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*Unlike most theologians, who like to have a 3-point preaching plan, I’ve got 4 main areas I want to cover within this paper in a fairly whistlestop fashion, as I try and pull ideas I’ve worked on over the last 6+ years into a forward trajectory of research planning, with an interest in digital culture, and how it can be shaped to provide the most positive and valuable experience for those engaging in it.
The church in the United Kingdom can be regarded as geographically placed and located, with an emphasis upon local church services, and services to the local community such as food banks, debt management, and children’s work.
Abstract Part 1: The church in the United Kingdom can be regarded as geographically placed and located, with an emphasis upon local church services, and services to the local community such as food banks, debt management, and children’s work. Theologians such as Rumsey (2017), Hjalmarson (2014), and Inge, (2003) are concerned with a theology of place, whilst the Church of England, the Methodist Church and the URC churches, amongst others, are organised around geographical dioceses, circuits and parishes, whilst also contributing to national and international public policy debates.
The most obvious of these within the UK is the Church of England, which proclaims that it offers “A Christian presence in every community”, structured around parishes (local churches) and dioceses (a more administrative area).. Familiar to most who have ever walked into an English village is the church physically centred at the heart of the (original) local community…. structured around the time when people remained much more bound to one place for their entire lives (until 19th/20th c) – Inge, 2003, p6
The site makes it easy for you to ‘find your local church’…
*side-note – focus on a particular geographical area here.
This can be seen in the recent Grenfall Tower tragedy, where St Clement’s churh and the associated centre next door became the focal point for aid, donations and retreat from the trauma of the fire – as the vicar says, this happened because these people were already part of the local community, and re-emphasises the place of the local church
The Methodist church is arranged around ‘circuits’ (collections of local churches) and districts (collections of circuits) – again ‘find a church’ is made easy to find on the front page….
One of the stories on a Methodist webpage page, refers to a 2014 project ‘Faith in Foodbanks’, highlighting that many churches also contribute locally through a mix of practical (local) action, theological reflection, and feeding into appropriate public policy debates. The Re:dish logo is from the foodbank in my local area.
The URC is structured into regional synods, within which there are local churches – again the website makes it easy to discover that.
The Baptist Church holds onto a view “the Church consists of and in people. It is neither a building nor an organization,” but again, we see the emphasis on being visible within local communities, and the place in which those people are embedded.
The Catholic church also emphasizes local services, and the ability to connect locally. There’s other denominations, but you get the point… (and we’ve not even looked at the websites of local churches at this level…)
In seeking to get a handle on this sense of ‘place’ and the importance of ‘the local’, I turned to three theological texts:
Inge from 2003 is almost ‘required reading’ for ministers in training, and argues that the importance of ‘place’ has been under-researched within theology, because of the emphasis that the world is but a temporary ‘home’, before heaven (p48, Paul, as a ‘new creation in Christ’ had been set free from the Law and the Land). He highlights Relph - 1976 (p84) that ‘the distinctiveness of place lies not so much in its exact physical forms and arrangements, as in the meanings accorded to it by a community of concerned people.’ The notion of ‘community’, and when a place may be become ‘holy’ and ‘sacred’ is key, and ties in the later question of whether digital can ever be considered ‘a place’ by theologians.
Goodreads (a book review site) suggested Hjalmarson’s book to me, so I’m currently reading that. The foreword mentions Alan Durning’s This Place on Earth: visited remote hill tribes, whose very being was built around sacred territories, and the look of pity in her eyes when he said that he had no roots where he lived, and couldn’t articulate what was valuable about it – for missional Christians ‘place’ can be irrelevant, as rootedness can ‘get in the way’ of going ‘where one is called’ by the needs of faith and mission (p18). This book focuses on what it means for Christians to live in an embodied way within a particular ‘place’:
“To return home is to return to a place; through experience human hearts become rooted in place. The paradox of place is that it is both given, and socially constructed… but place has become transparent to us. Like air, we are immersed in it and can’t live without it, but don’t see it.” (p26)
I’ve just been to Greenbelt (arts and faith) Festival, and via Facebook saw that Andrew Rumsey was speaking on his new book, so that’s arrived a couple of weeks ago, but from the preview available on Kindle notes the word ‘parish’ comes from the greek word for ‘stranger’, in which “The church was the fellowship of strangers, the community of non-belongers, who had found their place in Christ.” The parish system once established was the ‘pre-eminent model of communal ‘belonging’ for nearly 1000 years – as the system strains, he’s looking for a re-consideration of what this means.
