Category Archives: The Church
I was recently listening to a song by M83, and I was struck by what an interesting allegory this could be for the church: a people transformed by the power of the gospel such that they see the world in completely new ways and are drawn together into a new community that will someday fill the earth with joy and laughter forever.
I’m pretty sure it’s actually about drugs.
But that’s okay. I’m a frog now. So I see things differently.
Raconte-Moi Une Histoire
it’s a very tiny frog
but it’s also very special
you can only find it in the jungle
so far away from me
but if you find it and if you touch it
your world can change forever
if you touch its skin
you can feel your body changing
and your vision also
and blue becomes red and red becomes blue
and your mommy suddenly becomes your daddy
and everything looks like a giant cupcake
and you keep laughing and laughing and laughing
nothing is ever quite the same really
and after you finish laughing
it’s time to turn into a frog yourself
it’s very funny to be a frog
you can dive into the water
and cross the rivers and the oceans
and you can jump all the time and everywhere
do you want to play with me?
we can be a whole group of friends
a whole group of frogs
jumping into the streets
jumping into the planet
climbing up the buildings
swimming in the lakes and in the bathtubs
we would be hundreds, thousands, millions
the biggest group of friends the world has ever seen
jumping and laughing forever
it would be great, right?
Is there something distinct about physical people gathering in a physical location to worship and serve as Christians? Or, with the advent of modern technology, is there a sense in which the people of God can still gather, even if they are physically distant from one another? In other words, can a church meet online?
This is the question that Robert Herrington addressed in his ETS paper “Online Churches and Christian Community: Does Christian Fellowship Require Embodied Presence?” And it’s a question that many people are wrestling with today.
But I’m not convinced that the answers we’re offering do justice to the questions involved. And I’m afraid that if we don’t do a better job answering the question, people attracted to online communities will (justifiably) ignore our answers. So I’d like to summarize Herrington’s argument and then identify 5 things I think are commonly missing in these discussions.
1. How did we get here?
After a few comments on the widespread use of the internet for religious purposes, Herrington points out that most of those who use the internet for religious purposes use it as a supplement to some more traditional form of Christian worship. But a real shift is beginning to take place with younger Christians, who are more likely to see the internet as a viable form of community not just a means of communication. It thus becomes a viable replacement of, rather than a mere supplement to, traditional churches.
2. Types of Online churches
Herrington reported that there are 580 or so churches that are run entirely online. But he pointed out that most churches today maintain some form of online presence, even while retaining a significant physical presence as well. So he broke churches down into three rough categories:
- Traditional churches that have some minimal online presence (e.g. a church website or Facebook account).
- Traditional churches that have online extensions (e.g. a church with both a physical campus and an online campus).
- Churches that are entirely online with no physical campus.
In this section, Herrington also offered a brief summary of key arguments used by those in favor of fully online churches.
- Missional Effectiveness. Online churches are an effective way of reaching a large population with the Gospel. Indeed, many proponents point out that the internet is possibly the largest mission field in the world today. So wouldn’t it just make sense to plant churches in this key mission field?
- Community Restoration. Proponents often point out that traditional churches are far from perfect. Rather than being bastions of intimacy and community, traditional churches often allow people to hide behind shallow masks of perfection. Online communities, on the other hand, provide a safe environment for many people to share their struggles, develop greater intimacy, and form better expressions of Christian community.
- Union with Christ. If all believers are united with Christ in the Spirit so that we form one, universal body, does it really matter that we’re not physically present with one another when we worship?
- Media Neutrality. Many proponents of online churches presuppose that media are essentially neutral. We all use various media in ministry; online media are just different. They’re all tools for accomplishing the same purpose.
3. Media ecology
Herrington spends some time critiquing that last point. Drawing on Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman, he points out that media are not mere conduits that transmit content unchanged. Instead, the media we use to communicate a message necessarily affect and shape the message itself. We need to think of media in more ecological terms. Everything in an environment affects everything else. Change on thing, and you affect the whole ecology. And he thinks that online churches have not given sufficient consideration to this fact and the ways in which online technologies might be reshaping the church and its message.
