Written by Steven Liechty
A year ago, it was a germinating idea with a great gathering pastor. Today, Extravagance UCC is a growing online faith community, with three spiritual leaders, more than 1,000 likes on Facebook, a new website in the works, and a future of fascinating possibilities.
"I have to tell you, I was scared to death after I agreed to do this," said the Rev. Jo Hudson, gathering pastor of Extravagance UCC. "But if you are not scared to death, you don’t have a full awareness of the situation. Anytime you step out on faith and do things for God, you’ve got to be a little scared. But I love that I have this great opportunity to connect with people all over."
Extravagance started as an initiative to offer an extravagant welcome -- to open the UCC spiritual community to people in areas in the country where it is not possible to gather together a viable congregation, particularly in the south and western areas of the United States. This geographically dispersed, online faith community, committed to God’s vision of being a congregation that connects and welcomes people virtually anywhere, was christened in early July 2013 at General Synod 29. In the year since, Hudson has learned much about what it means to be in community online.
"There’s a whole population out in social media that watches, observes and listens. Many people are present, but don’t necessarily participate," Hudson said. "People can be truly anonymous. More people who follow may not like and may not share, but are aware we are present and come to us periodically. While that’s true as in physical churches, too, it’s one of the gifts and great challenges of being an online community."
As in a local church congregation, Extravagance’s ministry offers followers a chance to connect and interact weekly, in worship and bible study, but with a different, albeit spiritual, twist.
"Wednesday night’s Lectio Divina is a worship experience, not church, but prayerful and meditative, with music and pictures," said Hudson. "During Bible study Sunday nights, participants can log in and you can see them and they can see us. Each week, we have a core of people that gather, and we can actually physically see each other. Last week, we had three people in Connecticut, someone in Arkansas, a few of us in Texas and in Tennessee – that’s a powerful experience."
"Though we don’t have that [physical] worshipping community, you can interact with livestreaming, message and chat, which allow the person who’s observing to be involved with the worship," said Hudson. "It’s a different, exciting way to be in the community of faith."
While Extravagance UCC has been interacting with people primarily on Facebook, it often helps direct seekers to UCC congregations in their area for face-to-face contact. Hudson is also mindful of finding ways to make personal connections, reaching out at faith-based events like late June’s Wild Goose Festival, or the upcoming National Church Leadership Institute in August. In addition, the community will soon be branching out into other areas of social media, thanks to the addition of two new part-time ministers. The Rev. Nicole Havelka will fill the position of Minister of Digital Programs and Kimberly Knight has been hired as the Minister of Digital Communities.
Havelka recently served as an Associate Conference Minister in the Iowa Conference and has also been a coach, consultant and trainer for churches seeking to renew their ministries with children, youth and families. She says she gravitates toward innovative ways to grow the progressive church.
"Social media possesses amazing power to demonstrate that ‘faith’ and ‘church’ isn’t something that just happens for an hour on Sunday morning in a traditional building," said Havelka. "Our faith can and should live with us 24/7. Social media lives with us all the time. The prayers, articles, Bible verses and many other online postings can constantly remind us how God is present in our lives and calling us to deeper faithfulness, whether we are making dinner with our families, attending a child’s band concert or sitting through a meeting at work."
Knight is a social media coach and marketing consultant, online organizer and technology specialist who professes a passion and deep commitment to online ministry. For the last two years, she has served as the Director of Digital Strategy at Agnes Scott College, where she developed, organized and managed the college’s main social media and communication across media channels.
"When I first learned of the denominational initiative to birth Extravagance, I was excited and proud of my denomination to be taking this huge leap of faith into the online world that I have come to know as a viable place to truly create sacred space," said Knight. "In my years of nurturing online community, I have encountered people at wildly different places in their walk with God. I look forward to serving alongside Jo and Nicole in such a way that we not only grow our online community but, when appropriate, connect people with local congregations."
In addition to linking seekers with local churches, Hudson has learned another great thing Extravagance can offer is after-the-fact spiritual opportunities. "You could participate in a Facebook retreat live during Lent, but if you missed it, it was still there," she pointed out. "Hundreds were there live, but then people could see it later, and that number would go up later. Lectio Divina stays posted, and those interested can go find it if they couldn’t participate during the hour-long, live experience."
"One of the things we learned this year is social media a place where things happen creatively and we have to let the spirit guide," Hudson continued. "We will have more worship experiences, but they won’t look or feel like what going to a physical church is like. It will be spiritual, prayerful and offer opportunities for community interaction. More blogging, more video devotional experiences in the future, and interactive worship."
"The internet is a great metaphor for the Holy Spirit. It just moves so freely, and leads to a great experience," said Hudson. "Hearts are the most important thing."