Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson
Blog, Church, Life Issues

Becoming Lost in a Virtual World

I’m still thinking about the young woman I met in Beirut last Fall. She was taking my class in pastoral theology, and she mentioned in passing that she and her husband drive eight hours each way to church every Saturday. She is from Saudi Arabia. It may be that they lack the technology to provide podcasts of the pastor’s sermons, but I think it is deeper. For her and her family, community is everything. 

It’s different for most of us in our culture. Given the choices, why drive more than twenty minutes to church. Got other things to get to. In fact, more and more may be asking—why drive at all? We can experience virtual church in our own living room. Technology is allowing us to hear a sermon and even experience communion together while still in our pajamas. 

It brings to mind Michael Frost’s book, Incarnate. He begins with this quote from Jim Carrey:

“In the near future, we’ll only be able to communicate through devices. Actual human contact will be outlawed by the Apple ICourt.”

Frost sees a world increasingly “excarnate,” one in which we are being convinced to embrace a disembodied presence. We see it (if we’re looking up) in airports, lobbies, restaurants–even classrooms. Most people are focused on their mobile devices, gradually disengaging from our world. You know you have shifted to excarnational relationships when, as Frost puts it, “your most stimulating interactions with others are the brief comments you make or receive on social media.” “You look in Alaska” 🙂 

Next month, Jay Kim’s new book, Analog Church, comes out. He too is calling us back to an incarnational—in the flesh—way of living. Jesus came to us in the flesh, and so must we. Otherwise, we will begin to lose our aptitude for nuance, generosity, and engagement. We will no longer be able to read faces, interpret tones, or sense feelings. It’s not a call to be a Luddite (one opposed to any kind of technological advancement). After all, there are many positives in the digital age—speed, choices, and individualism. But, as Kim warns, these positives can lead to real negatives–impatience, shallowness, and isolation. 

This is the concern I have with a digital church. While it can connect people who cannot get out—those who are shut-in due to age or health—it can also lead to further disconnection for those who can get in. It is time to reconsider how engaged we really are with people. Are we stepping into real time and space with real people to discern the real issues we all are facing? I am believing more and more people are hungering for this, but will they find it in the church? Or will the church, seeking to be relevant, go the way of our virtual world? 

I found community yesterday in a surgical center. I went in for eye surgery and was greeted with a smile. Each person was professional, courteous, and extremely kind. Face to face was valued. Almost every person in this surgical office has been there for years. Hardly any turnover. They are on a mission to help people see again. I had multiple conversations. They took a genuine interest. “What is it like to teach theology?” “Tell me about some of your travels.” “Are you comfortable?” “Can we get you anything?” They were as excited as I was about a successful surgery. The surgeon did her work with precision. In post-op, there was a sort of communion with another team (juice and a granola bar). They even followed up with a call today to make sure I can see. And I can! Nothing virtual with this team! 

The church is about helping people move beyond the blur and blindness of sin to find a better sight. Connect people flesh to flesh. Exude an ethos of health—kindness, excitement, concern. We could do it so much better than a surgical center. We must.



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