No, the Church as We Know It is not Over

No, the Church as We Know It is not Over March 19, 2019

Over at FoxNews, a leading resource on ecclesiology and missiology, there is an article by Dave Adamson (@AussieDave) on Church as we know it is over. Here’s what’s next.

According to Adamson:

Every church you’ve ever attended, or that you drive by on your way to a Sunday sporting event, was built on a physical attendance model that is location-centric. …  But that way of doing church is dead. And just like Joshua needed to hear God say, “Moses my servant is dead” (Joshua 1:2), so he could move into the next level of leadership, I think the Church needs to accept the fate of physical church as we know it, so we can move into the next phase of digital church.

Adamson is not saying that actually attending a church in person is going to end, but that is more likely to be one stream, one option that churches will offer. Successful churches will need to offer multiple streams and platforms to their audiences. He says: “We need to understand that digital channels do not compete with physical attendance, they partner with it. And if the marketplace is an indicator, doing digital engagement well will lead to increased physical attendance.”

I think Adamson makes some good observations, the information age is now changing how people become consumers of religion and how church is done. Certainly the effects of the internet on seminary education are far ranging and have yet to be fully felt. In addition, the internet has made multi-site/campus churches a possibility, sermons can be accessed via podcasts or you.tube, and social media sites create virtual communities where people with shared interests can interact. Also, for better or worse, churches need to be digitally savvy as part of their mission to speak into the cultural mediums of our day.

What should we make of this information age revolution?

On the pro-side of the information age, Christians have always embraced technological change from the codex, to the printing press, to the radio, to the internet. Also, thanks to the internet, it is possible to keep contact with people without being in physical proximity to them. As one pastor told me, 80% of pastoring can be done over the phone, via email, or on facebook. What is more, there are now more mediums than ever for churches to advertise their ministries, to make connections with people, and to disseminate sermons and resources. There are new levels of connectivity and community that can be integrated into traditional or normal modes of church.

On the downside, some people think skipping church and watching a sermon on you.tube is a sufficient substitute for church itself. The attraction is convenience and it resists the hassles of commute and the travails of community. Introverts will always feel the seductive power of internet church! But we should resist a digitized view of church for several reasons. To begin with, the church is not a physical address nor a web address. Just as the church is the people not the steeple, so also church is not the platforms or the pixels but its people. No amount of virtual communciation can truly supplant our communion. You can buy eucharistic wafers and communion juice from Amazon.com (not really, you can) but that ain’t the Lord’s Supper, its just bread and juice with religious wrappings. Connectivity cannot absorb our whole experience of communion nor the transmit the total catholicity of the Christian tradition.

While the internet can enhance our interaction within the church and with the world, the internet will never be a substitute or replacement for your local church, its fellowship, its communion, or the physical practices of being a Christian. That is because the church is not, as Nick Perrin quips, the weekly meeting of Jesus’s facebook friends. The church is the body of Christ, a physical body, a body of many parts, with diverse functions. Thus, the Church, just like the incarnation itself, is irreducibly physical and spatial. Neither Christianity nor the Church can be condensed into digital information. For grace comes to us in presence, power, and in our personal experience of each other. Christianity is always about hearing, seeing, touching, tasting,  telling, crying, laughing, smelling, knowing, going, eating, drinking, arguing, creating, annointing, praying, eyeballing, eye-rolling, giving, and receiving form each other. Christianity is more than knowing or even feeling, it is a type of “being,” specifically, being-in-Christ-together.

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