“The global church is not bound by time or space or location—it is ever present and available. As in all cultures, Christian faithfulness is a live option in a world mediated by technology. After the fear of the new subsides, it is hoped that more Christians will follow Jesus in the network society.”
+ Ryan Bolger, associate professor of church in contemporary culture, reflecting on technological shifts as an invitation to innovate, search out new models of community, and be faithful in online spaces. Voices gathered below explore these ongoing questions and new ways of learning, worship, and building relationships online. Pictured above: the panoramic image of All-Seminary Chapel evokes both the traditional chapel space and a new global community of students and worshipers.
“I’ve led an eight-week workshop on composition and grammar every quarter for two years, and when I taught an online version for the first time last summer, I had more online students complete the curriculum and be more interactive in this one workshop than in the previous two years combined. Students were emailing me, they were getting in touch with each other, they were more responsive and open to optional assignments—all because of the online forums. They felt comfortable being vulnerable and making mistakes because they saw each other’s work, and they had more time and space to contemplate their words.”
+ Rachel Paprocki, managing editor of the Fuller Writing Center. Students can access more information about the Writing Center on the Quad.
“Last winter an old red barn behind our house served as the office from which I taught homiletics online. I spent many an afternoon responding to the posts of my students, weighing in on the interplay between culture, congregational dynamics, Word of God, and preacher personality. Each student brought his or her ethnicity, gender, and ministry experience, from military and hospital chaplain to youth group leader. Students from Costa Rica and from Taiwanese and Puerto Rican churches in the US brought fresh angles. Whereas in class, the ‘front row’ of confident, extroverted students usually bring the bulk of the questions and comments, here everyone is required to engage. While I love the classroom, I am finding the rich dialogue of online learning to be energizing far beyond my expectations—even when launched from a humble barn.”
+ Lisa Lamb, visiting assistant professor of preaching, shares her early experiences of teaching preaching online—a topic that has paradoxically flourished as students study during the week and preach in their own communities on the weekend.
“A Fuller student and his wife were struggling with ethical questions about family planning. He hoped the Quad—a community site we had recently launched at Fuller—might be a safe place to share their questions. I was pleased to find out he was right. He was almost immediately greeted with tender and compassionate responses from both faculty members and fellow students. Their answers were encouraging, considerate, and supportive. And almost a full year later, one of those faculty members was meeting with them in person to continue that conversation. Sometimes an online space will do what a physical space can’t, like connect people at distances. Sometimes a physical space facilitates what a website won’t. And sometimes the two come together to solve real problems in real lives.”
+ Cory Piña, online community coordinator for Distributed Learning and developer for the Quad, Fuller’s online student forum.
Worshiping With Online Communities
+ Julie Tai, director of All-Seminary Chapel, explores the intersection of worship and technology in the interview below. As Fuller’s online student population continues to grow, Julie has been working closely with her team to innovate new ways of worshiping with online and in-person communities. Join a virtual reality stream of All-Seminary Chapel Wednesdays at 10 am PST at Fuller.edu/Chapel. Charles Fuller’s Old Fashioned Revival Hour, pictured above, used radio waves to expand theological education far beyond the confines of a single auditorium.
How does a new emphasis on online community affect worship?
As the number of online students has been growing and resident students declining, we had to rethink how to do formation and worship and build community now with an online student population. How do we recreate what happens inside of a room where people are singing and praying and worshiping together? Honestly, we learned we can’t. We’ve shifted our perspective and instead of trying to recreate, we’re looking to increase participation and fold them into the community in a way that honors the context they’re in.
What are some of the ways you’ve increased participation?
It wasn’t enough for us to just stream chapel, because then the person watching is a voyeur. We’ve been innovating ways to get viewers involved in the service itself—especially since so many of our online students are involved in incredible ministries in communities all over the world. What we’ve attempted is to fold in their stories, prayers, and music through streaming services. So in real time at All Seminary Chapel, we’ve had their lovely faces on the screen to share a part of the liturgy, reading the scripture, or something more complicated like sharing their testimony or a prayer they prayed at their church. There are voices out there we would benefit from hearing, and we get to step inside their world to see what they’re doing in their communities.
In what other ways are you innovating as a chapel team?
We’re thinking about the bodily act of communion and dreaming up ways to have our online students participate. I can’t virtually send bread, and they can’t eat an emoji! When we break the bread and pour the wine, we ask those who preside over it to look directly into the camera and verbalize for the people online that this body is broken for you—wherever you are. If they want to prepare it for themselves they can.
We’re also encouraging our online community to not just stream chapel alone—bring your family or friends into the room, have your small group there, and actually break bread with the people around you as we guide you through this time. We’re trying to make sure everyone is in community in their own contexts. We’re trying to flip the script in our in-person services as well, and we’re always looking for ways to have people in other contexts stream into the service for the institution of elements from a remote location. We’ll break the bread with them as they’re leading the liturgy. Passing the peace is another tough one, and our simplest idea right now is to encourage students to share the peace in a chat room setting and encourage our in-person community to verbalize the peace through the camera. It’s a challenge, but we’re really trying.