4. Does Community Require Embodied Presence.
In this final section Herrington argues that online churches fail because they cannot adequately address 7 things necessary to true biblical fellowship (koinonia).
1. Sharing. The early church placed a high value on meeting “material” needs through sharing. But Herrington thinks that online churches will necessarily struggle here. This is partly because the people involved in these churches are physically distant from one another, making it more difficult even to identify material needs, let alone meet them. But he also thinks the internet has a “bias” toward nonmaterial realities (all media are biased in certain ways). So an online church is predisposed from the beginning in ways that will make it difficult to address material concerns.
2. Gathering. The biblical authors all argue that the church needs to gather on a regular basis. And Herrington argues that online churches not only downplay the value of gathering, but they actually contribute to the growing isolation of the modern person. He reports that for every hour that someone spends online, their face-to-face interaction with other people decreases by thirty minutes. So online churches, along with other forms of social media, actually create isolation rather than community.
3. Sacraments. No surprise that one of his key concerns is with communion and baptism. Although he recognizes that online churches have tried to find ways of including the sacraments in their worship (e.g. avatars taking communion together, physical baptisms streamed on the internet, etc.), there’s no question that online churches face a significant challenge here.
4. NT metaphors. According to Herrington, several NT metaphors for the church suggest that online churches are inadequate. The body and family metaphors suggest more organic, embodied relationships that cannot be sustained by online interactions alone. And he thinks that online churches downplay the gifts of the Spirit in that he doesn’t think the whole spectrum of gifts can be adequately expressed in online churches.
5. One anothers. This one seems similar to the first, but Herrington points out here the many “one another” commandments in the NT. And he doesn’t think that online churches are up to the task of living out these one anothers.
Yes, I know that’s only five things. But apparently I missed the last two. Maybe someone will chime in and let me know what I’ve left out.
5. Conclusion and Critique
This was an interesting paper on an important topic. And I must say that I have my own strong reservations about church that meet entirely online. But, like many of the arguments against online churches that I’ve run into, this one left me dissatisfied in several ways.
1. Engage technology more seriously. Even if you contend that current technology isn’t up to the task of sustaining biblical forms of Christian community, you still need to address the question of whether this is actually a theological problem or merely a technological limitation. What if technology reached the point where we could “meet” in the form of fully interactive 3D holographic images or physical avatars? I realize that sounds like science fiction, but it can be a useful thought-experiment for considering if the real problem is theology or technology. For this argument to work, it needs to demonstrate that the former is the real issue by engaging the latter more seriously.
2. Recognize the limitations of biblical technology. We really need to stop pointing out that NT churches met physically. Of course they did. What else were they going to do? Yes they could write letters, but no one is going to argue that letter writing can replace physical gatherings. But letter writing is a far cry from modern social media. This isn’t to say that the latter is adequate either, but we need to stop making facile moves from the limitations of NT technology to the inadequacy of modern technology to sustain true community.
3. Define terms more carefully. These discussions are always frustrated by a failure to define terms like “community” and “presence” more clearly. Herrington made moves in this direction by associating “community” with biblical “koinonia,” but this needed to be fleshed out more and extended to other terms as well. It’s hard to determine if online presence is better/worse than physical presence if I don’t really know what we mean by “presence.”
4. Stop letting preferences guide judgments. This is probably impossible, but these discussions always seem overly colored by a person’s personal preferences. For example, Herrington’s point that “gathering” is a problem for online churches seems to be driven by his own preference for physical gatherings. So of course he’ll see an online gathering as inadequate. But that simply presupposes his conclusion (i.e. online gatherings are inadequate) and then uses it as an argument to support the conclusion.
5. Let the arguments cut both ways. How many of these arguments could also be used against many traditional churches? I know that many of the churches I’ve been a part of have struggled with recognizing and meeting material needs, living up to the NT metaphors, expressing the full range of spiritual gifts, and carrying out the “one anothers.” Does this mean that those weren’t real churches either? If not, if those were simply real churches with important weaknesses, why not view online churches in the same way? (I’m not saying this is the right conclusion, only that this question needs to be addressed.)
