Has digital ministry generated an unintended spiritual crisis?
With a few taps of a button, I can watch the worship live stream of seemingly any church in the world. I can download podcasts featuring the most thoughtful and articulate theologians of our time. I can watch shows and series that prompt me to contemplate life's biggest questions. I can even chat or Zoom with a coach, mentor, or spiritual director who can help me to engage the questions unique to my faith journey.
As the life of faith becomes more accessible through digital media, some will inevitably ask the question: what is church even for anymore?
If I can derive the benefits of Chrisitan community with the convenience of apps, video, and podcasts, why bother committing to a church? If I can learn to live a full Christian life from influencers on my social media feed, why deal with the encumberments of membership? If I can read and explore the scriptures through a screen, why travel somewhere else to listen to a preacher? Why not just go it alone?
These are difficult, if not impossible questions, for today's faith leader to address. So perhaps the best way for churches to address such a question is to avoid arriving at this point at all.
How, exactly, do we do that?
For starters, imagine that our churches, regardless of denomination or tradition, were divided into two broad categories: prescribing churches, and discerning churches.
A prescribing church is concerned with pre-empting real and relevant situations. Often drawing upon the scriptures, but at times integrating tradition, theology, and reason, a prescribing church concerns itself with proclaiming what the faithful ought to do under highly specific conditions. A prescribing church has detailed, yet sometimes nuanced, perspectives on a catalog of cultural questions and challenges: how do I lead my business? How do I act as a Christian father? What should I donate to the church each month? While a prescribing church is attuned to contemporary realities, its focus is on preparation: equipping members with a clear Christian playbook.
A discerning church is concerned with contemplation and action amidst present-day reality. Integrating spiritual practices of prayer and meditation along with the scriptures, tradition, and theology, a discerning church learns to consistently ask key questions. What is God up to in our world? And how are we called to be a part of God's work? A discerning church is Spirit-led and situationally aware. When encountering a new situation or challenge, the discerning church delves into its practices to interpret how to be the hands and feet of God in the world. A discerning church is thus concerned with habit and practice: equipping members with a versatile toolkit, but not necessarily a blueprint or instructional manual.
Prescribing and discerning churches exist in all denominations and across the ideological spectrum. It's just as likely to be a discerning conservative evangelical church as it is to be a prescribing liberal mainline congregation. And both approaches to Christian community are faithful responses to the Great Comission. It is possible to make disciples with playbooks just as it is possible to be the hands and feet of Christ with tool kits.
The advantage of the discerning church, then, is that it is less easily replaced by digital media. The teachings of the prescribing church are easily outsourced to savvy media developers. But there's no "3 Steps to Faithful Living" blog post that can substitute for a discerning spiritual community. There's no online course that can provide the sense of communal grounding in which practices are explored.
The advantage of the discerning church is that it provides a space for grappling with questions that defy easy answers. It provides practices in which we can hear God speaking a word of grace into our world. And in an age of Instagram Influencers and self-aggrandizing social media, the discerning church provides a community through which we can differentiate God's call from our own ego and self-interest.
What is church even for anymore? It's not a place to learn exactly how to live in highly specific situations. It's not a place we go to get the Biblical answer or the Christian perspective. Your podcast feed can provide that for you, without taking away your Sunday morning.
Rather, church is a place to discern what your Christian identity means in an ever-changing world. It is a place to hear the voice of God - a voice that comes to us not as an answer, but as a question, not as a lecture, but as an invitation. In a world of ceaseless change, it is time for church leaders to stop prescribing. It is time instead to initiate a communal journey of discernment.