Natalia Terfa: Digital Communities Are Embodied Communities
I recently had the honor of listening in on some seminary students defending their theses, and it reminded me of two clear truths:
- The emerging leaders are alright.
- Challenging the status quo/institution/empire has not gotten easier.
After an entertaining and engaging defense on the importance and necessity of digital ministry, a professor pushed back on the idea of digital ministry altogether and said that digital spaces “didn’t speak to embodiment.” This was a sticking point for him, and he didn’t think embodiment in a digital space had any theological grounding.
The student did a really great job of pushing back, but all I could think of as I left that zoom room (by the way, a fully digital space) was how disappointing and even ridiculous it is that even now, almost exactly three years after the pandemic moved us all into digital spaces in a way no one expected or was really prepared for, we are still stuck on this one point. Somehow it all hinges on “embodiment.”
Oof. All I could think was - really? Have we learned nothing during Covid?
First, as someone who feels called to and actively leads digital ministry through my podcast and podcast community (of which there are thousands, across the entire country and globe), I have an obvious bias and no small amount of skin in the game. But also I feel like it needs to be said loudly and clearly: Digital Communities ARE Embodied Communities.
Next, I feel I should be clear that the embodiment I practice and believe in is likely very different from that professor’s idea of embodiment.
I believe embodiment is not just “having a body.”
I also believe embodiment is not just “having a body in a space where there are other bodies.” When I’m on Zoom and you’re on Zoom, we both still have bodies.
When I’m on Marco Polo and you’re on Marco Polo, even if we’re not on there at the same time, we both still have bodies.
When I’m on Facetime and you’re on Facetime, we both still have bodies. Do none of those count because we aren’t sharing physical space? Good gosh I hope not. Believing we aren’t fully embodied when we’re online or in a digital space is dangerous. We have all learned (or experienced) how to fully disconnect from the whole person on the other side of a computer screen. It’s how people can say things online that they would never say face to face.
“I can’t even see them.”
“They aren't real.”
What a small and limited view of embodiment that is.
I have been taught and believe that embodiment is the full integration of mind, body, and spirit. Embodiment is more of a holistic state of being than just having a physical body near other physical bodies.
For me, some of the most holy moments of the past three years have happened in digital spaces. Thank goodness for them and the people who met me there.
They have saved my faith. They have saved me.
The community and connection that saved me happened BECAUSE of the digital space, not in spite of it.
Digital Communities ARE Embodied Communities.
Simply sharing physical space does not equal embodiment.
In fact, for many people, sharing physical space does the exact opposite. We could have a room full of physical bodies in the same physical space. Each and every one of them could be totally disconnected from their body and their spirit and somehow we’re calling that the best we’ve got?
I will continue to argue vehemently that when we interact in the digital space, we are embodied. If we are more than physical bodies - and I think we could all agree that we are - any time we are fully who we are, connecting, engaging, and together, we are embodied. Even when it’s online. Even when it’s through a screen.
Our ecclesiastical tradition actually has a lot to say about this.
Embodiment in digital spaces IS actually grounded in deep and beautiful theology. Or, as the student stated in her thesis defense: “The church has always been virtual.” Peter wrote letters to churches from far away and praised the continued relationship and communion he shared with those communities - even when he wasn’t physically able to be with them.
Every time we gather around the communion table we talk openly and clearly about how we join together in this meal across time and space with the whole communion of saints, past and present.
We are about to celebrate Pentecost, where the spirit shows up as wind and fire - not as a body - and we will celebrate and rejoice in the ability of God to be in all people and places and time.
How can we believe all of this, and yet have no space to believe that ministry in a digital space is also embodied and incarnational and just as valid as physical, in-person gathering?
What if we stopped being so afraid of the digital space, and started meeting people there instead? What if we stopped telling people that the safe space they have created doesn’t quite count as much as the in-person space? What would happen if people connected with each other and with faith communities in whatever way allowed them to remain fully embodied?
What if we believed and supported and encouraged digital communities as fully embodied communities?
This is not a threat to but an expansion of the kingdom of God into more abundant life. It’s one I am so thankful to be a part of. And one I will keep fighting for because of those who have experienced embodied community in digital spaces. They matter. We matter.
Digital Communities ARE Embodied Communities.
Rev. Natalia Terfa
Natalia is a Lutheran pastor and author who lives in Minneapolis with her hubby, kiddo, and kitty babies. She loves to bake, to read, practice yoga, and find nature adventures. She is passionate about the church of the future, one with no boundaries and filled to the brim with love and grace and laughter and snark and a lot of fellow “not that kind of Christians.”
Natalia co-hosts Cafeteria Christian, a podcast for people who love Jesus but aren’t so sure about his followers.
Church Anew is dedicated to igniting faithful imagination and sustaining inspired innovation by offering transformative learning opportunities for church leaders and faithful people.
As an ecumenical and inclusive ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church, the content of each Church Anew blog represents the voice of the individual writer and does not necessarily reflect the position of Day1, Church Anew or St. Andrew Lutheran Church on any specific topic.