We need to engage this issue in a more nuanced way and in a way that takes seriously the concerns and ideas of those attracted to online communities. Otherwise, they will simply reject these arguments as inadequate and continue with what they’re doing.
Thanks to Brian LePort for pointing out this fabulous chart on understanding how various Christian denominations see each other. Since it’s close to where I live, my favorites have to be how Evangelicals are seen by the Reformed, and how the Reformed are seen by evangelicals. As with all of them, there’s a lot of painful truth in there.
Audrey was an amazing 30-something woman with a great smile and an exuberant personality. She’d been attending our church for several years and she loved it. Being at church was one of the highlights of her week.
You see, Audrey was a special-needs person. I forget her precise condition, but she was wheelchair bound, could only communicate through a series of grunts, squeals, and hand gestures, and it was often difficult to know how much she really understood about what was happening around her. But, when she was happy, she wanted everyone to know…loudly.
And, Audrey was always happy at church.
Some were pretty vocal about wanting Audrey out of the service. They argued that she was so loud and distracting distracting that it interfered with worship. Who can concentrate with all that noise? And, they were concerned that she would keep visitors from coming back. Who wants to attend a church where you have to put up with that every Sunday?
Only a few voiced their concerns out loud, but my guess is that quite a few nourished the same thoughts quietly.
No one questioned whether she should be part of the church, they just thought that she needed to sit somewhere else. She could come, but she shouldn’t sit with us. Several even proposed that we put her in the nursery since that was the part of the church most suited for noisy attenders.
She could worship, but not with us.
Orderliness vs. Openness
As a parent, I’ve wrestled with a similar question before. Kids are disruptive and distracting. There really isn’t any easy way around it. They’re constantly doing something loud, cute, annoying, or interesting. Whatever it is, it’s distracting. And, when they’re my kids, I worry about how it’s affecting the people around us.
After all, didn’t Paul place a high value on doing things “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40)? If worship is to focus on God, shouldn’t we minimize or even eliminate those things that distract us from that task?
But, the church has always placed a high value as well on openness. Jesus rebuked the disciples when they tried to keep the children from him (Mt. 19:13-15) and Paul sharply criticized the Corinthians for their exclusionary communion practices (1 Cor 11). The Gospel is for everyone, and those who respond to the Gospel are united in Christ with one another through the Spirit.
Orderliness and openness. Both seem pretty important. What do you do when they collide?
The Open Gospel
Like many situations, some examples of orderliness vs. openness seem easier to address. If my 6-month-old has a terrible cold and covers everyone inside a three foot radius with a generous coat of both phlegm and snot, I’m thinking that it’s best to stay home. Likewise, if I find it impossibly distracting that the person singing next to me sounds like a cat caught in the dishwasher (don’t ask me why I know what that sounds like), I should probably get over myself.
But, other situations are much less clear. And, when there’s doubt, I think we should always err on the side of openness. Any other approach sends a message that ultimately undermines the Gospel. When we tell people that they can’t worship with us, we subtly suggest that they’re not good enough, that there’s a bar they have to clear to be worthy of worshiping with God’s people. And, it’s a short step from there to the conclusion that they’re not worthy of God, that there’s something more they need to do or be to merit a place at the table. And that’s not the Gospel.
I’m sure that’s not the message that we intend to send. We’re just trying to be “sensitive” to the others in the congregation. But, regardless of our intentions, that’s the message that often gets received. And it’s a devastating message.
My pastor consistently refused any suggestion that we should remove Audrey from the worship service. I never asked him why. It may have just been because he thought it would be rude. Or, it may have been because there was no other place for her other than the nursery – and putting a 30-year old woman in the nursery just seemed to be a step too far. I don’t know.
But, it taught me something about the Gospel. We all have a place at the table. We’re not pretty, well-behaved, orderly, or nice. We’d like to think that we are. And, we’ll do anything to look like we are. But we’re not. We’re a mess. And God invites us in anyway. I wonder if he finds us distracting?
I don’t know what Audrey’s doing now. She wasn’t even supposed to have lived to 30. So, maybe she’s passed on. But if she hasn’t, I hope she’s singing somewhere.
