and when to stay and fight. In my online spying, it seems like denominational conferences aren’t so different from most Christians I know. I find that immensely reassuring.

The irony is that I’ve never been denominationally loyal. I’ve always felt that my first commitment is to God—with the local church or denomination as the current vehicle for expressing a calling. But I have a real emotive and theological attachment to fellowship, corporate worship, and the power of “the many.” I see some churches make decisions that make me want to run and join their ranks. And other churches make decisions where I wish I could un-affiliate from the Christian moniker altogether. I like to think that the continued debates with love will work everything out. In the meanwhile, perhaps they need a chorus of kids singing the theme song: “Please be patient with me, God is not through with me yet.”

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