Shayne Looper: e-Christianity and the e-Christians it produces
Work schedule getting in the way of church? Don’t like the preacher? Out too late on Saturday night and unable to get up for Sunday service?
No worries. There’s always e-Church. You can do church online: Stream services, listen to sermons, give your offering, even join a Bible study or discipleship group. And you can do it all in the comfort of your own home, while lounging around in your pajamas.
Long before there was e-Church on your phone, tablet or computer, there were preachers on the radio and television. Religious radio broadcasting began in the 1920s, and is today the second leading format in the U.S., second only to country music. Television evangelists gained immense popularity in the 80s and 90s. There are now approximately 1,500 religious television and radio stations in the U.S., broadcasting thousands of hours of programming each week.
With the advent of the internet, religious broadcast options, and the dissemination of religious teaching, skyrocketed. This is a positive development in many ways, but it is not without its dangers.
One of the most disturbing things about e-Church is that it allows people to drop out of Christian community while believing they are doing everything they need to do to please God and grow spiritually. If they have a conflict with a fellow-church member, they can leave without resolving issues or reconciling, which is clearly contrary to biblical teaching. It’s not that the electronic church promotes such behavior, but it does enable it.
About 226 million people in the U.S. self-identify as Christians, yet 160 million of them will not be in church this Sunday. Or the following Sunday. Or the one after that. Tens of millions of Christians simply do not go to church. They consider it an option they can take or leave, and many have chosen the latter.
Where did they get this idea? Certainly not from the Bible. Nor does it come from the saints or well-known Christian teachers. John Wesley, the Anglican priest who founded Methodism, said point-blank: “The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.” He was right. In the third century, St. Cyprian put it this way: “Outside the church there is no salvation.”
This does not mean that church attendance is necessary to salvation, but neither does it permit us to think of the church as one option among many. God’s plan from the very beginning has been to build a church, not merely enlist individuals. This means that Christians must be in community, if they are to fulfill God’s plans for them.
One doesn’t need to look far to see the reasons for this. God wants flesh and blood Christians, not merely digital ones. The spiritual transformation he intends takes place on multiple dimensions, including: The will, the mind and emotions, and the body. It is in the context of committed relationships that the various facets of human personality are transformed; that is, in the church. That this can take place in the digital world is not at all clear.
A recent study at Harvard compared brain activity during digital and face to face encounters. Researchers learned that the part of the brain that is active when one sits with a distraught friend — the part linked to compassion — is not active when one receives a Facebook message from a distraught friend. The digital encounter, while very valuable, simply does not do the same thing in us or for us.
The many commands and principles expressed in the Bible are fleshed out in community. For example: St. Paul famously urged Christians to present their bodies to God as living sacrifices and to be transformed by the renewal of their minds. This does not simply happen as we think. People are not just brains in jars of flesh. Nor does it happen because we add an emoticon to our Facebook message.
Spiritual growth and transformation happen, as the apostle himself makes perfectly clear, in the context of community, in the gritty give-and-take of love in an imperfect church. The body is offered, and the mind renewed, through service to God and his church. The e-church is a useful tool in such service, but a poor substitute.
— Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County (Mich.). Read more at shaynelooper.com.