I’ve never really met anyone that enjoys criticism, especially when it is of the unspiritual and unkind type. I realized early on in ministry that to preach the gospel faithfully you have to have thick skin, unwavering convictions to biblical truth, and a kind and humble heart. I’ll never forget the first phone call I received from an angry parent. I felt defensive, attacked, and discouraged. Luckily it all worked out and I learned a great deal about working with people. Now, imagine you’re Martin Luther. It’s not an angry parent that is calling but the head of the Church, and he’s essentially calling you and your teaching heretical. This does not just mean the possible end of your ministry, but perhaps your life as well. In Luther’s day you did not cross the church. Fortunately for the Church, Luther had the conviction to honor God above men and posted his 95 Theses to the door of his church in Wittenberg. Thus on June 15, 1520 Pope Leo X issued his papal bull demanding that Luther retract a major portion of his teaching, writing, and section of his 95 Theses. (If you’ve never read it, it’s a fascinating read.) He cited 41 errors in Luther’s teaching, which included such things as that purgatory was not in the Bible, that indulgences were not necessary to obtain grace, and that the baptism of infants did not cleanse them from sin. Pope Leo went on to write
“Therefore we can, without any further citation or delay, proceed against him to his condemnation and damnation as one whose faith is notoriously suspect and in fact a true heretic with the full severity of each and all of the above penalties and censures. Yet, with the advice of our brothers, imitating the mercy of almighty God who does not wish the death of a sinner but rather that he be converted and live, and forgetting all the injuries inflicted on us and the Apostolic See, we have decided to use all the compassion we are capable of. It is our hope, so far as in us lies, that he will experience a change of heart by taking the road of mildness we have proposed, return, and turn away from his errors. We will receive him kindly as the prodigal son returning to the embrace of the Church.
Therefore let Martin himself and all those adhering to him, and those who shelter and support him, through the merciful heart of our God and the sprinkling of the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ by which and through whom the redemption of the human race and the upbuilding of holy mother Church was accomplished, know that from our heart we exhort and beseech that he cease to disturb the peace, unity, and truth of the Church for which the Savior prayed so earnestly to the Father. Let him abstain from his pernicious errors that he may come back to us. If they really will obey, and certify to us by legal documents that they have obeyed, they will find in us the affection of a father’s love, the opening of the font of the effects of paternal charity, and opening of the font of mercy and clemency.”
So what did Martin Luther do? He had a book burning party in which he burned the Papal Bull in front of his students at Wittenberg. He is reported as saying “Because you have confounded the truth of God, today the Lord confounds you. Into the fire with you!” So on January 3, 1521, Pope Leo excommunicated Luther issuing another bull, the Decet Romanum Pontificem. Needless to say, the Reformation was fully underway.
We wanted to leave. We really did. Frustrated, disillusioned, and disappointed, we were ready to go. We were done.
But, it wasn’t that easy. We’d been a part of this community for years. We’d worshipped, served, love, and sacrificed alongside every one of these people for so long. We’d made commitments.
It felt like a divorce.
How do you just walk away from your church?
A while back, I asked “What would make you leave your church?” That’s exactly the question that my wife and I were wrestling with several years back. And, after much soul searching, we decided to stay. I’d like to explain why. But before I do, I need to say something of why we wanted to go. It was more complicated than this, but these were the most pressing issues.
- Stagnation. The church excelled at fellowship. It was one big family. We loved each other and enjoyed spending time together. But, we did little outside the family. We’d spend a lot of time talking about how to impact the community, spread the Gospel, reach the lost, etc. But it never really happened. We’d do it for a season, and then slip back onto the cozy shelter of our potlucks, small groups, and Sunday school classes. Sure, we supported lots of missionaries, and the children’s and youth ministries often reached new people with the Gospel, but the church itself seemed to be treading water. And even though nothing much happens when you’re treading water, it gets pretty exhausting after a while.
