#Interview Tim Hutchings (@tim_hutchings)

Tim  Hutchings completed his PhD, researching online churches, in 2010. He conducted “an ethnographic study of i-church, Church of Fools and LifeChurch.tv’s various online manifestations” and looked “at religious community – particularly worship, authority and mission.” He is currently continuing research at the University of Umeå, Sweden.

So, Tim, are you able to give us a snapshot view of the thesis of your thesis?

I spent several years as a member of the churches I studied, worshipping online, making friends, listening to sermons, exploring virtual worlds and taking part in forum discussions. Most of the people I met online were already attending a local church every week, but a large number were not: they were housebound or hurt by church, and the Internet provided their only access to Christian community. Online church does not lure people away from local church, but it can provide great support for people who cannot or will not attend locally. Online churchgoers enjoyed constant access to prayer, intelligent debates, world-class preaching and supportive friends, all things they often felt were absent in local churches. Success in evangelism was much more limited, partly because online churches tend to copy the worship style of offline churches: if you don’t like going to Evensong in your local church, why would you sit through Evensong online?

Did your thesis indicate that there were particular things that ‘the church’ should be doing in the online space?

My research found (as you would expect!) that Christians are doing exciting, innovative and very successful things online to build new communities of faith. The Internet offers great opportunities for religion, and churches should take those opportunities seriously. Unfortunately, the bar is rising: the best Christian ventures (like LifeChurch.tv’s YouVersion and Church Online) are very professional, and some of our denominational attempts are still looking pretty amateurish. The most disappointing hole in Christian response to the Internet is theology: more and more books are being published every year, but the quality of thinking and understanding is not getting much better. Theologians need to get online, find out how Internet users think and start reading some Internet research.

What triggered the particular focus of your research?

My research started out as a Masters thesis in 2005. I had just joined Church of Fools as a member, and one of the lecturers at Durham University suggested online church might be a good topic for some theological research.. That turned into a PhD in the sociology of religion and media, and now I’m getting interested in the rest of the Christian Internet – Twitter, Facebook, online testimonies, online Bibles, online evangelism…

Moving from the thesis, to you, can you briefly explain to us your journey of life & faith, which currently has you ‘looking out for reindeer’ in Sweden?

I was very lucky to find my way to Sweden – a university in the north of the country asked for a postdoc researcher interested in studying religion and the Internet, and I was offered the job. It snows for half the year, the sun doesn’t go down for the other half, and the finest local delicacy is fermented fish goop – it’s great! My department of “Digital Humanities” is buried deep underground, where my colleagues peer at dozens of fancy screens and think complicated thoughts about media. There’s only one spire in the whole city – Sweden is one of the least religious countries in the world – but I’ve found a fun church to go to, where all the hymns and sermons are translated into English for me.

What does your research focus on at the moment?

Right now, I’m studying the role of new media in journeys in and out of Christian faith.

What digital media tools do you use? What does each do for you? I know that you took some persuading with Twitter, how do you find it now?

Most digital tools seem pretty useless until you start using them! I love seeing how Christians use Facebook and Twitter and blogs to start conversations, but the most useful of my research tools is still Skype (for telephone interviews). I’m looking forward to finding out what I can do with web scraping software, and I’m still hunting for a decent Twitter research tool.

I’ve met you at a number of conferences which focus on the nexus of digital media and Christianity. What are the key thoughts that you’ve taken away from such events?

We’ve both been to lots of Christian media conferences, and it’s good to see how far the conversations have developed over the years. I’d like to see much more progress, attempts to build on what’s been said before instead of repeating it, and perhaps some efforts to move beyond the conference format to start publishing in print and sharing video online – that might help preserve some of the best insights of each event, so we aren’t always starting from scratch. It’s always disappointing to hear a speaker rehash the speculations we left behind in the 1990s, and that keeps on happening.

We’re working with @bigbible, so what do you find are your top 1-2 online tools for engaging with the Bible … or would you rather use a paper copy (in which case, is writing in the text permissible?)

Writing on the page is never acceptable! There should be a terrible punishment for anyone caught defacing books. The best online tool for Bible study is definitely YouVersion, but I’m looking forward to finding out more about GloBible’s Bible maps and BibleMesh’s video teaching archives

You’ve signed up as a #digidisciple. Why did you sign up, and what are you planning on focusing on?

I think one of the most important jobs for a researcher is to keep on sharing their findings with everyone else. When I talk to Christians at conferences and online, they challenge my ideas and keep me thinking about what matters most to actual Internet users, and that’s a valuable gift for an academic. I really think that academic research can offer some great insights to Christians, too, so I’m hoping to share as many of those ideas as possible. I hope it’ll be interesting for you too!

Thanks Tim, very much looking forward to reading your blog posts, with that very beautiful sense of humour you have!

About Tim Hutchings

Tim works at CODEC, a research initiative for the study of Christian communication in the digital age at St John's College, Durham. He studies online churches, online evangelism and other online things, and can usually be found somewhere near the coffee machine. He likes cake, old science fiction book covers and kitschy religious knick-knacks.