PC(USA)’s ‘New Way’ podcast features online faith leaders in a new series on technology

Host the Rev. Sara Hayden calls Harbor Online ‘deeply participatory’ and ‘fully online’

by Beth Waltemath | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Jon Mathieu

“It’s no secret that communities built from scratch have the upper hand when it comes to innovation,” announced the Rev. Sara Hayden to open a new series of the New Way podcast discussing innovation and technology in new worshiping communities.

In the first two episodes of the series, Hayden interviews the Rev. Jon Mathieu, founder of Harbor Online Community. The community is centered on a participatory weekly worship on Zoom that meets Thursday evenings, but members also gather in a private social network space called Circle and, for the first time recently, in person at Stony Point Center in New York

“We meet for an hour and a half and that’s a bit long. When I was going to church in person, I wanted a tight 55-minute service,” said Mathieu in the first episode, as he shared the evolution of Harbor’s gatherings since he began hosting in 2019, prior to the Covid pandemic. “We do have a ton of flexibility for people coming on the call late, leaving early. It’s really kind of come and go as you can. But it’s an hour and a half.”

Greetings are a priority in the meeting space. Mathieu and his two pastoral colleagues, Dottie Oleson and Dawn Léger, make sure to greet everyone who joins whenever they do. “I think this is important because if you jump onto a Zoom call with a bunch of faces and then you just get right into the thing that you’re all doing, if it’s your first or second or third time there, you don’t really know anyone, and I don’t think you feel known by others on the call.”

Over the years, Mathieu has found this ritual to be particularly important to people over their first few visits who aren’t sure if they are seen or known by others. “This is just one small way of saying, like, ‘we’re people, we’re here to see each other, we’re here to know each other and be known by each other.’ Kind of trying to set that tone.”

In lieu of a sermon, the community engages in small-group reflection on Scripture. Creating a welcoming but also safe space is therefore important. To better understand the community, first-time visitors are invited into a “listening space.” Mathieu and Harbor Online Community’s leadership team learned to make this and other invitations early on when they encountered first-time visitors who may have taken up too much space or had church trauma to process before they got to know the group. On the Harbor Online website, easy-to-click buttons invite visitors to join the community for worship on Thursday or to meet in advance with the pastoral team as a way of welcoming new people who are curious about the community or in need of a space to process how traditional church may no longer serve them and what opportunities the Harbor Online Community might offer.  

The Rev. Sara Hayden

Hayden addressed the cynicism around online church and its ability to preside over sacraments and rituals, but also described the worship that she experienced at Harbor Online as “deeply participatory in nature.” Yet, in the second episode featuring Mathieu, he admits how lonely founding an online community can be behind the scenes. Building a pastoral team has been invigorating for him and led to further technological innovation like the move from a private Facebook group to the more secure and adaptable Circle platform that the Harbor Online now uses for connecting as a community more informally.

“If you can get a team, make a team,” said Mathieu, who also works at the Christian Century as the community engagement editor. “Harbor is so energizing to me that it kind of covered over some of the loneliness and some of the weariness of, like, doing a big undertaking alone. And I wasn’t alone. I had amazing volunteers but, you know, alone as the pastor or the paid staff. And it’s been great. It’s been salvific having Dottie and Dawn on the team.”

As Hayden and Mathieu discussed the frontier of online church from private social networking platforms to TikTok pastors and video gaming churches, each one wondered how the limitations and experimentations with technology influenced the early church and whether the hybrid model embraced by the Apostle Paul of planting small local communities and sustaining them from afar through letter-writing reflects savvy and innovative acumen and a drive to start a movement — or a hapless and courageous clinging to a hope and truth that, by luck, was powerful enough to overcome any distance, trial and challenge.  

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