About three weeks ago, churches across America began to close their doors. In an unprecedented act, many pastors took the courageous stance to support national and local healthcare guidelines that encouraged physical social distancing, as the novel coronavirus began to spread widely across the United States. Since the virus is known to spread more quickly in places with large gatherings and close contact between individuals, churches practicing physical social distancing help decrease contagion risk in their communities, which is particularly important given there are numerous people — health care workers, grocery store workers, delivery workers, emergency response teams, and many others — who do not have the capacity or privilege of staying home during this time.
Churches quickly began to figure out a way to move all of their services online. As a youth pastor at a church with almost no previous online presence, I’ve been learning to do a lot of new things. My responsibilities now include leading Zoom workshops with older adults, setting up online discussions and anime nights for the youth group, and attempting to fix my apartment lighting so I can record a Sunday morning worship set at home. In many ways, the pandemic has forced us to do something we should have been doing all along: offering alternative modes of services to those who are unable to engage physically with the church for various reasons.
Digital church has exposed additional concerns however. How do we serve those who don’t have access to technology? For instance, I don’t know if my church has been able to address the needs of those who don’t have access to the internet or smart phones. Is a weekly check-in phone call enough for connection? Is there a way they can phone in and listen to a sermon or should recorded sermons be mailed to them on cassette tapes? Should the pastoral staff be driving to the homes of seniors to help them set up their computers for internet streaming or is the risk of spreading the virus great enough that we ought to stay away for their sakes and ours? And what about those who are homeless and still stop by our campus, hoping for a cup of coffee and conversation? Technology, even with its benefits, isn’t enough.
In his new book, “Analog Church", Jay Kim writes about the impact of the digital age on the church. He begins with the story of Jake, an EDM artist in his 20's. Jake had attended church as a teenager, left the church, and then visited a church that met in a concert venue, used all the best audio-visual technology, and looked relevant to popular culture. He left, disappointed. Jake wasn’t looking for relevance; he was looking for something more, something timeless, something he couldn’t find anywhere else. Jake was looking for transcendence. While he is not alone in his search for something more, the church has unwittingly settled for relevance, embracing three of technology’s values: speed, choice, and individualism. These values have a negative side; they have made us impatient, shallow, and isolated. And so, Kim invites readers to be the church differently — to gather together, to slow down, and to commune — as this is discipleship, a radical reordering of our lives around the one who has called us to follow him.
Kim divides his book into three sections: worship, community, and Scripture. He describes the goal of worship as not to entertain, but to engage, and the goal of preaching as not to invite listeners, but to call witnesses. Digital is useful for information, but analog is essential for transformation. Though information is necessary and technology is useful for finding and disseminating information, knowledge must ultimately lead to transformation.
This leads into Kim’s next idea that the church is a community based on members’ commitment to each other. The church, like a family, is a collection of individuals who might have nothing in common. And yet, the commitment isn’t based on preferences, but a shared life. While technology allows for communication, analog invites people to be present with one other, to share experiences and meals. It requires people to forgive and accept each other. Presence is transformative.
Kim’s third focus is on the Bible. He asserts that Scripture should be read and studied in its entirety, rather simply searching it for the answers to our questions. Scripture requires its readers to slow down. Kim also challenges readers to ask broader questions of the book — what is it about and why does it matter? The purpose of Scripture is not to inform, but to change the reader. He offers Communion as an example of this purpose; it requires participants to gather together to receive the body and the blood of Christ together. In this simple meal, people are united and transformed.
While I appreciate the simplicity and relevance of Kim’s argument, there are gaps. One situation Kim mentions but doesn’t delve into is churches that are formed by the preferences of their communities. Preferences may revolve around ethnicity, language, worship styles, theological leanings, or even whether a church has padded chairs or wooden pews. So while according to Kim, a church is a community based on people’s commitment to each other, individual preference still has a huge impact on which community people choose to commit to and how long they will remain with that community.
Kim’s book also doesn’t address the realities of people who need digital interaction to engage in a community. Some people are unable to attend church in person because of chronic illnesses or disabilities. Some people are temporarily homebound due to a surgery or illness. Some people need to work on Sundays and cannot attend services. There are many other impairments or barriers which make it difficult or impossible for individuals to engage in person. Can churches connect with these people digitally and still offer a transformative, embodied experience? Churches must consider who is being overlooked or left out of their typical church services and theologies of community.
The irony of this book being published in the midst of a global pandemic and physical distancing is not lost on me. It’s also not lost on Kim, who was kind enough to talk with me about his book and how it relates to our current circumstances. He shared that while shutting down church services was the wise and responsible thing to do, he grieves the loss of embodied presence. Yet, he doesn’t believe this is the new normal. Instead, he has hope for the future of the church. This crisis may help us realize that “this thing we were forced to lose means so much more than we thought.”
Can we find transcendence in our digital communities? In Kim’s opinion, not completely. “We can offer glimpses of transcendence or point to transcendence digitally, but transcendence requires embodied presence. This is a strange time and it feels not fully human. But despite the strangeness of this current reality, we can appreciate all the new tools we have access to online and be thankful for a medium that allows us to not completely lose touch with each other.” Kim’s church has made the commitment to avoid pre-recorded content as their attempt to keep things as similar as possible to their regular church services. At least one staff person is available on live chat during every gathering. Although they are sharing a screen in digital space, they’re present in real time.
Finally, I asked Kim what he would want to say to our churches as we’re wrestling with the challenges of this present time. He told me that “while we leverage digital technologies, we want to use this time well to both form and inform our people. We need to communicate clearly to our congregations that digital is a temporary compromise, not an ongoing convenience. And we must do our absolute best to use these digital technologies, not only to inform and present and perform, but to find creative ways to invite participation.”
Not all churches will be able to respond to Kim’s invitation the same way. And that’s how it should be. His call for creative ways to invite others to participate will be enacted in different ways. My church has decided not to live stream services, in an attempt to include as many people as possible in the service, while still encouraging congregants to practice physical distancing. Our senior pastor does a live video with announcements and prayer (as people type in their requests), immediately preceding each service. We’re also planning a big post-Easter celebration for whenever we are able to be present with each other in person.
In the meantime, the church faces the challenge of continuing to be the church in the midst of our new, physically- and socially-distanced reality. How will the church adapt and survive this? And what will we have to return to once this crisis is over? I don’t think any of us can answer that. This whole situation is unsettling and horrifying. Right now, we’re learning that it’s okay to grieve. It’s okay to hate this thing that has descended on our world that we have no control over. It’s okay to be angry at this situation many of us never imagined would be reality – that to be safe and keep others safe, we must stay away from our own families. This is not right. It feels less than human somehow.
When the end of the pandemic arrives, I expect that we will want to show up and celebrate once again having the freedom to come together for worship. But I think we will also have a better understanding of those who don’t share the privilege of being able to gather together each week. And if virtual church can offer glimpses of transcendence and embodied presence, maybe it will allow us to appreciate that this world is also a mere shadow of the world to come when we will fully live with our embodied selves in community with one another and our Savior forever.