Last December, there was an opinions piece in the New York Times called “Internet Church Isn’t Really Church.” In it, the author, Laura Turner, talks about the rising trend of using internet-related technologies in the course of church work. Whether churches live-streaming services or sharing prayers over the web, or smartphone apps that connect parishioners by means of their devices, it seems that Turner is not a fan. Her critique, at heart, seems to be that such technologies encourage a posture of “consuming church” such that we are concerned solely with making worship “more convenient, and more in line with our lifestyles than the old-fashioned Sunday morning visit.”
Of course, Turner is not the first to worry that various technologies would bend people’s attitudes more consumeristic when it comes to church. In the history of the modern church, there are those who have decried the use of nurseries, amplification systems, and parking lots as means by which churches have tried to market themselves, more concerned with being “convenient” and “in line with our lifestyle” than with faithfulness to being the Body of Christ.
This hesitancy goes back, well, to the beginning. As the Way of Jesus became more and more Gentile, there were those Christians who questioned the technology of worshipping outside of its historical context, the synagogue system. Later, it was thought to be a heresy to translate the bible without authorization because it allowed the reader to bypass the magisterium. In fact, there are still those who assert that a technology as seemingly innocuous as the pew is one that encourages passivity, disengagement, and consumerism.
“Pews teach the lay people to stay in their place, which is to passively watch what’s going on up front…. Pews preach and teach that religion and spirituality is the job of the [clergy], to whom we pay a salary to be religious for us, since it is just too much trouble and just too difficult for the rest of us to be spiritual in the real world of modern North America. Pews serve the same purpose as seats in theaters and bleachers in the ball park; we perch on them … to watch the professionals perform: the clergy and the professionally-trained altar servers, while the professionally-trained choir sings for our entertainment.”
Of course, for any person of faith, theological reflection should accompany the institution and use of any technology, from pew to smartphone, in the life of faith. In the case of being church, theological reflection on technology must follow upon ecclesiology. Before we think about whether or not, to what extent, or precisely how a particular technology belongs in the practice of church, we must think about what a church is, based upon our tradition’s theological reflection over space and time (meaning globally, and across the years). I wonder the extent to which this is occurring in either this excerpt on pews, or in Turner’s column. Instead, it seems that they identify how certain technologies abet or deter various desired qualities – say, intimacy or attention – and then attach or detach those qualities from their ontology of “church.” We all may have perfectly valid critiques of the ways that we treat the act or gathering of worship, whatever its format. But how do those critiques relate to how we theologically understand church?
Turner’s main gripe seems to be that internet and communication technologies (ICTs) encourage people to imagine that “God is primarily present to us one on one, as individuals, rather than as a community of believers.” I agree with her that certain technologies allow us to think of ourselves as individuals first, and part of a community second (if ever); the padded and stackable chairs replace the pew. But I don’t think that we individualistically customize our definition and experience of church only because of online and virtual worship experiences. We do that in our good old brick-and-mortar churches all the time, as exhibited in the different pre-ICT innovations that we find there. Anthropology precedes technology. While our use of different technologies certainly shape and amplify aspects of being human, it is our being human that first shapes our creation and choice of technologies.
Turner is quite right that church implies a community, and that that community includes differences. I have said much the same in this space. However, merely because we meet in physical churches does not mean that we will find community there, nor that it will be non-homogenous. It is our human frailty that tempts us toward individuality and sameness, not ICTs. And it is our human spirit that draws us toward community and transformation, too.
Researcher Danah Boyd, looking into the use of ICTs, especially how youth use them for social media, found that people do not immerse themselves into their screens because they want to escape belonging, but precisely because they do want connection. “Listening to teens talk about social media addiction reveals an interest not in features of their computers, smartphones, or even particular social media sites but in each other,” she says in her book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of America’s Networked Teens. “Teen ‘addiction’ to social media is a new extension of typical human engagement.” And since youth illustrate our humanity in stark terms, observation suggests that they are prophetically showing us the ways that we have always tended to use technologies.
Of course, this does not mean that ICTs or social media will deliver that for which we long. In fact, they cannot deliver anything in and of themselves. Nor can our churches, even with nurseries, prayer apps, or translated bibles. Christians believe that it is only God, who works through the followers of Jesus as they are transformed in community by the Spirit, that will give us what we truly want and need. And, of course, God uses lots of different technologies – including the human sort – to do this.
Turner noted that “I don’t believe I would truly be a Christian without the real, in-person, Sunday morning church.” It is not clear if she is saying that she has needed to attend a worship service at a brick-and-mortar church in order to be a disciple of Jesus, if everyone needs to, or merely that she likes having a tangible community who can care for her. At different points of the article, it seems that one or the other is being claimed. However, it would do us all well to be clear on what we mean by “real,” “person,” and “church.” I will say that there are many who have attended online and virtual churches who have found them to be more real, more personally intimate, and more church than others that they have walked or driven to. This is of course not to say that traditional church formats are not valuable; they are, in fact, indispensable. I would hope that those who attend online or virtual churches are finding ways to be church with others face-to-face as well. However, I would also say that there are lots of ways to corporately worship, lots of ways to connect with others, and lots of ways to experience the communal transformation of the Holy Spirit, with or without pews or padded and stackable chairs.