DIGITAL DIASPORA

by Remco Brommet

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced most of our nation to shelter in place and be cut off from the ability to meet, socialize, party, and worship, in person. That has in fact become commonplace all over the world. “Social Distancing” is, at least for the time being, the new normal. It has ended church as we knew it in the religiously free US: taking for granted that we could assemble in houses of worship to attend services, classes and meetings, and in each other’s homes for small group studies whenever we wanted to. That has always been our constitutional right.

It still is, but something has changed. The pandemic has put the nation in crisis mode and enabled the government to shut down churches under the new assembly rules: no more than 10 people in one place. Most of us view that as a temporary and necessary suspension of our constitutional rights, and we cooperate. Romans 13:1-5 supports that cooperation. And we trust that it will not provide a future government that may be less sympathetic to Christianity with a way to more permanently curb our constitutional right to worship in freedom.

It occurred to me that the COVID-19 crisis has caused the first diaspora we have ever known in American church history. Not just that – we are in the first ever religious digital diaspora. Yep – that’s actually a thing. Let me explain

What Is a Diaspora?

The word “diaspora” comes from the Greek preposition “dia” (about, through) and the verb “speiro” (to scatter). So, its literal meaning is “a scattering about”. The word was originally used for the breakup of the people of Israel and being spread all over Asia minor in a series of exiles. In New Testament times it was used to describe the scattering of the believers from Jerusalem to the regions beyond due to persecution (Acts 8).

Since then the word has been used more widely as a term for displacement. Even more so today as millions of refugees from war-torn regions in the Middle East and Africa have fanned out over Europe and beyond. The reasons for the displacements may be different, and their circumstances may vary, but the personal journey is pretty much the same: leaving behind all that was known to be normal, going through an upsetting period of uncertainty and fear of the unknown, then finally embracing a new normal. Sometimes that journey is very short, sometimes it takes years. Either way, being forcibly uprooted and having to put down roots into a new soil is always stressful.

Digital Diaspora

Our day and age are obviously very different from Jerusalem AD 50 or so.  Almost 2000 years later we have a lot of advancements that did not exist in those days. Most notably digital communication. As a “digital immigrant”, one who did not grow up with computer technology and had to master it as an adult, I marvel at its possibilities and progress. “Digital natives” who grew up with it and learned how to operate an I-pad as a toddler take it for granted. Society and commerce are now dependent on it. And that has added a dimension to “diaspora” previously unknown: digital diaspora. According to the computer age research website IGE Global, it is defined as “a virtual community from the same country of origin that shares through the web a common cultural background, set of symbols, and common history.” In other words, a community that through the web holds on to, and fosters, its true identity.

I would add to country of origin geographic location. Or perhaps cultural affinity group. You get where I’m going with this: church.

Our digital diaspora is a scattering about of congregations from their usual meeting places into a crisis-driven exile at home, where they can only communicate with each other, share their common identity, symbolism, history and experiences by digital means: phone and internet.

How is this different from, and similar to, the diasporas of old?

There are a couple of differences:

  1. a) This has been caused by a virus, not by popular of governmental persecution (at least here in the US).
    b) We are not forced to leave our city or country of origin to escape persecution or calamities.
    c) We are not cut off from each other – the digital age allows us to keep communicating unhindered with phone calls, conference calls, online meetings, live-streamed classes and services and so on.
    d) God’s purpose for our diaspora is very different. The New Testament diasporas occurred so the gospel would spread as the believers were scattered (Acts 8:4). Like bees carrying life-giving pollen. The purpose behind our diaspora is more of a standstill, a reset, a temporary suspension of the status quo so we can examine our lives to see if there are any offensive ways in the way we walk with God – as churches, as households, and as individuals.

However, I see more similarities:
a) The sudden suspension of what we knew as normal. Our shopping routines, work routines, self-care routines, social habits, and especially our ways of doing church have all been suddenly and drastically uprooted.
b) The stressful adjustment to new ways of doing things. The “how do I’?” of the simplest things cause the stress of learning, investigating, rethinking how we meet our basic needs and keeping a relative sense of the familiarity and comfort we were used to.
c) The fear of the unknown. How long will this last? What will the world look like when the crisis dies down? What will church be like? And the economy? To name a few…
d) The embrace of new ways of doing things. Little by little we learn new things: shopping online, germaphobic hygiene habits (not a bad thing!), meeting online, working from home, exercise routines, trimming unnecessary things from our lifestyle we now no longer have access to and yes – even that church can continue without buildings, campuses, and massive amounts of food. And that God can bring peace and delight in His presence in the midst of all this.
e) Dependence on God for resilience, provision, protection, and the preservation of our joy and peace in the midst of unsettled times. Crises are an effective way to end our sense of self-sufficiency and make us realize how fragile we are and how much we need God. And so we learn to rely on the Invisible, but Ever-present God to supply all our needs supernaturally – growing the boldness of our faith and our Intimacy with Him, which is His highest goal for us.
f) The spread of the gospel through our sphere of influence as people in fear of the virus are suddenly brought face to face with something bigger than themselves and become more open to seeking help from God. No more paid staff to do that for us. No more professional evangelists. No more stadium rallies and tent revivals. Us. Like bees carrying pollen. Shining our light, sharing our peace in Christ with those we come in contact with – one at a time.