Nindyo Sasongko believes theology should be publicly available to a wider audience. His experiment in online discussions began in November 2018; when the pandemic hit, “Theovlogy” increased in frequency to meet the demand for online means of connecting.
“The initial purpose was to be for laypeople who don’t have background in theology in Indonesia. We started with 15-20 minute episodes on theology matters accessible to a general audience. Later on, we find out that our audience grew – not only from Indonesia but also my colleagues.”
The theology professor and PhD candidate invited fellow theology students – from Indonesia, but spread around the world from Australia to the USA – to join him in humble conversations online. Three of the six founders are Mennonites: Nindyo Sasangko and a second theology student Adi Widya Nugroho were raised in the GKMI church in Indonesia. Perdian Tumanan is studying at AMBS, Elkhart, Indiana. This meeting grew into “Theovlogy,” a theology discussion channel online with almost 250,000 followers.
Concerned about accessibility for those with poor internet connections, Nindyo Sasongko converts the recordings to audio for podcasts. But he sees the barriers of access melting away. During the pandemic, sometimes those in rural Indonesia have a better connection than he does in New York City, USA.
“Theovlogy” was launched into English – and to a wider audience – at Mennonite World Conference’s Global Anabaptist Peacebuilding Festival in the Netherlands in 2019 when they spoke with Mennonite historian Ben Goossen.
The audience comes from a variety of different traditions; “probably more progressive Christians, but also conservative.”
Guests have included well known experts in their fields, but it started with inviting friends.
“We wanted to provide a non-elite form. We invited BA students with passion in theology, people writing a paper that got published.”
A new appetite for theological conversation
The pandemic was “a blessing in disguise” for “Theovlogy”, says Nindyo Sasongko. The organizers were busy with schoolwork; six months passed without a new episode. Then the closedown happened in mid-March and everyone had time at home. “I thought I would be insane if I just prepared for class.” So, “Theovlogy” revived. Soon Nindyo Sasongko learned about other podcasts in Indonesia following its example.
Teaching classes online left Nindyo Sasongko feeling stretched. “Before the pandemic, [to discuss theological matters], we would meet our audience and they would pose questions directly to us. Now we could only see their writing, short questions; we could not see their expressions.”
But over at “Theovlogy”, “Our conversations brought me health.”
“We found people can follow and interact as they watch our conversations,” says Nindyo Sasongko. “Before, regular church people’s retention is 20-25 minutes. During the pandemic, people sit and watch for about an hour – on hard theological topics. They stay with what we are discussing. They can re-watch or re-listen. I didn’t see this happen before the pandemic.”
“Through this podcast, we learned that we created community,” says Nindyo Sasongko. The hosts and guests interact with the audience during the live question and answer session and through feedback on the recorded sessions. The audience includes people none of the originators have ever met before. “Even across religious traditions.”
“This is a safe space,” he says. Hosts and guests talk about faith and religion “without being judged by doctrine, dogma or rules.
“Our audience can have access to theological matters that they did not expect before. Many of our audience expected theology as a defense of faith, apologetics.” But the podcast showcases different views of theology. The audience experiences how theology can be approached not from an apologetical point of view, but from a more collegial, conversational and hospitable point of view. “
“Theovlogy” has hosted a Muslim scholar and an agnostic as guests. “We never knew Christianity in this kind of openness and hospitality,” both guests and listeners told them.
“In this sense, I can see this is a Mennonite way of providing reconciliation,” Nindyo says.
Lessons for the new normal?
“When we can, we sit together and let’s talk,” Nindyo Sasongko says.
But, in the meantime, he has seen the potential for even a remote, screen-mediated experience to provide a connection – the sense of community that Anabaptists believe is imperative to church.
“The church breaks down barriers,” he says. Online services have done that in a new way, making it possible for people around the world to participate in church together. “This might be what the apostle Paul says: in Christ all boundaries are broken down, there is no Jew nor Greek (Galatians 3:28),” he says.
Online discussions give opportunity for people from different religious traditions to dialogue and learn. “At Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship, we invited a Sufi practitioner to talk to us. He had his disciples watching from Indonesia.” Another time, a Jewish rabbi invited his colleagues to watch.
“I see that this might be the future of the church.”
“There is an openness that isn’t there in person in four walls,” he says.
“I see a challenge to my own theology” in meeting online. “I am vulnerable; I must open myself to be moved, challenged, interrupted, changed and transformed by my encounters with others. I learn that I am still in the process of becoming, and this process is sometimes painful.
“When all humans are connected through the internet today, I ask myself what it means to be human. It is to be open to vulnerability, because only in this way, we learn to see new possibilities.”
—Nindyo Sasongko is a founder of “Theovlogy”. An ordained minister in the Gereja Kristen Muria Indonesia (GKMI) Conference in Indonesia, he is currently a PhD student in systematic theology and a teaching fellow at Fordham University, New York, USA. He is also theologian in residence at Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship, New York City, and a member of the MWC Creation Task Force.