- The Pastor. Bringing on a new lead pastor is always an interesting experience. You have to adjust to a new personality, leadership style, preaching style, theological perspective, and philosophy of ministry. It’s not surprising that so many pastoral transition go badly. This was no different. The church had hired a new lead pastor, and my wife and I were having a difficult time with the transition. It just wasn’t good for us, in almost every conceivable way. Although I’d long argued that a church was more than its lead pastor and that you shouldn’t leave a church just because you didn’t like the pastor, we were now experiencing first-hand what it’s like when your pastor really isn’t a good fit for you. We were still involved in productive ministry, but neither of us could see how this could continue long term.
- Lack of Leadership. This one was and is the hardest to pin down. I can’t point at any one thing that caused us to be concerned about the overall leadership of the church. It was more a series of little things that together that suggested a lack of decisive leadership on the church’s elder board.
- Support for Women. I won’t go into this one too much because I know how sensitive this area is, and I don’t want this to become a post on the role of women in the church. But, I have a gifted wife and amazingly talented daughters (though my youngest had not yet arrived on the scene). So, I’ve long been sensitive to how a church speaks to/about women and the extent to which it involves and supports women in significant ministry roles. (This is true regardless of whether the church is egalitarian or complementarian). And, I had some real questions about whether this church was a good place for us to be long term.
- Personal Discontent. I don’t know how else to say it. I’m sure this was a combination of all the above, along with myriad of other, smaller issues. Regardless, we were both struggling with a pervasive discontent that left us really wanting to move on. Indeed, we weren’t looking for reasons to leave; we were trying to see if we had any reason to stay.
Looking back on that difficult time, I wish I could say that we had good, principled, theological reasons for staying. I’d like to brag (humbly) about how well we handled the situation, and share our wisdom and insight with you. But, I can’t.
Here are some of the reasons that I’d like to say caused us to stay at the church.
- We understood that the Church is built on grace. If we are going to be Gospel-shaped communities, we need to exemplify grace throughout the Church. So, I wish I could say that we could stay because we wanted to model grace by continuing to work as broken people alongside other broken people to exemplify the Gospel in a broken world.
- We understood that the church is not about us. Recognizing that the church exists primarily to glorify God and make his glory known in the world, I wish I could say that we stayed because we placed God’s glory and his mission above our own dissatisfaction.
- We were committed to relationships. Seeing the Church more as a family than a social club, I wish I could say that we decided to stay because we valued those relationships so highly.
- We knew that the church was more than the pastor. As I mentioned earlier, I have long maintained that people make a sad mistake when the equate the church with its lead pastor. It’s so much more than that. And, I wish I could say this is one of the reasons that we stayed.
- We knew that the grass is not always greener. In my experience, leaving a church because you’re dissatisfied rarely works for long. Every church is broken. How could they not be when they’re filled with broken people? Every church fails in some way. This may sound overly pessimistic, but my guess is that if you’re totally satisfied with your church, it probably means (a) you don’t know enough about it yet or (b) its weaknesses and blind spots match yours well enough that you just don’t see them anymore. So, I wish I could say that we stayed because we realized that leaving out of discontent was not a good solution.
In other words, I wish I could say that we stayed because we caught a vision for the Church’s true purpose and how this particular church could still live out that purpose despite its frustrating weaknesses.
I wish I could say that. But I can’t.
We stayed because we were leaving eventually anyway.
We’d already made plans that would require us to move within a couple of years. With the end so clearly in sight, we stayed. We figured that we could gut it out for two years, and then walk away without causing the kind of pain and disruption that would have resulted from just walking away.
Was that the right decision to make? We spared the community some pain, and we were probably more involved in significant ministry for those two years than we would have been as new people at a different church. But, it was a very frustrating two years, especially for my wife. And, in hindsight I fear that we enabled the church to continue some bad patterns because we didn’t force the issue. Maybe staying was the right decision, though our reasons for wanting to move on still seem pretty compelling to me. But, staying because we were leaving anyway was a cop out. In the end, we took the path of least resistance. And, that’s never a good enough reason for staying.
The church deserved better.
I have to admit that I’m getting a bit tired of all the “evangelicalism” bashing that’s going on these days. Evangelicalism, however you define that term, is far from perfect and absolutely needs to be critiqued, challenged, and corrected on a regular basis. But, it doesn’t need any more unfair characterizations and unhelpful stereotyping. It already gets enough of that.
