Zoombombing Church in Historical Perspective

In our current crisis of social/physical isolation due to the Covid-19 lockdown, and attempts to connect to each other digitally, Zoom has emerged as the preferred platform for online group conversations. In the past month or so, Zoom users have gone from tens of millions to hundred of millions and shares in the company have doubled. 

I have been a participant in a Zoom prayer meeting every Friday morning since 2018 regarding the Livful project for preventing malaria. This morning I was there again, with 15 others, sharing our progress and praying for good results. But at this point, nobody has ever hacked in and zoombombed our little group with with racial slurs, profanity and porn images. 

However, zoombombing is now a more common occurrence, even at media-enabled house churches. The company has admitted to security flaws and is working to shore up the leaks. But in the meantime, the technology is vulnerable to unwanted guests with maleficent motives. Even worse, the porous nature of this platform makes participants vulnerable to hackers hoping to phish for the secret passwords and access codes to other digital platforms that we all hope to keep safe. 

Digital media has enabled an extension of the gatherings that used to be confined to physical settings. This is good news. It means we can meet together in a virtual environment, even though separated by distance or necessity. The bad news is that digital media also allows an element of loss of control. This can be catastrophic, threatening to our own asset management but also dangerous for children who should not be exposed to internet abuse. 

In fact the Uniting Church in Australia just released some warnings and guidelines for Zoom users called Guidelines for Safe/Digital Online Ministry.

I want to offer a historical perspective in the hopes that we see that we are not the first generation to think about these issues. Let’s go back to WWII.

Radio broadcasting was around for at least 20 years before the World War II (1939-1945). Since 1924, church services were being broadcast in England to those who could not attend – mainly the aged or infirmed. But the advent of World War II added the element of enforced separation and radio broadcasting meant that soldiers who were stationed away from home could join a church service remotely. It was said that the number of people tuning into a church service during those times numbered in the millions, and far greater than those who were attending a church service at home in England. I wrote more about this on a post called Virtual Church in the 1940’s.

Americans were also broadcasting church services to the military service. “Its a way we see the church beyond the church walls” said Central United Methodist Pastor Elise Low Edwardson “Our hope and prayer is that it’s a part of our identity,” she said, adding the broadcast was also a way to reach those who may be unable to attend services at the church. Their first church broadcast began on Dec. 7, 1941, which was also the day of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Broadcasts of church services served a vital need in the 1940’s and were highly successful in involving not just church-goers separated by thousands of miles but also the fringe element of people who did not normally attend church. There were fears of children falling asleep during services, fears of the kind of people who were listening in and contributing to the home service (“unbelievers and pagans”), and strangely enough, a fear that some worshipping men would not remove their hats during the service. Ha!

Fast forward to the 2000’s. Young digital creatives were experimenting with various new digital platforms not just for broadcasting services, but actually creating online environments for full immersion church service experiments. Church happened inside Second Life. Church happened inside MUDs and gaming environments. But one of the most spectacular forms of online church, and perhaps the first fully dedicated 3-D church environment, was The Church of Fools which launched in 2004 as a church service for those that don’t normally attend church.

Church of Fools was hugely successful. It attracted 10,000 people a day. I attended the opening service and listened to the sermon by the Bishop of London. It was limited to (I think) 500 worshippers so I was one of the invisible worshippers, who was naughty enough to steal the pulpit from the Bishop but nobody saw me. Although I did record it.

I loved Church of Fools. So did my kids who joined me the following weeks. The best avatar to choose was Ned Flanders and I think my kids often entered as Ned. Sometimes the time after the service chatting with others in the basement Crypt was even better than the service. But the biggest problem was dealing with the hecklers. They would jump up at any given moment to shout profanities or disturb the service with outbursts of “Hail Satan!”. Church of Fools responded by suggesting children not attend the services, and by appointing virtual “church wardens” who had the ability to “smite” the hecklers with a click of the mouse.

I was invited to preach at the Church of Fools a few weeks later but, regretfully, declined because the amount of heckling was severe and brought up some unhappy memories when I used to be a street preacher. HA! Looking back, I should have accepted. Sorry Simon.

And that brings us to the present day when our new digital media technologies allow a much larger audience to participate in our religious services. Those who never go to church are suddenly interested in joining us, for better or for worse. That sign that says “Everyone Welcome” outside the physical church might not be a good idea for virtual church.

Another transition: Since the 40’s, we have moved from broadcast media (one to many) to communicative media (many to many). The church service I jumped into last Sunday had a message from a well known speaker (Max Lucado) but also a chat space on the sidebar where we could all discuss the message, add our thoughts, our appreciation, or our cooking recipes as it turned out. This could be bad (trolls, hecklers, meddlers) or it could also be great (Greek scholar contributions, personal stories, prayer requests). An old article (2002) worth reading here is from E-church pastor Tim Bednar called “We know more than our Pastors[doc]”. A good summary here.

And not only that. In the 1940’s there was only one media platform for one kind of religious service, which was radio (platform) for the event (Sunday church service). Ok maybe Dorothy Sayers’ dramatic portrayal of The Man Born to Be King also. But today there are multiple platforms which all behave differently, and multiple kinds of religious services ranging from Sunday services, to online funerals, Facebook marriages, leadership brainstorms, theological discussions, confession of sins, etc. And each platform offers different degrees of security and filters. Facebook is often a safe bet, a cul-de-sac of selected friends rather than the hoi polloi of anonymous commenters like our blogs used to have until the Culture of Outrage forced us to either close our comments or move the conversation to a safer space.

Distance plus digital interactivity leads to loss of control. But you can do a few things to make Zoom safer. Read the guidelines at the end of this article.

Do you have any comment, response, stories, solutions?


Andrew Jones launched his first internet space in 1997 and has been teaching on related issues for the past 20 years. He travels all the time but lives between Wellington, San Francisco and a hobbit home in Prague.

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