From the outside, it's easy to mistake Soulation.org as an apologetics blog. Some of this is self-inflicted; Dale & Jonalyn Fincher, the site's cofounders, often describe themselves as apologists. To be honest, I can't blame them. "Apologetics" is a label the broader faith community will accept. And (double bonus), it puts Dale in the same category as one of his heroes, C.S. Lewis.
But let's not judge this blog by its cover. It's way more than just a run-of-the-mill "convert the skeptics" site. If you ask me, Dale & Jonalyn have created a 21st-century church. They might take issue with that label, but they do agree with another label that struck me when I hung out with them in January: A spiritual Ellis Island. A place that welcomes spiritual immigrants.
Dale pointed out in our conversation that there's "so much confusion over what a 'church' is today." I think he's right. In the Winter 2013 issue of Leadership Journal I wrote about my friend Tim Schuster, pastor and co-founder of the innovative Midtown Church. Tim observed that when we say "church planting" what we often mean is "starting a worship service." Admittedly Soulation pushes—hard—on the boundaries of what we might think of as church, and, for good measure, pushes some serious buttons, too. (You thought GLBT issues were tough? Try counseling Christians with bondage fetishes.)
I imagine members of the earliest churches would have a hard time recognizing their 20th-century great, great grandchildren as "church." Sound systems? Movies? Chairs even! So I'm not surprised if 20th-century church folk might have a hard time recognizing the beta versions of 21st-century church. The Millennials among us might call this Church 2.0.
A church without walls—and without worship
The terms "ministry" and "parachurch" have become so broad as to be almost meaningless catch-all terms (sort of like, well, "church"). I love Tim Schuster's implicit challenge for ministers to look beyond worship services as we seek to understand what church really is. Indulge me for a moment as I geek out on a critical but underappreciated role of church that we've conveniently pushed into the catch-all ministry.
I think any basic, working definition of church must include the presence of a supportive, trustworthy ministry leader providing guidance and counsel through the rocky process of spiritual formation. While some non-negotiables of church such as baptism and the Lord's Supper aren't easily transferable to an online platform, if forging disciples through the fire of spiritual crisis isn't included in our definition of church, what is?
In traditional church paradigms, there is an asymmetry of power and information, even when we have best intentions in how we approach spiritual counseling and formation. I am not anonymous to the ministry leader (save perhaps in the case of contemporary Catholic confessionals). The ministry leader holds the imprimatur of power and authority. And there is a specific geographic place in which I will "be received" (whether I'm receiving comfort or castigation).
Look behind the cover of "apologetics" and it becomes clear that the primary purpose of Soulation is to provide a contemporized function for spiritual formation. They have done this by flipping the traditional church paradigm of spiritual counseling and formation on its head. Soulation accomplishes this by using chat rooms, an on-line capability more often associated with porn sites than ministries. They call their chat feature "Ask Live," made by appointment.