See if can get a 30 sec video from Andrew Rumsey at Greenbelt?
So, I want to move on to talk briefly about the digital as an environment… the digital, whether as an overarching ‘space’, or within specific platforms, is a place (terminology varies to include world, sphere, environment and culture) in which communication, action and community participation can be undertaken online…
Abstract Part 2: With the digital age, this model has been challenged, with the digital offering a new ‘public sphere’ at a personal, organisational and political level, and has effectively become ‘the front door’ for many offline churches (Lewis, 2013). The global and perceived virtual nature of the digital also raises questions of ‘sacredness’ and ‘spirituality’ online (Smith, 2015). The digital, whether as an overarching ‘space’, or within specific platforms, is a place (terminology varies to include world, sphere, environment and culture) in which communication, action and community participation can be undertaken online. Experience since 2010, particularly workshops and speaking engagements held as Digital Fingerprint consultancy (2008 – 2017), has shown that the strong sense of ‘place’ for the church continues, with many looking to the digital to support and enhance geographically placed initiatives, and demonstrate engagement with the local community. As Hutchings (2017) has demonstrated, for many who attend church online, whether through livestreamed services, or via interactive (including virtual) platforms, this is a supplement to the face-to-face experience, rather than a replacement for it. Where churches are ‘built’ in the virtual environment, they tend to replicate the offline churches that they are representative of, and national churches tend to retain a national feel, particularly noticeable stylistically between UK and USA churches.
If you’ve not worked out by now, I’m very well embedded online, it’s a place that I consider that I live – as Hjalmarson about physical places “we are immersed in it and can’t live without it, but don’t see it”, but I want to refer briefly to a piece in the Association for Learning Technologies Journal, in which I and a colleague sought to analyse one of my social media accounts, how it contributed to my role, and whether it could be considered a ‘true community of practice’. What we discovered was that the majority of places where there was a concentration of followers all following each other, was built around the connections formed at e-learning conferences …
As with many media appearances where I’m asked to highlight the ‘dangers’ of various digital aspects, I want to highlight that I rarely see digital and physical as either/or, but am looking at how the two work together, inform each other, at the affordances and constraints of each….
[http://www.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-press/browse-books/social-media-in-an-english-village - challenge to English sensibilities of overlapping personal/public… ]
… within the Church in particular, where there’s an emphasis upon the idea that Jesus came to earth in human form, and therefore this is the ‘best’ form of interaction, but as this quote from Prof Sonia Livingstone “Even though...” illustrates, we need to look at digital on its own terms, rather than always in comparison.
We need to avoid what’s known as ‘technological determinism’ – that technology is changing everything, and we have no choice but to give into it, and think more about the ‘social shaping’ of technology – in which technology offers us new opportunities, but we have choices in how we engage with those choices – e.g. Like a brick – chuck it through the window, or build a wall with it.
With the digital age, the geographical model has been challenged, with the digital offering a new ‘public sphere’ at a personal, organisational and political level, and has effectively become ‘the front door’ for many offline churches, as you’ll see in this piece that I wrote for the Church of England research group in 2013.
*Note, first church website I built, back in around 2001, we discussed the importance of the website being consistent with what would happen when someone walked through the door of the local church (the focus of the efforts). We emphasised that it needed to feature real people, the community (not so much the building unless of historical interest). If, as the Baptists say, the people are the church more than the building so many think of, social media is important as a relational tool (and the side-doors and windows into church life)…
Experience since 2010, particularly workshops and speaking engagements held as Digital Fingerprint consultancy (2008 – 2017), has shown that the strong sense of ‘place’ for the church continues, with many looking to the digital to support and enhance geographically placed initiatives, and demonstrate engagement with the local community … the place that digital can contribute to pre-existing physcial communities is KEY (generally because that is how the systems they are working within are built… so takes some challenging to think about that.
