Musings

A web log by Ben Makuh

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Analog Church [a review]

As a result of COVID-19, I have been thinking quite a bit about what, if anything, we lose as a church by not meeting in person. Our church livestreams a service on Sunday mornings that is highly polished, and thanks to Zoom our small groups continue to meet weekly as well, and there’s something about a screen that allows people to speak even more freely than they might in person. We have used Slack to improve communication between church staff and small group leaders, turning one-way email blasts into two-way conversations. We have raised and given away tens of thousands of dollars, meeting the needs of non-profit organizations, families, and individuals across Denver, all without meeting in person even once. The neighbors around the church haven’t had to complain about traffic congestion on Sundays even once in the last 10 weeks because nobody is driving anywhere.

On the other hand, when I sing during the service, I don’t hear the swell of voices behind and around me. When I read the confession, I don’t hear a whole community of voices confessing with me. When the pastor presents communion, people all over the city are not coming together to remember the body and the blood, but are eating and drinking alone in their own homes, in an ironic reversal of 1 Corinthians 11. When the service is over and I close my laptop lid, the music abruptly cuts off. There is no hum of happy conversation, there is nobody to catch up with, nobody to give a friendly handshake or hug. There is no unforeseen, whimsical, fortuitous conversations that take me by surprise and transport me into someone else’s worries and wonders. I send a wave emoji through the chat and then go cook yet another box of mac and cheese for my children before putting them down for naps. Technology is definitely a blessing in this cultural moment, but it is no panacea.

Going Analog

So what should we say? Fast forward a few years when we’re (hopefully) past this Coronavirus. In the context of normal life, how should the church appropriate technology for its aims? May we adapt to a technological future for the church? Should we? These are the questions pastor and author Jay Kim seeks to answer in his new book, Analog Church: Why We Need Real People, Places, and Things in the Digital Age. Drawing upon history, theology, and biblical studies, Kim makes the argument that while digital technology certainly does offer intriguing possibilities for the life of the church, we have been too uncritical in our adoption of these technologies into our churches. He wants the church to think not only of the possibilities, but also the drawbacks technology has upon our personal and communal formation. In short, he wants the church to return to its "analog" roots rather than simply assuming we can make the jump to digital without losing our integrity.

It’s worth noting that digital technology is hardly the first kind of technology that the church has ever had to wrestle with, and Kim examines ways in which things like church buildings, printed Bibles and hymnals, and more have shaped the life and practice of Christians through the centuries. While we tend to think of something like the printing press as an unequivocal win for the church, the reality is much more complicated. Printing songs of worship in a hymnal allows the church to sing a greater variety of songs, but it also turns our heads down toward a book rather than up to see the people singing around us. Then the overhead projector solves that problem, but opens up its own set of issues. Kim’s point is that no technology is wholly good: as pastors and elders shepherd their churches into new developments and unforeseen technological revolutions, they need to do so reflectively, thoughtfully, and with due care.

Another challenge people are wrestling through in this time of Coronavirus is that if we’re all just sitting at home watching sermons online anyway, what’s the difference between me tuning into my own church’s livestream and that of a more famous preacher? If I’m going to watch a video of a sermon, why not just watch the best preachers with the best streaming equipment? Of course, this question has been around a lot longer than Coronavirus, having gained prevalence years ago when people started putting videos and podcasts of their sermons up online free of charge. Now, however, nobody is going to know whether I "tuned in" to my church or not, so why does it even matter? Surely I won’t be missed, right?

Kim argues that this is one of the primary downsides of digital technology, because the church is more than communication, more than content: it is also communion. We gather together with the community of Christ precisely because each person does matter and should be missed. Discipleship is not merely a matter of knowing the right things or even of doing the right things, but of learning and doing and growing together with the church. We are not individually the body of Christ; we compose the body of Christ together. When a pastor preaches a sermon, it should not be the same regardless of who is in the audience; a sermon is a contextual thing that changes depending upon who it is preached to and what those particular people need to hear from the Lord. So yes, it does matter which livestream you tune into during this pandemic, and yes it also matters that your pastor makes an effort to know the people of the congregation. Pastors may need to lean heavily upon digital communication platforms to gain that knowledge, but it is necessary work in any season.

Kim also urges Christians to consider how digital technology shapes us on a habitual and practical level. There is an inescapable slowness to spiritual growth, just as good food takes time to cook. Yet digital technology trains our expectations and habits in the opposite direction, training our brains, thumbs, and hearts to expect speed and easy consumption. The amount of time it takes you to "get" a tweet or a ‘gram is generally no longer than the amount of time it takes to read it or look at it. That is to say, digital media does not require reflection, and in fact it actively pushes against it.

