Like many Presbyterians, I won’t ever forget my first General Assembly. The year was 1998. I had just finished my freshman year of college, and somehow I managed to be invited to attend GA as a volunteer with the Office of Communications. I flew to Charlotte a few days before the assembly began, checked into my hotel, and ventured over to the convention center, where I met people in person I had only spoken with online.
I was immediately put to work on the project of the day: helping to set up an Internet “cafe” for those attending the assembly. Although much of the convention center was brand new, we didn’t have a high speed connection (probably because of a high cost to set it up). We set up a local network of ten or so computers, then connected it to a couple special boxes that shared four dialup connections across the network. Even the newsroom and the web editing stations were set up in this way! Most news was posted first on PresbyNet before it made the PCUSA web site. Mountains of paper information never made it on the web, at least not during the assembly.
Flash forward to 2008. I’m on vacation, not at the assembly, but that didn’t matter. From a quiet village on the coast of Maine, I was able to watch live streaming video of the plenary sessions, read along with the committee reports, and chat live with other Presbyterians from around the country. I might as well have been there, if all that mattered was the business done! The chat room Presbyterians even started proposing a new group of “Web Advisory Delegates” to be polled before each vote! Bloggers from among the commissioners, advisory delegates, and observers took time to post often, and some old stalwart publications even brought in people to blog the assembly.
The technology behind GA this year, at least from a distance, was the best I’ve seen it. Everything just worked, almost well enough for me to wonder if we need to spend the time and money to get 1,000 people together to have these kinds of conversations that we could have at home.
But having been there before myself reminds me that there’s something about General Assembly that can’t be recreated on a computer screen. The people we encounter in person show us the breadth of the church that goes far beyond one congregation, and the worship services point us toward a new song of praise that seems beyond belief. Amidst all my memories of five assemblies, the one I can’t put out of my mind was opening worship in Charlotte – 13,000 Presbyterians gathered around the Word and the Table to worship.
We polity wonks and GA Junkies have an insight into how God, through the Holy Spirit, works in our covenant communities through these governing body meetings and our connectionalism. We need to recognize that the roughly 2000 people here at the General Assembly represent about 0.1% of the PC(USA).
Will technology help the church to understand this work of the Holy Spirit better? Only time will tell.