This is an interesting article about a coming church “split.” I don’t quite think that’s the word, and there is a lot of theological vagueness in the piece, but I agree that all these things should be thought about more, not less. Here is a taste:
Essentially, the split is between churches that will be effective in accomplishing their mission and churches that won’t be. We’ve seen a similar split over the last five decades between churches that drifted from historic Christianity orthodoxy and churches that didn’t. Between churches that embraced change and churches that didn’t. And we saw it in churches that understood the culture and those who were oblivious to it. And pre-pandemic, that split left approximately 15% of churches growing and 85% of churches plateaued or declining. The coming split is a split between the kinds of churches that will thrive in the future and the kinds of churches that won’t.
I wouldn’t say that’s a split. That’s probably just attrition. Like, TEC isn’t splitting anymore, it’s just getting smaller. And, one could take any of those assertions in any number of ways. What does it mean to be able to “understand the culture?” I think I understand the culture but piles of people disagree with me on that score. The author posits four considerations, perhaps even choices, that churches have to make–Online-Optional vs. Fully Hybrid, “Bringing People Back Vs. Moving People Forward,” Embracing rather than Judging,” And Ideology Vs. the Gospel.
The Hybrid model, apparently, is to be 100% digital and 100% physical. You don’t have to choose, you can do both. The others require a choice–being welcoming rather than judgmental, being political rather than gospel-oriented, and the moving people forward thing. Honestly, I do think these issues are crucial, as I said, so I will just quickly accumulate some thoughts.
First, the question of technology in the church is so so so big, and, much like bio-ethics, I think that theologians and scholars need to write some long-form pieces about what they think is happening and what should happen, like yesterday. In the comments under the article, several people admitted that it’s become so comfortable to “attend” church digitally that they just can’t figure out how to go back in “live-action,” as my children say. I would want to ask, is the person on his couch actually “attending” church? What is even the true nature of worship? I am personally very queasy about the idea that “church” can even be “online.” After decades of lectures about how the church isn’t the building, it’s the people who go there, I would like to sort of whisper the question, shouldn’t the people have to go there? In person? It’s fine for a while, at the height of a pandemic, but eventually, the body of believers has to get together to worship God in person. So, sure, churches should be digitally savvy and have a good website, but just because a church doesn’t have a beautiful app doesn’t mean it’s not a faithful church.
Second, “bringing people back” in opposition to “moving people forward” seems too much of a gimmick. Forward to what? Better and more comfortable digital spaces? I think sometimes a person can go so far forward she ends up careening off of a cliff. Honestly, I think people coming “back” into the pew is a huge step forward after a year like this. It takes real bravery to come back after a year of being away. It is hugely difficult to go through the trouble of getting to church, of being around other people, of wearing a mask if that’s what your congregation does. I am so impressed and grateful for all the people who stayed away and who have now come back, many because they got the vaccine and so feel more comfortable being in a building with other people. The year has been so so tough for everyone. Also, the church meeting together is what the church does. It also goes out into the world to make disciples, but there isn’t really a more complex vision than that. Those two tasks are honestly so big and so difficult that it’s easier to fuss around with questions of technology and vision casting.
Third, being welcoming is very very important, obviously, and Christians should not be judgemental jerks, but…I don’t know very many Christians who couldn’t do a little more judicious thinking about matters of great import. Of course, anyone who walks into a church building (within reason–like, if they’re not violent) should be welcomed with open arms. But that person will eventually have to repent and believe the gospel in order to be really comfortable. Many people are simply offended by what God has to offer them, and so they wander away when they hear it. If a church is rightly proclaiming the word of Christ, many people will feel “judged” because God is, in fact, judging them. No matter how nicely Christians proclaim the message, lots of people are going to be unhappy about it.
And fourth, yes, I agree, less ideology and politics and more gospel. Yes absolutely. But, again, how people hear what you’re saying is so tetchy. Look at the SBC right now. What is a gospel issue has become excessively political, and yet the “issue” is of utmost import. They have to sort it out. Shall they just not talk about their difficult questions because the culture has already answered them a certain way? Still, I did like this line from the article a lot, “The culture needs an alternative to itself, not an echo of itself.” Yes, I agree so much, but that means talking about what the culture is and does for a goodly part of the time–including its assumptions about technology.
And now I guess I will go listen to another sermon online, because there’s already one playing in the background, and while I “listen” I will scroll around on Twitter, because those two activities are both totes spiritually compatible, and very easy since I already have my phone in my hand!