This is something that Rev Pam Smith, vicar of iChurch (a fully online church) has sought to write about in her book, answering the many questions about how the global and perceived virtual nature of the digital raises questions of ‘sacredness’ and ‘spirituality’ online… the question
You’ll see her that it is about people undertaking a journey of discipleship together (we’ll come back to that shortly), and how the online space facilitates that, rather than, as was initially thought (and still persists to some extent), the things are cheaper, faster, easier, less intensive online, and that large numbers are all that count…
The main academic researcher in this area is Tim Hutchings, with whom I worked at Durham university, so I’ve watched a lot of his work develop into this book (which I don’t have, because, £), where he undertook an ethnographic study of various online churches, including The Anglican Cathedral in Second Life, iChurch, St Pixel’s and Church Online (thesis completed 2010) – we see here the discussion as to whether an avatar created as a dragon was ‘ok’ to lead church – thereby demonstrating how concerns from the offline have led into the online (and in fact that the very shape of e.g. The Anglican Cathedral has a familiarity of ‘place’, as a recognisably UK Anglican Cathedral).
One of the main concerns that many that I talk to have is that if online church is available, people will stop coming to offline churches, but Tim’s research demonstrated that for many who attend church online, whether through live-streamed services, or via interactive (including virtual) platforms, this is a supplement to the face-to-face experience, rather than a replacement for it.
My work has not been as formal, or as academic, in this area. I was funded by various organisations, particularly The Jerusalem Trust (under their aim: the creative use of digital media and the internet to promote Christianity), for CODEC: The Centre for Digital Theology (80%), alongside running a consultancy (Digital Fingerprint) which largely worked with churches and charities to encourage engagement with digital opportunities, and overcome fears of engaging with these.
Abstract Part 3: This paper, an informal netnography, draws together varying strands of work undertaken in the last decade, including Digital Fingerprint, and ‘The Big Bible Project’ undertaken at Durham University (http://bit.ly/BigBible1015, 2010-2015). Within the project over 3,000 blog posts were collected from ‘voices in the pew, the pulpit and the academy’ addressing questions as to what it means to be a Christian in a digital age: how does this impact upon organisational decisions, personal behaviour and discipleship, and the call to be missional within whichever community one finds oneself (arguably including the digital). The contributors were all volunteers, a mix of church members, vicars and academics, considering how various books of the Bible could speak into digital culture. Christian discipleship texts will encourage those of faith to be ‘the face of God’ to the rest of the world, a life visibly transformed by a relationship with Jesus Christ, a ‘witness’ to the world (Logan, 2014, Peterson, 2000). In the contemporary digital age, Christians are encouraged to think about how they are ‘the face of God’ in all spheres, including online (Byers, 2014).
Originally intended to improve Biblical literacy, but with a very open brief, I took the concept of a disciple “A Disciple is one who, by following Jesus, grows in their faith in Christ and in so doing models and teaches Christians the precepts of the Bible, prayer, doctrine, relationship, Christian living, service, and worship, to name the main ones.”. As we sought themes, it became obvious we could work through the 66 books of the Bible, and the contributors (all volunteers, a mix of church members, vicars and academics) would consider every month how a particular book of the Bible (taken in Biblical order) could speak into digital culture, etiquette and behaviour online, evangelism and mission, both locally and with what one contributor referred to as ‘learning to live in your digital skin’.
Over 3,000 blog posts were written in what we described as drawing on ‘voices from the pew, the pulpit and the academy’, as we grappled with what it means to be a Christian in a digital age. As I am seeking to turn this into appropriate academic publications, I noted to myself that the ‘digital world’ has often been described as an alien world, a virtual world, to be approached tentatively. The church, however, has sought to use the digital for mission (acquisition/conversion) and discipleship (retention/advocacy), with differing levels of success. Organisations and individuals use it to share their lives, tell their stories, open up discussions, and to engage with a sceptical world – a world that is hungry for relationships – and meaning. In a digital age, it is important for the church to consider how it is relevant (without losing its values), how it is connected with it’s community (local/global), and how it empowers its people to share their lives authentically (online) – in many ways as ‘influencer marketers’ within their group of friends.