But, Kurt Willems posted a piece yesterday called “You Might Be an Evangelical Reject If….” And, he went on to offer a lengthy list of things that might describe you if you’ve experienced the kind of rejection and marginalization that he apparently thinks is characteristic of mainstream evangelicalism. However, as I read through the list, I noticed two major problems.
First, almost everything on the list describes me! Here are just a few examples:
- You’re uncomfortable calling other branches of Christianity “apostate.”
- You read theologians from all across the spectrum.
- You think that science and scripture both reveal God’s truth in complementary ways.
- You think that what we believe about the so called “end times” actually matters for how we do missiontoday.
- You endorse someone that has been deemed a heretic by apprising.org
- You think that postmodern philosophy helps theology more than it hurts it.
I could go on, but you can read the rest of the list yourself. The list only has a couple of items that definitely wouldn’t describe me, though there are several that I’d word differently. So, according to Willems, I have really good reason to think that I’m an evangelical reject! Of course, that’s a bit of a problem given that I’m a professor of theology and academic dean at a major evangelical seminary, I’m a card-carrying member of the Evangelical Theological Society (well, not really since we don’t get cards), and I serve without problem at an evangelical (Baptist) church. So, it doesn’t really sound like I’ve been rejected by evangelicalism at all.
The reason I identify with so many of the things on his list is because he’s taken many of the features that have made evangelicalism so great throughout the years (e.g. theological creativity, interdenominational cooperation and dialog, social action, emphasis on mission, etc.) and he’s turned them into things that mark you out as an evangelical reject. But these aren’t what exclude you from being an evangelical. Historically speaking, many of them are the very things that make you an evangelical! (See also Don’t Give up on “Evangelical” Too Quickly.)
Second, the rhetoric of the list subtly paints evangelicalism in rather unfair terms. To see this, let’s read between the lines and reword a few items from the list a bit:
You might be an evangelical if…
- You only read theologians with whom you agree.
- You are never uncomfortable with theological “hot button” issues and/or you are unable to live with cognitive dissonance.
- You think eschatology is irrelevant for mission today.
- You use the word inerrancy because you like rigid definitions and modern categorical impositions.
- You think women should be silent in the church.
- You never drink alcohol.
- You believe that the rapture means we don’t have to take care of the planet.
- You would never even consider voting democratic.
- You would never hang out with gay people.
That’s the flipside of Willem’s list. But, is that evangelicalism? No. That’s a caricature of one small slice of the evangelical pie. To take any movement, offer a negative caricature of it’s worst stereotypes, and use it to critique the entire movement is simply unfair.
So, it really seems that the target of Willem’s piece is particular branch of evangelicalism (probably the neo-Calvinists that he references in his second point), and he hasn’t even been entirely fair to that one small slice. There probably are legitimate criticisms to be leveled in that direction. But, let’s not paint with such a broad brush. The rest of us don’t like getting paint in our hair.
Is it time to go? If you need to make a dinner appointment, that’s not a difficult question to answer. But, if you’re thinking about leaving a church, that’s something else entirely. How do you know when it’s time to leave a church?
Some time back, my wife and I struggled with this very question. We’d been members of our church for a while, but several factors had us thinking about leaving. Before then, we’d never wrestled with the criteria one would/should use when thinking about leaving a church? We didn’t want to just walk away for superficial reasons, but what exactly qualifies as a “good” reason for leaving a church?
Before I come back to this story and talk about the reasons that we considered and what we finally decided to do, I’d like to hear from you. What would make you leave your church? Or, if you’ve left a church before, why did you do it and do you still think those were good reasons? Of, if you prefer to think in abstract terms, what do you think are sufficient reasons for leaving a church? Answering any one of those three questions will help us wrestle with: When is it time to go?
In this short video Alan Hirsch questions the “risk averse” nature of middle-class, American Christianity, arguing that it “attenuates” the Gospel because the Gospel calls into question our desire for safety and stability. A risk-averse Christianity turns the Gospel into a “civil religion that really just affirms my lifestyle.”
HT Brian Lilly