If you've followed this blog or read "Grace and Gigabytes," you know that I'm an advocate of technology in the church, and you yourself are at least somewhat interested in the topic. In thinking about the church's digital (or, hybrid) future, it's interesting to consider what tools and tactics will help our communities to be more faithful, inclusive, and collaborative. But it's imperative to occasionally pause to ask the big question: What if the church shouldn't have a digital future?
What if the pursuit of Christian community in digital spaces is a fruitless pursuit of "relevance," a distraction from the true work of proclaiming God's word, administering the sacraments, and making Christ known to our communities?
"Analog Church" by Jay Y. Kim, which was published only two weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, presents a compelling critique of technology in the church, an argument borne out of the idea that so much of our technology is in service to relevance, as opposed to transcendence. The book suggests that every time we seek to use tech to reach more people, we lose focus on the local character of the church, sacrificing real connections for a shallow form of click-based community.
Jay Y. Kim argues convincingly that digital platforms cannot be the only location of Christian community. The corporate acts of singing, praying, and learning are fundamental to the Christian tradition. There is, in fact, something that we lose when prayers and hymnody, scriptures and teachings, are reduced to memes and posts on social media. There is something that we miss out on when church becomes a passive, consumer-oriented experience.
Yes, as a church leader I want to serve and reach as many people as I can with the gospel. This is true of most church leaders I have known. But often, the desire to "serve and reach as many as we can" in the digital age devolves into methods that essentially equate to "what's the fastest, most efficient way for us to get bigger?"
-Jay Y. Kim, "The Analog Church"
Still, I have questions. The author suggests that "digital" is by definition an antonym of "real," that our virtual connections are, in their essence, fake. I'm unconvinced. As Riverside Church Digital Minister Jim Keat has said, digital is not the opposite of real. Digital is the opposite of physical.
Can we know real people, can we connect in real places, can we learn about real things in a digital form of church? Of course we can.
For me, the question is not whether we should be using digital technology - the question is how we will blend the invitational character of the online world with the connective core of our face-to-face experiences.
To that end, Jay Y. Kim's work is indispensable. "Analog Church" gives us a set of signposts for navigating the potential and the pitfalls of church in the digital age. It warns us of church as a "consumer" experience, it steers us away from individualistic Christianity. It cautions us against reading scripture out of context, or only attending to fleeting aspects of a church's life together.
In this moment, so many of us are looking to the future, considering how the tech we have relied upon in the last 13 months informs our ministry and mission. I remain convinced that the best model for doing church is a blend of offline and online. For anyone who believes the same, "Analog Church" is simply a must-read.
@ryanpanzer is the author of "Grace and Gigabytes"