Fostering virtual faith: Online church seeks believers 'where they are,' on the internet

The Rev. Jason Chesnut and Jenn DiFrancesco, two of three co-founders of The Slate Project, describe their efforts to cultivate a worldwide Christian Community through social media as well as talking to people face-to-face. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun video)

The Rev. Sion Gough Hughes, pastor of a Protestant church in Melbourne, Australia, was surfing the web a couple years ago when he happened on a Facebook page that challenged his understanding of his calling.

Hughes had long pondered how Christian leaders might better reach out to young people. He was interested in how some churches use social media to do it. But he had never seen anything like the posts emanating from a fledgling congregation based in Baltimore called The Slate Project.

The church's founding pastor, the Rev. Jason Chesnut, sometimes used foul language online. He said the church was dedicated to spreading "Christianity without the crap." The page was full of religious tweets, original video, quotes and games.

Hughes now interacts regularly with the project's many online platforms, from its Thursday night Twitter chat (#SlateSpeak) to its movie-themed podcast, "Faith in Focus." He's one of more than a thousand people worldwide checking in each week.

"The Slate Project is showing the church how things can be — interdenominational, thoughtful, spiritual, inclusive, open, even helpful to those who need help," Hughes says. "Distance becomes irrelevant, and shared beliefs and faith become the central part of discussion."

Churches have been using the Internet for decades. Hundreds livestream sermons, and many have created "internet campuses" — online extensions of extant congregations, where pastors can interact with members.

The Slate Project is one of the few designed to exist principally in cyberspace. Its modest real-world footprint is an extension of the online mission — not the other way around.

Chesnut, 34, is a guitar-playing semi-professional video editor and web graphics artist — and an ordained minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. On those infrequent occasions when he dons a clerical collar rather than the winding scarf or cap pulled low more common to hipster types, he completes the look with a pair of red tennis shoes.

A sticker on his computer advises: "Keep Church Weird."

He frames the mission of The Slate Project succinctly. "We look for ways to pose a basic question: What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus in the 21st century?'"

The Slate Project — so named to evoke the idea of a clean slate for Christianity — came into being as part of a church campaign five years ago to revive, renew and reach out to a new generation of followers.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America — the nation's largest Lutheran denomination with about 3.6 million members — has, like other mainline Protestant churches seen its membership dwindle as the traditional base of believers aged.

The trend has been painfully visible in Baltimore's historic Lutheran communities, including the once-thriving First English Lutheran Church on North Charles Street near the Johns Hopkins University.

When average attendance at the church fell to about 40 per service — and the congregation was failing, despite the proximity to Hopkins, to attract young adults — its leadership council began talking with leaders of the Delaware-Maryland Synod about what to do.

The Rev. Kati Kluckman-Ault, then director of missions for the Baltimore-based synod, says she followed the direction of national church leaders by advocating radical renewal plans, from developing a new worship style to finding a new pastor and exploring new ways of connecting with the neighborhood.

After considerable discussion and prayer, the church decided it was poorly positioned to lead such an effort — but members voted overwhelmingly to support one. They donated $350,000 toward a three-year project to be determined.

The only conditions: It must create a new worship community by unconventional means, and the community must exist independent of First English while also serving the neighborhood.

"This [donation] was not to support their own institution but to share the good news [of the Gospel]," says Kluckman-Ault, now the lead pastor of Rejoice Fellowship in Glen Burnie. "That's what we've been called to do for 2,000 years, and what we're called to do today."

All they needed was a leader.

Chesnut, then living in rural Wisconsin, had a checkered relationship with organized religion. He was raised in small-town Texas, not far from Houston, where his father was a minister and "I spent the first 10 years of my life convinced I was going to hell."

But as a college student at Texas Lutheran University, Chesnut encountered a coterie of people he never realized existed — political progressives who also happened to be Christians. He dived into the writings of left-leaning Christian theologians, volunteered in soup kitchens, spent a year in southern Africa, enrolled in a Lutheran divinity school.

His first assignment as an ordained minister, at a church in tiny Edgerton, Wis., proved an unexpected training ground.

When he preached that "the Bible is about liberation and equality" and that "these things are not playing out in our country," he started getting anonymous letters criticizing his approach.

Stop preaching the way you do. Stop teaching us songs in African. Someone should take your bongo drum and throw it in the Rock River.

Lonely and isolated, he adopted the Twitter handle @crazypastor and began posting Christian content — advocating for the weak, spotlighting what he saw as hypocrisies, trolling megapastors — and developed a following in the thousands.

Many wrote that they, too, had felt shunned by the church over their beliefs, background, sexual orientation or other factors.

The internet, Chestnut says, "was a place where you could come together and connect with others who are trying to transform community into a Biblical Christian identity."

When the Delaware-Maryland synod happened on his resume in 2012, they realized they had their leader.

The Rev. Wolfgang Herz-Lane was bishop of the synod at the time.

"We loved Jason's passion and energy level, and we immediately liked his vision of what a new church could be, in a new way," he says.

That vision came into focus one day early on, Chesnut says, as he sat in a coffee shop in Charles Village.

He noticed that few of the people in line were talking to each other. Everyone seemed to be scrolling through their phones.

Just as the Apostles resolved to go out and meet people where they were, in the marketplace or by the river, it struck him that this was where he needed to meet the people of the 21st century: on the internet.

His job became creating content for that community. He repurposed quotations in bright graphics, wrote essays, shot and posted video of himself retelling Bible tales.

He created a book-chat platform, a blog and the project's most popular feature, the Twitter chat that takes place between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. Baltimore time every Thursday.

Posters tweet responses to a single provocative question each week. Recent examples: "When you hear the word 'Christian,' what comes to mind?" and "What happens when churches use shame?"

The conversation unfolds into overlapping Twitter groups of varying sizes around the world.

A typical session generates about 1,000 tweets but reaches a total audience that is hard to quantify.

Liam Miller, a pastor in Sydney, Australia, says the topics can be "eye-opening." He recalls a recent discussion on "purity culture" — the problem of homogeneity and how it can contradict Christian teaching.

"I try and connect whenever I can," he writes in an email. "I love to jump on in and get involved in the conversation."

Some say that while "internet church" has advantages, it functions best in tandem with a real-world connection.

Mark D. Roberts teaches church leadership at Fullerton Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.

"There are certain limits to what we can experience relationally and in community when we're not actually with each other," he says. "It's hard to give somebody a literal hug or to literally share the sacraments that way."

Chesnut says many posters do belong to established churches in their communities, and The Slate Project does host a variety of face-to-face activities for those who live in Baltimore.

And neighboring pastors have taken a role.

The Rev. Sara Shisler Goff an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Maryland, and the Rev. Jennifer di Francesco, associate pastor of Second Presbyterian Church, have joined Chesnut as "co-con[spirit]ors" on The Slate Project. Goff manages the website. Di Francesco directs a still-evolving program of in-person outreach into nearby neighborhoods.

"Slate ... is all about reaching the missing generation — the 20s and 30s," says the Rev. Dan Webster, canon for evangelism for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. "We hope to see it continue to develop into whatever the Holy Spirit is doing."

Whatever that is, the Slate community keeps spreading. Posters weigh in regularly from as far afield as Oregon, South Dakota, and Germany. Hughes, the Melbourne pastor, says many of his friends in Australia follow the church avidly.

"I could go on and on about the value of The Slate Project," he writes in an email. "I hope and pray it will continue."


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