Christian discipleship texts have always encouraged those of faith to be ‘the face of God’ to the rest of the world, a life visibly transformed by a relationship with Jesus Christ, a ‘witness’ to the world (Logan, 2014, Peterson, 2000). In the contemporary digital age, Christians are encouraged to think about how they are ‘the face of God’ in all spheres, including online (Byers, 2014)…. and I’m currently finishing a journal article for Surveillance and Society on Social Media, Peer Surveillance and Spiritual Formation:
What is it about social media (and digital) culture in general that shapes our expectations of what we can/want to do in those spaces? What does ‘surveillance’ look like within social media, especially when we understand ourselves to be observed in the space? What are the social norms, and (how) do we self-regulate with an awareness of being observed? How does social media impact our spiritual formation, and how do (a couple) of social media users perceive that?
Gould (2013, 11) would agree that “Social media has opened up yet another portal for seeing and being seen, for knowing and being known, for being in and belonging to community,” offering opportunities for enhancing what already exists, rather than replacing it with something completely new. Byers, theological consultant for The BIGBible Project (2013: 196), notes that if we ourselves are the
means by which God communicates and reveals himself through his Spirit, then our blog posts, status updates, tweets, artistic images, and online comments should be products of a life transformed by Christ and indwelled by his Spirit. As restored image bearers, our online presence and activity should image the Triune God.
At the core of this is the importance of a consistent message, embodying an unchanging God, as Byers (232) finishes “nothing would be more irrelevant to the world than a relevant church that is competent with digital media but inept with the media of God.” Vogt (2011: 15) agrees that each new technology offers new opportunities for mission (deeply tied to discipleship), but the basic message of Christianity remains the same.
There were a lot of themes that emerged each month, but towards the end of my time there, I was working my way through seeking overarching themes to identify a reshaping of the site, and a way that it could tie more strongly with academic research.
What is a theologically informed view of digital engagement? What does the Bible and years of theological discussions have to say about what, where, why, how, etc. we engage digitally – is it a place that the church needs to concern itself with with its concern for relationships, evangelism and living within community? What is good practice for being a Christian online? What is positive behaviour, what is a ‘good witness’ for living the life of a Christian? Social media I often describe as pull rather than push marketing, so how do our lives look interesting enough to intrigue others into asking questions about what it is that makes us live our lives differently? What is the impact of digital on religious practice (online/offline?) How has digital and social changed the way we undertake particular religious practices, e.g. communion, worship, prayer, etc. What does a welcoming church look like in a digital age? – will return to this one shortly…
Various aspects of this work have fed through into media coverage – most recently on Radio 4, when we discussed whether the 20+ minute sermon still has a place in a digital age?s
So, finally, I want to briefly touch upon projects that are in planning, to make use of a mix of the connections and the content that I’ve engaged with over the past 7+ years.
Abstract Part 4: Drawing upon an empirical research proposal (with consequent journal article) in the early stages of planning, the paper will consider the way that social media and the digital impacts upon the public personas that the church as an organisation (at various levels), and also that of the individuals within it as representatives of ‘the church’ within their local communities (offline, and specific communities online). Churches have a long tradition of being in places of need, and can look at what they can offer the local and digital communities on a practical and spiritual level. The paper will finish with an exploration of an idea for a larger research project (with a more academic focus than the above projects), which considers what it means to be a welcoming church in a digital age. The project would consider questions such as what do churches think they are doing to be welcoming, including online, and does online/offline match; what do people ‘research’ when looking for a church to visit; does digital and social media seem to be a core part of this, and could the project provide guidance as to how the church could make use of these tools better, but also, could the experience of the church inform more general marketing practice for values-based organisations.
The field of digital religion is a fast-evolving one, with Heidi Campbell one of the key theoretical scholars, pinpoints how ‘digital religion’ has emerged from disciplines such as theology, sociology, and media studies, and identifies how the subject has gained credibility, so it makes sense to study it from a business school perspective as much as any other discipline (also drawing in my historical training, and past projects in digital literacy and organisational development).
Drawing upon the model of how I researched second world war propaganda posters in the Second World War (what did the government plan, how did the artists visualise that, and what responses can be identified), I am seeking funding for a similar model as to how the church as an organization is engaging with a digital age….
