Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson
Blog, church

Time to Rethink How We Are Doing Church

Does personal presence really matter? Is physical proximity an issue? Is virtual enough to satisfy your soul? 

Ministries are asking these questions. Who would have imagined a day when worship services are online, viewed from our smartphones? Since the internet campus was introduced fourteen years ago, technology has equipped the church to bring its ministry into our homes. We can listen to a sermon, worship, share in communion, communicate prayer requests, engage in online groups, as well as give through Pushpay. All you need is your iPhone. 

Is this a good thing? It depends. This week I gathered with a number of pastors and worship leaders to hear the story of one church which is all in when it comes to digital. The rationale is simple. Digital is how we communicate. Like it or not, we live in a consumer-driven culture where people have been trained to consume. People are tied to their devices. Just walk into a MacDonald’s. Kids gather—not to connect visually, hear one another’s voices, and read faces. They are on their phones, consuming music, and texting one another. It is what it is. 

Going digital enables the church to reach people it could never otherwise reach. Half the world is on the internet. There are people who may never go to a physical church, but they will watch a video. The digital can join and leverage the ministry of the analog. And the expense is minimal. Little wonder certain megachurches are closing down their multi-sites, where people once attended to watch ministers on a screen. Why not go the way of bookstores and banks, who have shifted from brick and mortar? Why build for physical presence?  

As one popular pastor put it, “That way of doing church is dead.” There’s a cheaper way to watch on screen. 

I’m still getting my arms around this. I grew up with a map, a phone line, and weeks of waiting for certain letters. And while I am grateful for my GPS, my iPhone, and my computer. I am concerned about the future of where technology is taking the church. Some of this concern was address on our second day with Jay Kim, a pastor in the Silicon Valley and author of Analog Church (who I quoted from in my last blog). 

While acknowledging the advantages of the digital church, he warned that it is taking us on an “un-formational” trajectory. Ministry is about formation. Becoming like Christ is a painful, costly, and corporate effort. Technology is about reducing the work (think self-driving cars). The digital is about speed, choice, and individualism. Discipleship is about becoming patient, going deep, and embracing communal. 

I drove home processing a lot of this. I can’t help but wonder if much of the present and past pastoral ministry have contributed to this. I carry a pang of certain guilt. Think about it. Digital ministry is not that much different from the ministry of most physical churches. For many, coming to church on Sunday morning has also been about watching—watching the worship, viewing others, and observing the monological sermon (that only requires a passive listener). In some cases (we almost did this in our new ministry center), we have created theatre seating, allowing many to experience the show, as well as have an individual, isolated experience. Is there much difference if we do this at home? 

I think it’s time we do some rethinking of what we call church. Maybe much of what we call worship needs to be gutted and reformed. People (I am hoping) will come to a specific place at a specific time if they believe their presence and participation matters. They may actually be hungering for something Paul described in Ephesians 4:11-13. I am.  

Imagine a church where—

-we enter worship, offering our bodies (Rom 12:1), our full selves, where worship is liturgical in the true sense of the word (from leitergeo—literally “people work”)

-our smartphones are left in our cars

-the sacraments are duly ministered–the table is a place we enter a koinonia with God and become present to his presence (I Cor 10:16)

-sacrifices are unashamedly called for and brought together to meet the most pressing needs

-people are called to accountability and the living out of the “one anothers” 

-those in the congregation are treated as the choir, called to create rather than consume music

-the worship leader has renounced performance and is committed to moving us into deep singing—where all of our voices are what matters

-we enter into deep, mutual prayers—where we join corporately in the same moment to pray for and beyond our community

-we engage together in waiting and reverent silence for God to speak

-we allow time and space to share our spiritual gifts—e.g. those with mercy extending mercy, those with wisdom guiding the lost, and those with discernment speaking into the need

-ordained shepherds care for souls as those called to give an account-Heb 13:17

-the pastor brings a word from God, a text that the congregation has prayed over during the week

-sermons have shifted from a monologue to a dialogue, where one another’s thoughts matter

-community becomes our witness—apologetics is not primarily about a reasoned faith but a demonstrated faith

-and the small group only extends this sense of presence and proximity, beginning in every instance with the question—“Tell me the state of your soul.”

Now imagine this is only the start.

1 Comment
  • Phil Rydman
    7:08 PM, 29 February 2020

    John, the wonder of the internet allows me to reflect on your thought, something I long longed for many times since our lives went separate ways 29 years ago. For this I am grateful. But corporate worship allows me to sing, full voiced and unashamed while preparing to hear from God. The digital church can never replace the Glory of God in hearts joined in praise.

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