The digital cathedral: Doctor Who as a model for digitally integrated ministry?

Posted Feb 18, 2014 | New Media Project

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By Keith Anderson, guest blogger


This is the second in a five-part series on Keith's forthcoming book, The Digital Cathedral.

Keith Anderson“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect but actually from a non-linear non-subjective viewpoint it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly … timey wimey … stuff.” ~Doctor Who

Thank goodness for Netflix. Last Holy Week I found myself felled by the flu and had just enough energy to lie on our couch and lift the remote for the Apple TV. Many of my friends had been raving about the television show Doctor Who at the time, and so I decided to give it a try. I started with episode one of Season five, the beginning of the Matt Smith era (you’ve got to start somewhere), and I never looked back. I quickly became a Whovian—the name, I later learned, for Doctor Who fans.

I thoroughly enjoyed the show and Smith’s interpretation of the role, but I also began to see the Doctor himself as model for digitally integrated ministry.

The premise of the show is this: Doctor Who is a 900 year old time lord, the last of his kind, and he travels through space and time in his TARDIS, short for Time and Relative Dimension in Space, which looks like an old British police phone booth. (It’s bigger on the inside.)

The Doctor jumps through time and space, here and there, across "wibbly wobbly … timey wimey … stuff” solving problems and holding at bay those of ill intent.

In our own terrestrial way, I think, we also move through time and space. We jump back and forth between our mobile devices and face-to-face conversations, between physical and digital social networks, often at the same time. We are, in a sense, leaping through space and time when we are catching up on old Facebook posts after time away from the screen, looking for tomorrow’s news today on Twitter, transported via Instagram pictures to a friend’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

In this, Doctor Who can be seen as a valuable model for digitally integrated ministry. He manages these moves and the people he encounters with great care and kindness, following an ethic that is appropriately Hippocratic: defend the vulnerable; seek to do no harm.

The Doctor bears three crucial marks of ministry leadership in a digital age, which Elizabeth Drescher and I identify in Click2Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012). He is networked, relational, and incarnational.

Networked
Through his prolific travels, the Doctor encounters a vast array of races and species: Silurians, Judoons, Sontarans, to name a few. He stays connected to and nurtures a vast network of relationships and brings people and groups together when circumstances dictate.

Ministry leaders must be networked as well, and not just to other ministry leaders, not just ecumenically within the Church, but with a broad range of individuals and groups locally and digitally. We must nurture connections with sometimes disparate individuals and groups and find ways, when authentic and appropriate, to connect them.

Relational
For all his futuristic technology, Doctor Who is ultimately about relationships. He always travels with a companion and collaborates with all sorts of different characters to solve problems and subdue threats.

Ministry leaders know about relationships. They are the heart of ministry. And yet, as Andy Root points out in his book The Relational Pastor, we often come to those relationships with an agenda: to influence people’s beliefs or convert them to church members or giving units. Root reminds us that we are to engage in relationships for their own sake, not as means to an end, but ends in themselves, for it is in such relationships that we encounter Christ.

Incarnational
Thanks to the TARDIS, The Doctor pops up in person all over the universe. We are not so lucky to have a TARDIS, but we do have Twitter—and a range of other social media, through which we are able to keep up with one another in real time as never before.

As ministry leaders, as people with incarnational imagination, we ought to look for opportunities to meet face-to-face whenever possible—not to somehow make them “real” as if they were not already, but to acknowledge their reality. Those face-to-face encounters reinforce our relationships when we are apart and only able to connect online.

Life in the digital cathedral
Networked. Relational. Incarnational. These are not new qualities of ministry. They date from well before the digital age or the age of cathedrals. They go back to the very beginning. And yet, we have been so shaped by the broadcast media era, which has been overly focused on messaging, marketing, and transactional relationships, that we have lost something deeply important along with way. I fear we have lost some of our humanity. And I guess sometimes it takes an alien time lord to remind us of that.

Ministers today must enter into today’s digital cathedral as networked, relational, and incarnational leaders. And so, as the Doctor would say, "Geronimo!”

The Rev. Keith Anderson is a pastor at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church in Ambler, PA. He is the author, with Elizabeth Drescher, of Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse 2012). His forthcoming book is called The Digital Cathedral. He blogs at pastorkeithanderson.net.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

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