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, reproducible, 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. 

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.

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 efficiency, 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

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The inefficient Church

Is it any wonder then that my kids complain about church? Why do we see the numbers of church attendance declining so rapidly?

In 2011, the Hemorrhaging Faith study broke new ground for Canadian youth and young adult ministry. The study reported that two out of three young adults were leaving the Church as they transitioned out of high school. In response, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) and 5 other partners launched the Renegotiating Faith project to investigate this pressing question: How can we help young adults stay connected to Church and faith? – Keeping the Faith report 

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. Put simply, uncritical acceptance of technology into our hearts and lives is the wrong approach.

What if, following the latest product drop, our immediate questions were not, “When can I have it?” and “How much does it cost?” but instead, “Is it good for me?” or “What does it really cost?” – What Are We Asking of Technology?

In our gatherings, 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. 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 beings. 

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 toward 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?).

To use popular parlance, the utter inconvenience of building our lives around the rhythms of the Church is a feature, not a bug. To make efficiency for its own sake a proper value of the Church is to capitulate to the ideology of a technological worldview—and then to expect the same results: disconnectedness, anxiety, and despair.

Of the terms used to describe the church in the New Testament, efficient, convenient, entertaining, and easy were not among them. Instead, we see that the Church, the “called-out-ones,” were engaged in a risky, subversive, revolutionary work (liturgy): the worship of the risen King of the Cosmos.

It is in the DNA of the Church to train us in a different rhythm of life. The very medium of the Church militates against a disembodied, distraction-heavy environment.

Instead of high-resolution images flashing before our eyes every second or so, our eyes are fixed upon the Rood, the altar, or the pulpit for the entirety. To remain focused upon the present Christ through his Word and Spirit is a struggle, to be sure, but one that produces Christ in us and the fruit of the Spirit.

Indeed, it is to be formed into the image of the only human that ever lived, Jesus the Christ.

Church takes forever

The recognition that life within the Church can be difficult, boring, and uninteresting is an important cue.

It is an invitation to examine the patterns of our lives, precisely what we are giving ourselves over to, and what values those patterns and habits instill within us. We must realize, as C.S. Lewis said, that "every time you make a choice, you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before” — a “little different” because these changes take place over our whole lives. 

While a radically different rhythm awaits us in the Church, it is far greater than being left to our own devices.

The way of redemption is slow, painstaking even, yet it is a God-ordained way towards a genuinely human experience. While it is truly, in the words of the late Eugene Peterson, “a long obedience in the same direction,” thank God that church takes forever.

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Joel Houston

Joel Houston is Assistant Professor of Theology at Briercrest College and Seminary. Joel teaches in the areas of systematic and spiritual theology, as well as theology and interdisciplinary studies. An avid long-distance runner, father of four, and occasional musician, Joel is the author of Wesley, Whitefield, and the Free Grace Controversy: The Crucible of Methodism (Routledge, 2019).

Technology Church