Why We Need Church in the Digital Age
Among the many complaints voiced by my children on our way to church on Sunday is that “Church takes forever!”
While I’m usually frustrated by the impiety that my children inherited from their mother, I’ve come to take comfort in this regular lament, because they’re right. Church does take forever.
This insight “from the mouths of babes,” however, is less a product of their theological acumen and more a result of their cultural catechesis.
Efficiency at all costs?
One of the great deceptions of our digital age comes along with the promise and realization of technological efficiency. To be sure, we in the early 21st century are markedly more efficient at a great many tasks, such as sending information to friends via text message, banking, taking and storing photos, and obtaining obscure facts from the internet.
But let’s be clear: the deception is not that we can perform these tasks more efficiently. The trick is more subtle.
Along with the uptick in efficiency, we have come rather uncritically to believe that efficiency and its associated values (measurability, reproducibility, marketability, etc.) should be the hallmarks of human activities. Indeed, if something is worth doing it should be done quickly and efficiently (and be measurable, reproduceable, and if possible, marketable).
Things that are inefficient tend to be viewed as problems to be avoided (hence, the death of T9 texting; kids, ask your parents).
As technology progresses, screen-based mobile technologies in particular, so too does our dependency upon those technologies. Many of us, myself included, can hardly fathom getting through the day without consistent and prolonged access to our mobile devices. As noted, we text, call, email, bank, stave off boredom, and entertain ourselves on these devices.
It is only natural, then, when the values that are inherent in our technologies (as no technology is value-neutral) become the values inherent in our worldview. And because our technology is a tool that is used to accomplish tasks with greater efficiently, I, as a human, may come to believe that my central vocation in life is to accomplish tasks efficiently as well. I am transformed from a human being to a human doing.
The inefficient Church
Is it any wonder then that my kids complain about church? That we see the numbers of church attendance declining so rapidly? (For more on church attendance among young adults, read our Keeping the Faith report here.)
While there are a number of factors that affect this, can there be any doubt that the rise of our technological culture is also at fault?
The “problem,” you see, is that the Church is grossly inefficient. Its founder, Jesus Christ the God-man, did not seem terribly interested in efficiency for efficiency’s sake. Indeed, if that were the case, the incarnation itself would be an enormous waste of time and energy. As it is, however, the incarnation is slow and painful because that is the way to redeem things—fleshly things, fallen things.
There are some things you simply cannot do efficiently. There are some things that simply cannot be done in “cyberspace”—a fictional entity if ever there was one—and the Church is one of those things.
For the religious faithful, those who inhabit two worlds, we struggle with the notion that we must go to church to participate in the redemption of all things. We cannot see aright; we are untrained in the slow rhythm of the Church.
This is particularly difficult for us evangelicals. Part of the evangelical impulse is to seek an immediate, personal experience with the grace of God. This impulse is, in the main, a good one, but notice the digital correlative. The technological grip is particularly tenacious because it affords direct, immediate, and highly sensory experiences. Furthermore, it can produce these experiences with an incredibly high volume and frequency, thereby spell-binding its user into more and more immersive experiences.
(The only catch is, it’s a shell game. None of it is real. As Amy Crouch remarked, “No multitude of glowing rectangles will ever be able to replace a single bumblebee”).
Embracing a different rhythm
Because the Church has a decidedly different eschatological orientation than that of modern technology, the Church can actually contribute to the problem when, in an effort to harmonize with the technological society, it imports aspects of screen-based technologies and their concomitant values into the life of public worship. Simply having the Bible on your phone, or the words of a song projected onto a screen, means that you never have to share a hymnal or the Holy Scriptures with your neighbour. Amplified sound means that you never have to hear yourself singing off-key, etc.
Essentially, by integrating particular technologies into the church uncritically, we run the risk of suggesting that the worship of the living God is best mediated through the usage of newer, better, and faster technology. The church should not be surprised at all, then, when the discerning parishioner cuts out the middle-man (the Church), for efficiency’s sake.
Yet the need for the Church is greater now than ever.
Ultimately, it is only the grace of God through the ministry of His church that will overcome the gates of technological perdition. For indeed, the suffering wrought by the technological age is almost as great as its accomplishments.
The tendency of modern technology to create anxious or depressive states in its users has been extensively documented. But all the documentation, studies, and warnings only serve to buttress what we know intuitively: that our obsessive use of screen-based technologies is corroding our spirit.
We may communicate more frequently than ever, with greater and greater efficiency, yet we do not have much to say.
We have more “friends” than ever before, yet are increasingly isolated, anxious, and despairing of actual human interaction.
Our continual usage of technology to remedy these painfully human conditions belies our addictions to them, and indeed, the madness that entails.
Embody and remember
The Church (and especially the slow Church) is the remedy to this madness. The Church is the means by which God structures the time, place, and pace of proper human being.
Through the Church, God reorders our priorities by the faithful preaching of the Word and the right administration of the sacraments. These two medicines of the Church disrupt the order of the technological age because they institute a rhythm and pace into our lives that is meant to orient us towards being properly human.
Your denominational affiliation matters not a jot on this head: whether you believe in the real-presence of the sacrament, or you are really present as you memorialize Christ’s perfect sacrifice once-offered, the point is, you are engaged in two fundamental activities that are at the centre of the Christian religion: embodiment and remembrance, two undertakings that our screen-based, technology-driven lives push to the margins, if not over a cliff (for, who can remember what they viewed on the internet three weeks ago?).