As a pastor in 2020 I was pre-occupied with the question: Should we gather in person and, if so, how? Today, Christians are pivoting to another question: If/when should I return to in-person services? Jay A. Kim’s Analog Church: Why We Need Real People, Places, and Things in the Digital Age presents an ideal answer, but that answer is complicated by the reality of COVID-19.
Transcendence, Communion, and Transformation
Written before the reality of coronavirus lockdowns, Kim argues that many churches are overly enamored with the new, the trendy, with what appears to be relevant. They have bought into the values of the digital age; speed, choice, and individualism. But, he claims, the world doesn’t need “relevance” in that sense, but transcendence and the values of the digital world often work against transcendence.
He begins by warning us of the dangers of the digital age. The digital world values speed, choice, and individualism. While we may see some good in these values, Kim discerns peril for discipleship.
The value of speed can lead to impatience.
The value of choice can make us shallow.
The value of individualism can make us lonely and isolated.
Social media can rewire our brains, moving us away from the slow, deep, work of discipleship and towards a shallow consumeristic approach to faith. By contrast, churches must adopt the values of patience, depth, and community. Churches need to beware of uncritically adopting a digital medium, which smuggles in those uniquely digital values and vices. Churches should recognize that the medium is the message and that it is hard to promote depth through a shallow platform.
Instead of adopting digital media wholesale, Kim argues that digital media can be used as a tool for communication. For the church, communication is useful, but not insufficient for discipleship. Christians need communion, which he argues is not achievable in the digital world.
Digital media can supply information, but what Christians need is transformation, something that only happens in face-to-face analog environments.
In the forward, Scot McKnight centers the theology of this book in the incarnation:
For some people Christianity is digital: God sent a message to us and we pick it up somehow, either believe it or not, and then either live according to it or not. But God didn’t send a message. God sent his Son, born of a real woman, married to a real man, who had a real job… God chose to reveal himself in analog, not digital.
While I think Kim can sometimes be overly black and white in his reasoning, I generally share his ideal. However, while I served as a pastor, I struggled to contextualize this ideal to the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic. I faced the tension of the values described in this book with another set of values – honoring governing authorities, caring for the physical health of my church members, caring for my neighbors in the community.
Navigating the tension
I’ve observed three ways that church leaders have tried to navigate this tension.
Some churches continued to meet with very few changes. Some were most certainly driven by political and financial pressures. Others, though, were likely driven by the values and motivations described in this book, with a genuine concern that to not meet as a church would mean to not be a church at all, to give up something essential to their very essence.
Other churches decided to lean-in to their digital presence. They recognized that digital platforms provided a great opportunity for evangelism, for spreading the good news of Jesus far and wide to people who would never darken the door of a church but might watch a sermon online.
Finally some, maybe most, sought some kind of middle ground, torn between competing goods. They sought to limit larger gatherings but find ways to incorporate smaller, less risky, gatherings. They decided that while digital media had some value, gathering together still mattered, assuming it could be done in a safe, government-honoring, neighbor-loving way.
Where do we go from here?
These pandemic lockdowns are temporary, but their effects will likely be long-lasting. It will be very easy for some regular church-goers to either fully adopt “digital church” or to opt-out of church entirely. They may have done so anyway, but this will speed that process. Churches will feel pressure to make their digital presence permanent or continue to expand it. That’s not necessarily wrong but is spiritually dangerous if done uncritically.
Analog Church calls us back to being the gathered church, to remind us of what we lost when we all went online, to remind us that discipleship and transformation happen through more than just communication, but through communion with God and with other believers. We’ll need to push through the discomfort and remember that while “being the church” doesn’t mean “going to church,” it includes gathering in analog worship and fellowship for transcendence and communion.