He also draws the fascinating correlation between the psychology of a slot machine and that of apps where you constantly pull to refresh or scroll forever looking for an interesting little thing. The goal of the pseudo-random slot machine is to keep you going indefinitely, giving you just enough hope that you’ll win big without ever actually following through on that promise. We have all seen interesting things on our timelines, but have we ever really "won big"? Does the value that the timeline provides justify the time investment of filling every empty moment with a flick flick of the thumb? To put it even more bluntly, it is doubtful that any of us would retire to the nearest casino to find rest for our souls or seek communion with God. Is it all that different to pull that environment into our homes and churches through our phones?

Concerns

There is a lot to commend about Analog Church, but it is not without its concerns. Though this is a blanket statement, the book as a whole seems to lean more heavily upon fears about technology and guilt about our improper uses of it than any sort of robust theological reflection on embodiment. To be fair, Kim does talk about how the incarnation implies the goodness of in-person churchly endeavors. He does do word studies on the New Testament’s use of sarx and the implications of our fleshly bodies. But I couldn’t help shake the feeling that even as sympathetic as I am toward his argument, I wasn’t all that convinced.

At one point, Kim suggests that the "one another" commands of the NT are "difficult at best, and impossible at worst, to do online." For a quick refresher, the New Testament commands us to

Serve one another. Bear with one another in love. Speak and sing the words of God together. Make music together. Teach and challenge one another. Keep one another accountable. Spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Do not give up meeting together. Be hospitable to one another. Experience fellowship together. Confess to one another. Pray for one another. Eat and drink together.

But which of these are actually impossible to do online? I agree that some of them are awkward when mediated digitally, but the truth is that we have done these things during this pandemic, and we have done them over digital media. We have "had dinner" with folks by setting up a laptop with Zoom at the end of the dinner table. We have had worship nights over Zoom. We have faithfully texted one another encouragement and challenge. We have talked about hard topics and read entire books over Zoom. We pray and confess and even just hang out. I don’t debate that all these things are very different than they would be in person, but Kim goes on to argue that since these things are "difficult" or "impossible" to do online, that therefore "These practices of the church… require physical presence," which is just flatly not true. Kim’s argument would have been strengthened by acknowledging where technological media of communication are sufficient or even uniquely valuable in these "one another" commands even while arguing that in-person communion is irreplaceable.

I also deeply appreciate Kim’s critique of consumeristic mindsets when we approach the church. He does a good job of articulating why the church is starkly different than our curated online "communities" of people who are exactly like us. Nevertheless, he himself leans upon consumerism when encouraging pastors to reconsider his analog vision of the church:

Younger generations, having grown up in an over-digitized world, feel this on an intrinsic level and are seeking out experiences they can see, hear, feel, and touch. They realize that ordering a book online and walking through a bookstore are two palpably different things. They’re longing for analog. And this offers the church a never-before-seen missional opportunity, to provide these sorts of transcendent spaces that are so few and far between in the digital age.

And also:

We’re beginning to see this turn toward analog worship surfacing in surprising places. New Life Church in Colorado, an evangelical, multisite megachurch of more than ten thousand people, concludes their Sunday gatherings at their large downtown campus by singing the Doxology in acapella every week. Other large, influential churches like Willow Creek in Illinois, Mars Hill in Michigan, and the Village Church in Texas are incorporating more participatory liturgy into the regular rhythms of their weekend gatherings. These communities, sometimes categorized from the outside as "seeker-sensitive" or "attractional" churches, are recognizing the need for a more participatory and engaging worship environment, and are making necessary changes.

I’m not here to dispute whether "younger generations" as a bloc are wanting more tactile worship experiences or not. What I take umbrage with is that this is essentially a market argument: the market is demanding more participatory, analog experiences, so therefore let’s provide that. People very well could be hungering for that vision of church, but this fact by itself does not establish that the church must therefore move in that direction. This rhetorical move also works to undermine the overall argument of the book, because that sword cuts both ways: if the even younger next generation tires of formal liturgies, candles, and "analog worship experiences," should we conclude that the church has an obligation to deliver a digitally mediated worship service instead simply because that’s what they say they hunger for?

Conclusion

I am a software engineer and I have seen the digital product development cycle from the inside for many years now in many different contexts. The attention economy is a real thing, and it concerns me deeply. I find many developments in the industry to be concerning at best as regards our humanity and our awareness of our own embodiment. We are more than our avatars and our streams of consciousness piped into our twitter feeds. Though his case could’ve been stronger, I quite appreciate the work Jay Kim is doing in Analog Church and I think it would be beneficial for the average pastor to pick up a copy and think carefully through what he says. He didn’t write this in the context of COVID-19, but as we find ourselves in a digital-only church right now it would be wise of us to consider our practices and the technologies we make use of when we return IRL.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.