If I’ve read it once, I’ve read it a hundred times in the last year.
An article or social media post states that “the church should never be the same again,” that “we can never go back to the way things were,” or one of a dozen other iterations of this same sentiment.
Some people mean that they’ll never take the fellowship of the community for granted again. Others mean they’ll never let another hug pass them by without a grateful heart. Still others are committed to ensuring that church ministry remains focused outside the walls of the building.
Many point to the outdated modes we’ve used to communicate the gospel until this point. The pandemic has pushed a much-needed technology upgrade upon a hesitant church.
Companies are aware of this, which is why my inbox is full of emails selling a “communication bundle” so that we can live stream services of the highest quality. None of these packages are cheap.
Religious folks are not by nature those who embrace change of our own accord. It often has to be forced upon us, and the pandemic forced pastors who swore they would never be online preachers to become sub-par televangelists.
Congregations that never could find the money for new technologies were quickly investing in cameras, lights and microphones.
Arguably, these changes make the message of the church more accessible. It might even reach those who would never venture inside the walls of the church.
But Neil Postman taught us to ask of all new technologies, “At what cost?”
Some pastors, mostly younger ones, seem to be made for this moment. It has untethered their hands to be creative and resourceful.
Pastors whose innovativeness was once viewed as a liability by their churches were suddenly being commended and applauded for these same gifts. Having experienced this newfound freedom, they now proclaim, “We cannot go back to the way it was.”
They’re right. They have been set free to be themselves, to use their God-given gifts and to thrive even in a pandemic. What might they be capable of in a post-pandemic world?
At the same time, I am weary of this focus on form. There is a subtext to be wary of, an implicit message that is dangerous, namely, that technology is the church’s salvation.
We embrace this mentality every time we blame the problems of the church on an unwillingness to innovate or embrace change.
“If they had only learned to use screens in the sanctuary or Facebook Live earlier, then maybe their church wouldn’t be declining,” we might think.
But new technology is not the good news. Technology is not our savior. We already have a savior, and we already have a gospel.
The decades-long decline of Christianity in the U.S. is not a problem of form, but of substance.
It’s not whether our live stream or online presence compelling enough. The problem is the church inability, perhaps unwillingness, to live into the difficult demands of the gospel.
The problem is our complicity in racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia. The problem is those who defend policies like child separation at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Declining influence and impact began long before Facebook existed or the worship wars began. Sure, some have left over our stubborn resistance to change. That’s a fact, but that’s not the deeper issue.
The real issue is that a great many Americans found no good news in the church at all. They found us more in love with power than people and more interested in preserving the racist, sexist and homophobic status quo than bringing the kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven.
The way forward for the church in the U.S. isn’t just to embrace new technologies, but to return to a very old gospel. One temptation that can thwart this necessary repentance is to focus on form over substance.
It’s a lot easier to blame the church’s woes on a reluctance to innovate and embrace new technologies. That’s a problem we can focus on and fix much easier than contending with our own racism. It’s less controversial for a traditional church to add screens in the sanctuary than women in the pulpit.
LGBTQ+ youth homelessness is skyrocketing, and it is more likely for trans people to be murdered than anyone else. Yet, it’s easier to focus our energy on advocating for new livestreaming equipment, better cameras and a lighting system than it is to reckon with the ways our rhetoric, ignorance and silence are detrimental to very real human lives.
I’m not arguing that the form of communication is unimportant, but it isn’t the gospel and technology isn’t our savior. I am arguing that focusing on form and technology can be a smokescreen that prevents us from following the deep things of the gospel.
As Jesus declared in Luke 11:42, “You neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced [substance], without neglecting the others [form].”
I whole heartedly believe that if we address the deep things, that if we confess and repent of our complicity and preach a gospel that really is good news to the poor, then it will hardly matter if we do it on Facebook Live or in a decrepit old building with peeling wallpaper.
The word of God will not return void (Isaiah 55:11).
Senior pastor of NorthHaven Church in Norman, Oklahoma.