Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Do We Really Need Church?

For a brief moment, everything changed. A crisis of immense proportion threatened to undo our nation. I still remember the morning. We woke up to an international homicide, suddenly feeling traumatized and violated. The skyline was altered, and we felt our lives were changed forever. Planes were exploding, buildings were collapsing, lives were falling to their deaths, and ominous rumors were circulating everywhere. It was September 11, 2001, and it felt like a reckoning of sorts. Some of you remember. One month from today, it will be twenty years.

Those of us leading churches immediately asked—how should we respond? I remember the text God led me to that following Sunday–Ecclesiastes 7:1-4. There is something redemptive about sorrow. It forces us to confront reality. In grief we see our fragility; our transient nature becomes obvious. They converge to bring us back to God—and to each other. We’re not meant to work through difficult times alone.

Today we live through another crisis, but this one is different. Pandemics transcend geopolitics and global hatreds. In almost every case, jobs and health and well-being have been affected. Loss of lives is an ongoing narrative. Instead of flags and community, the response has been political turmoil, family trauma, and isolation. Rather than setting out extra chairs for services, sanctuaries have in most cases emptied out.

Some congregants are gradually coming back, but statistics tell us it is fewer than half. As one put it, “The sense of deep-rooted connectedness that most Americans have to a local church is becoming more and more transactional, less and less frequent.” Live church has been replaced with livestream, and unlike the aftermath of 9/11, some things may never come back to where they once were.

In a Guest Opinion in Monday’s New York Times, entitled “What We Lose When We Livestream Church,” Collin Hansen notes that the pandemic hasn’t temporarily sidetracked churches; it has introduced a revolution in religion. We may not be returning to community but adjusting to the convenience of church where one can tune in at any time. Skip whenever we want. As Hansen puts it, “No one will notice the blip in the analytics.” But this is not true. Deep down, we will notice the analytics. Something is not right.

It’s not that livestream is all bad. In a number of cases, newer technologies have made it possible to reach people who would otherwise remain unreached. Virtual church has reached a larger audience, but that’s the point. It is an audience. Services have been digitalized to meet the consumer’s needs. And this compromises the church’s very identity—to be an incarnational community that comes to worship the God who chose to come in the flesh, enter our neighborhoods, embrace our lives—and commands us to do the same.

What we assume to be the benefits of live streaming may be what Hansen refers to as a mirage, one that “distracts from devastating membership and attendance declines that have not yet reversed from March 2020.” We are drifting towards what Michael Frost (Incarnation) refers to as “excarnation,” a de-fleshing of our faith. Tragically, more convenience and more isolation are not leading to more deeply committed and connected Christians. It’s just the opposite.

For me, writing this requires some baring of my own soul. I have a confession. For much of this past year, I have escaped to this glorious wilderness where we have a cabin. After nearly forty years in a pastoral role, I am recovering lost Sabbaths. Occasionally I catch a podcast of a sermon back home, but often I approach the day exploring nature, reading, writing, and resting. I have also been immersed in writing a book, which demands a significant amount of seclusion. Once or twice a week, I engage in a zoom call, but otherwise, it has been a life of blissful solitude.  Sort of. Something has not been right, and I cannot escape it. I am disconnected from the body of Christ, and the body of Christ is disconnected from me.

It all came to a head a few months ago. I suddenly realized one night I have experienced little sense of “sentness.” Alongside one’s sense that God is saying—”this is what I made you for,” there has to be the experience that this is also what the church has sent one to do because it fits within the community’s larger purpose. This is what reinforces a calling and underscores the importance of the church.

What if—for example—the community we belong to occasionally exhorted us to not slough off or become distracted? What if my community spoke into my life, saying: “We recognize this is your present purpose, and we have some skin in the game? We are counting on you to be a faithful presence, write a compelling book on leadership that will address the current ineptness. Leadership matters and thinking it through theologically calls for precision. God knows there are enough run-of-the-mill books. We are praying for you. We are expecting that your insights will enable us to be better leaders here as well, so don’t settle for patchiness. Don’t let us down!”

I am guessing many of you experience this void and would find this kind of engagement powerful. So what has to happen? The church has to come back together with a deeper commitment to carry out the biblical one-anothers (e.g. love, encourage, provoke, bear with, forgive, submit). These mutual demands serve as the mainframe, forging the kind of life-giving community we all hunger for. They countermand the excarnate trends. If we will do this, all of the live streaming in the world will seem a cheap and unfulfilling alternative.

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