You’re trying to figure out a way forward that respects the unique experiences of both communities while finding ways to connect—it’s a two-way street.
Exactly. We have to create worship services that are inclusive of our online community, and we’re rewriting liturgies based on the reality of the online space. We’re testing out different ways, and there’s no manual for this. Everything we’re doing requires imagination and trial and error. We’re trying to avoid things that are artificial, wanting to maintain the authenticity of the moment while recognizing we can’t fully replicate what’s happening in a room with people. We’re dreaming things up—stay tuned!
Embedded Theology, Online Space
“People often worry about online education because it isn’t incarnational. Didn’t Jesus come and spend time face to face with his disciples? Isn’t that required for real learning? For real transformation? But in theological education, I often refer to Scripture itself. Paul wrote one of his most weighty letters to Christians living in a city he never visited, people most of whom he never even met. What about Peter and James? They wrote to whole regions of the Roman empire. Does that make the letter to the Romans or 1 Peter or James somehow less legitimate, less formative? Don’t we continue to read these letters today? Though distant in time and space, aren’t we being transformed by them? That’s the kind of education and formation that online education invites.”
“More and more people around the world have never known life with- out the capacity for being online. For these digital natives, there is not much of a distinction between their online or face-to-face experience. Through the use of technology, we want to foster formation and relationships that can happen where people live—their families, neighborhoods, and workplaces.”
+ Brian Wallace, executive director of Fuller Formation Groups, reflecting on the ways formation groups use technology to support their relationships and reflection.
Kevin Osborn’s Four Ways to Cultivate Online Community:
Presence, Daily Rhythm, Trust, Common Purpose
“Being online is not just sending emails or delivering course content. It’s being present throughout the day so that it becomes part of your daily rhythm. You don’t only complete coursework; you share your social life in a way. You share who you are personally online, and you care and pray for others. The key is presence. There’s nothing magic or surprising about it—if faculty want to be transformative and students want to build relationships online, you have to be present.”
+ Kevin Osborn, associate provost for enrollment management and vocation formation, reflecting on the unique space online education provides when students and faculty commit to one another.
“By leveraging each person’s embedded contexts, online communities provide new insights to learners that they would not have gained through their own reflections nor within their own contexts. They also provide new opportunities for us to invite the Holy Spirit into places we would not normally think of as sacred and inform our local contexts and ministries.”
+ Jeff DeSurra, director of digital learning, from a white paper on the educational philosophy behind Fuller’s new leadership platform—learn more at join.fuller.edu.
“Originally we used the language of ‘distance’ and ‘distributed’ learning to describe our online students, but now we’re using the term ‘situated’ learning. Because of our educational model, we have diverse students from around the world who can bring their community in conversation with their education—what students learn in class on Tuesday can apply directly to their context on Wednesday. This new model also emphasizes student-centered teaching. Instead of requiring students to bend to our social location and cultural norms, it’s now the seminary reaching out to students in their situated contexts.”
+ Tommy Lister, executive director of the Office of Teaching and Learning, which provides faculty with resources and support to develop course materials for whatever context they’re teaching—from in-person to online classes.
“How can we take Fuller’s resources and repackage them in a way that can get to equipping more of our leaders out there? Think of a pastor in Uganda who’s already doing pastoral work in church homes, who doesn’t have the time or money or won’t uproot his family to move to one of our campuses. Think of a pastor in a megachurch who would love continuing education for herself and her staff. How exciting that we can equip leaders in their own contexts—that is far more than what I could do as one person, and now I get to be a part of a community facilitating kingdom work around the world.”
+ Angela Bae, director of operations for Fuller’s Leadership Formation division, reflects on the philosophy behind the new Fuller Leadership Platform, which will translate Fuller’s scholarship into online modules for individuals, groups, churches, and communities. Learn more at join.fuller.edu.
Since 2013, online enrollment at Fuller has doubled
In Fall 2016, Fuller’s online community became the seminary’s largest “campus”
Fuller faculty are teaching 70–90 online and hybrid courses every term
Over 200 faculty have been trained for online teaching since 2013
Fuller faculty and students engage in online courses from over 100 countries around the world
Engaging Globalization: The Poor, Christian Mission, and Our Hyperconnected World
Bryant Meyers (Baker Academic, 2017)
Human Identity at the Intersection of Science, Technology, and Religion
Edited by Nancey Murphy and C. Knight (Ashgate, 2010)
Theologians and Philosophers Using Social Media: Advice, Tips, and Testimonials
Edited by Thomas Oord (SacraSage Press, 2017)
The Church in a Culture of Technology with Ryan Bolger
Narrative Communication in a Visual Age with Ken Fong