Planning – what do they THINK they are doing? Where do they see the place of the church fitting in contemporary society, and the digital within that? The question of which content to analyse is one I’m looking at at the moment, as for consistency it would be useful to look at national campaigns, but as anecdotally bottom-up campaigns quite often seem to have better reach (those relationships again)… What seems to be successful, can we identify best practice? What should be abandoned? How much more widely can we share that information and share secular marketing practice (as marketing itself is often regarded by the church as negative/slimy practice)
The second paper would seek to draw upon a book of the same title that I wrote in 2014, and interview children’s leaders and the policies and practices they are putting in place to cope with the digital age.
So, in that I’ve looked at in the paper so far, I’ve sought to look at where place has been of importance to churches, geographically and theologically, then considered whether the digital is a place – and how it’s less a question of either/or but of both/and and seeking ways to make them work together. I identified that one of the themes that emerged from the Big Bible project was ‘What does a welcoming church look like in a digital age?’. This also draws on my experiences of the past 2 years where I’m seeking a church to settle into – the website/social is the first place I go to, and one church I went to several times was appealing because it was engaging with Pokemon (draws on GPS) – and thinking back to an experience in Australia – where I was clearly ‘passing through’, but was welcomed, talked to, taken to the pub, and given dinner! That’s my golden benchmark – how can more churches reach that on limited resources?
I am sketching out ideas for a project that would look at that
How can churches look at what they contribute to their local community, and how they can welcome the local community? How does the digital impact what a church does, including it’s communications and practice to encourage welcome? How can digital be used to show people more of what church looks like once the doors are shut? How can the congregation be encouraged to be witnesses of the church where they are located – online and offline? How can we ensure that when people visit a church on the basis of digital content, that it’s not a horrible shock? What are people researching when they search online? What best practice guidelines could we gain from these insights? How can we help the church make better use of these tools? Could the experience of the church inform more general marketing practice for values-based organisations? 2- way street?
Be interested in whether others think this has legs, etc., potential collaborators, etc.
Potential Partners/Funders Possible funding/partners - Jerusalem Trust, CofE, URC, Methodist Church, LST, UCB, Premier Radio, CODEC?!, YesHeis, YouVersion, Tearfund, Christian Aid, Bible Society Theos, and all those other Christian organisations – e.g. Livability, etc.. Others who have done research: YesHeIs; David Giles; Chris Goswami Potential Outputs Articles, policy papers, training resources = impact http://www.churchgrowthrd.org.uk/blog/churchgrowth/growing_churches_in_the_digital_age http://drbexl.co.uk/2016/02/14/survey-putting-your-faith-in-social-media-with-faithsocialmedia/ http://www.faithinsocialmedia.org/ http://7minutes.net/christian-media-survey-2016/
Thanks for listening, open for any questions and/or conversations afterwards.
IPM placing the christian church in a digital age
Inclusive Placemaking: Placing the
Christian Church in a Digital Age
Dr Bex Lewis
Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing,
Manchester Metropolitan University
Tweet @drbexl 1
• Church as geographical place
• The digital environment: reality and
• Discipleship online: The Big Bible
• Researching the church and digital
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Church as Geographical
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Photo by Alexandre Perotto on Unsplash
Church of England
Tweet @drbexl 4https://www.churchofengland.org/
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Image: Diocese of London
That trust exists because of the care and
compassion they have received for
decades… we actually live here… urge
those who speak about it to avoid the
ambiguous and woolly term “local
church”, but to speak proudly, precisely,
and powerfully of the “parish church”.
The parish church is a living icon of God’s
love, connecting with people in ways
that we hardly begin to understand and
so often underestimate.
Revd Dr Alan Everett, Vicar of St Clement with St Mark, Notting Dale, and St
Tweet @drbexl 6http://www.methodist.org.uk/
Foodbanks?" recognises the
ministry of many churches
helping people who cannot
afford to eat, looks at why
there has been such a growth
in foodbanks, and suggests
ways churches can take action
to tackle the underlying
causes. It offers worship and
bible resources to help
Christians to reflect on food
and poverty in Britain today.
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United Reformed Church
Tweet @drbexl 8http://www.urc.org.uk/discipleship.html
Tweet @drbexl 9http://www.baptist.org.uk/Groups/287921/About_us.aspx
Tweet @drbexl 10http://directory.cbcew.org.uk/
Theologians & Place
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2003 2014 2017
The Digital Environment:
Reality and Place?
