In a world where many large Protestant churches livestream their services online, where both Catholic and Evangelicals/Charismatics have their own basic cable networks, why show up in person at a local church when you can watch a much slicker version of church on your computer or TV? Why show up at a local church when the “quality” of the worship service may seem like a low-budget version of old school TV talent show Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour and the group dynamics scream middle school instead of radical community defined by the love of Jesus?
Further, the trend toward multi-site churches in the Evangelical world means even if you do show up at a local church, you may be sitting in a room with other people watching at least part of a service on a big screen. Certainly broadcasting of church services is not a new phenomenon. Church services aimed at the housebound have been aired since radio’s early days. I’ve relied on Christian radio programming for spiritual nurture at different points and in different measures throughout my faith journey.
After more than a year and a half attending a big box church with a number of multi-site locations that also livestreams its services online, I have had the same basic experience of church sitting in the comfy theater seats (sans cupholders) that a person would viewing the service on a screen. While there have been a few 3-D moments throughout that time, notably communion and a couple of all-congregation service projects, almost all of our time at the church has been very two-dimensional.
There are some very good reasons for watching a church service on a screen, so I can’t dismiss the option out of hand. It is a wonderful gift for those too ill or frail to attend in person, in caregiving roles, with work schedules that don’t permit it, or those who may be prohibited, as I was for the first three years of my faith journey, from attending church in person.
I wonder if churches making a big, expensive effort to broadcast their services are doing so only with these groups in mind. From the literature I’ve read on the topic over the years and from the way the online option is framed at the church we currently attend, I don’t think so. I get the impression they recognize that more and more people are choosing a virtual version of church. Some are those from the Done category – people who’ve been burned by dysfunction in an earlier 3-D church experience. Some are those who’ve adopted a self-curated approach to their spiritual lives by choosing what is most pleasing out of the banquet of offerings available to us these days. A couple of decades ago, many in the church bashed the way in pop spirituality encouraged this approach: “Mix one part yoga class, one part crystals, and three parts Oprah”. Now the church has enabled some to add church services to their own personal smorgasbord.
Perhaps we’ve always done this to some degree. At some point, those of us serious about discipleship discover our local church can’t be the only thing nurturing our spiritual growth. I’ve always supplemented what I’ve learned from my local church through personal spiritual discipline, service outside the four walls of the church, reading, conferences, prayer gatherings, retreats, and countless conversations over coffee.
I understand that a percentage of those watching are not-yet-believers, and may be watching from a safe distance in order to figure out if church is for them. I know many others streaming church services have been burned by previous involvement in a local church. They love Jesus, but can’t bear the thought of repeating the insanity again. Watching from a safe distance means they can maintain some level of engagement without risk. Others don’t like the church options in their particular neck of the woods, so they can either replace or supplement what’s available with what they prefer.
This is where it gets tricky. If church is simply one more item in the buffet line, we’ve reduced it to something far less than what it is meant to be. Scripture never speaks of the church in terms of being a two-dimensional item or just one more consumer menu item on the 57 foot-long steam table of spirituality. There have been plenty of times in my life when I wished it were so – recovering from spiritual abuse and some of the dysfunctional churches of which we’ve been a part have made an individualistic approach to following Jesus a mighty tempting line of thinking. But I can’t get past the picture of embodied, three-dimensional community that began with Jesus’ first “Follow me” invitation to a prospective disciple and continued like a line drive through the day of Pentecost all the way to here and now.
A building or an organization is not the church – nor, for that matter, is it merely a corporate worship service. The church is a living organism with Jesus the Messiah as its head. I am grateful for the provision of a number of spaces in my life that have functioned as a kind of “micro-church” for me during this sojourn at the mega church: a Bible study, the classroom, and all those places I’ve shared a cup of coffee or a meal with another believer. I’m grateful for the virtual fellowship I have with a number of friends online. But these are all relationships of my own buffet-line choice. The whole lot is a gift, and an expression of the big C Church.
I understand that a local church is also an expression of that same big C Church. However, she is called to function differently than a self-selected subset grouping of the Church does. A church body gathers to give one another the gifts God has given us, worship and learn together, and schelp ourselves together – in all our messy diversity – to God’s table.
But being an audience member at a megachurch for the last year and 3/4 has reinforced in me the notion that Christianity can never be a two-dimensional, individualistic faith. There are times in our lives when we must be on our own, and God’s grace connects us to himself and his body in profoundly mystical ways. But when we have the freedom to choose to be a part of a church community, and select the buffet line instead, we go hungry.
What do you think? Has your faith been sustained by the buffet line and drained by the church? Are you experiencing community in your local congregation?