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Photo by PixelsAway on Stockfresh
Communities of Practice
To be effective in the role of digital (technology) steward
(Cochrane 2010; Narayan and Baglow 2010; Wenger,
White, and Smith 2009), a person needs on the one hand
to be capable with the technology, experimenting with
innovations to explore their utility, whilst also aware of
the various ways in which those innovations may be
brought into the practice of the community. To achieve
this effectiveness, the steward needs to devote time to
increasing their own knowledge and abilities in the
technological and community aspects of the role.
Lewis, B, Rush, D. Experience of developing Twitter-based Communities of Practice in
Higher Education, 2013, 3
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Digital on its own terms
Even though in practice, face-to-
face communication can, of course,
be angry, negligent, resistant,
deceitful and inflexible, somehow it
remains the ideal against which
mediated communication is judged
Livingstone, S. Children and the Internet: Great
Expectations and Challenging Realities, 2009, 26
Tweet @drbexl 14
For many churchgoing is no longer the
‘cultural norm’. People don’t actively ignore
the church: they don’t even think about it.
Matthew 5:13-16 calls us to be salt and light
in the world, and for thousands in the ‘digital
age’, that world includes social networks such
Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest.
With literally billions in the digital spaces, the
online social spaces presented by churches
need to be appealing, welcoming, and not
look like they are just an afterthought: they
are now effectively the ‘front door’ to your
church for digital users, and you ignore those
spaces at your peril.
Lewis, B. Growing Churches in a Digital Age, 2013
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It may be possible to set up an online
mega-church of millions of people but
it is more likely that a long-term
online Christian community will be
small and quiet rather than large and
exciting, and may not be understood
by the wider Church…the commonest
question I am asked about online
church is ‘What do you do?’ and it is
hard to explain that we don’t ‘do’
church – we are church to each other,
despite the lack of sacraments or a
building, because we are committed
to each other’s journeys in the faith
and in Christ’s love.
Smith, P. Online Mission and Ministry, 2015,
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Tweet @drbexl 17Image: https://harperganesvoort.files.wordpress.com/2008/01/epiphany-
Hutchings, T., Creating Church Online: Ritual,
Community and New Media, 2017, 2
Discipleship Online: The Big
Bible Project (2010-2015)
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THANKS FOR FUNDING TO THE JERUSALEM TRUST AND
Photo by Nina Strehl on Unsplash
[If we are…] means by which God communicates
and reveals himself through his Spirit, then our
blog posts, status updates, tweets, artistic
images, and online comments should be
products of a life transformed by Christ and
indwelled by his Spirit. As restored image
bearers, our online presence and activity should
image the Triune God.
Byers, A. Theomedia: The Media of God and the
Digital Age, 2013, 196
• What is a theologically informed view of
• What is good practice for being a Christian
• What is the impact of digital on religious
• What does a welcoming church look like in a
Tweet @drbexl 21
Tweet @drbexl 22http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b091sz8x
Researching the Church
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Photo by Oakozhan on Stockfresh
Digital Religion Reseach
Scholars are identified as having
moved from excitement at this
‘new thing’, to the digital
becoming a part of everyday life to
be analysed, to understanding
what the lived ‘reality’ of digital
religion is. The three academic
waves that Campbell identifies
here—the descriptive, the
categorical and the theoretical—
are echoed throughout the rest of
the book, as we understand how
‘digital religion’ has matured as a
field of study.
Lewis, B. Book review: Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in
New Media Worlds, written by Heidi Campbell, 2015, 249
Tweet @drbexl 24http://bit.ly/CampbellReview
British Academy Funding Bid:
leads, major British church
Content analysis: online
content produced (nationally?)
Survey: Responses from users
of church digital content
• 2019: ‘Being a Christian
Online: How the church and
its members are adapting to
the digital age’, The
Information Society (to
submit summer 2018)
• 2020: ‘Raising Children in a
Digital Age: concerns and
policies for British
churches’, Business History
(to submit summer 2019)
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Bigger Project: Being a Welcoming
Church in a Digital Age
Tweet @drbexl 26Photo: iqoncept, on Stockfresh