As I was checking out of a supermarket, the young bagger asked me how I was. I said, “Good. I had a great time at my church this morning.” He asked what church I attended. After I told him, he replied that he attended a local church. “That’s good,” I said. “What are the services like?” “Well, I don’t know,” was his answer. “I only listen to the podcasts of the sermon.” Restraining myself, I answered, “You should go. You are missing a lot.” I don’t know that my comment at the register registered for him.
Technologies may have a boomerang effect and thwart the purpose of the church. The podcast made the sermon more accessible, but it also makes the service itself expendable—at least for this young man. Why not listen to the message on our own time and in your own way?
The Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy that the church is “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). Jesus, our resurrected Lord, affirms that “the gates of hell will not prevail against” the church (Matthew 16:13). The Body of Christ gathers to worship, learn, pray, confess, and celebrate. Thus, its use of technology must pass through this theological filter. Any machine that undermines the worship, learning, prayer, confession, and celebration of God’s people must be brought into divine order. Perhaps some technologies should be eliminated entirely from the service. What principles should guide us?
First, any communication technology shapes the message it conveys. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan said, “the medium is the message.” A sermon heard on a podcast has the same intellectual content as one heard in person, but there is a a wide chasm between the two situations. When you listen to a sermon while attending a church, you see the preacher and can respond to the message vocally or through body language. You may greet the preacher after the service. The podcast allows for none of this. While it extends the reach of the information of the message, it subtracts much of the personal dimension. The Apostle John wrote of the Incarnation, the Word became flesh (John 1:14) and of how Christ’s followers should gather in the flesh. He writes:
I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete (2 John 1:12; see also Romans 1:10-11).
Face-to-face fellowship cannot be exchanged for anything of comparable value. The church is the Body of Christ stretched out over time and into eternity, but it must assemble in person, in a place carved out for worship, learning, confession, prayer, and celebration. Hebrews tells us that we should not forsake gathering together to encourage each other in the faith (Hebrews 10:25).
In light of this, the leadership in the church should encourage attendance at services and events by articulating a theology of personal presence—the presence of God and being in the presence of other Christians. Some churches may decide not to put their messages online for this reason. However, since some people cannot be present physically at the service, this alternative may make sense.
If what I have written is correct, the idea of a multi-site church may need to be reevaluated. A speaker on a screen, no matter how gifted, is not the same as a pastor on the scene. Some years ago, I was an interim preacher at a large church in Denver. I preached a message on “The Theology of Groaning” (Romans 8:18-26) which addressed the fallen nature of the world in light of its final redemption when Christ returns. I illustrated this by speaking of my frustration and anguish over my wife’s health problems. I did not cry or get too personal (I hope). When the message was over and the altar call was given, a man walked down the aisle. I thought he was coming forward for prayer. Instead, he walked up on the platform with tears in his eyes and gave me a gigantic hug and prayed for me. He could not have done that with a screen.
Second, a tech-wise church should scrutinize any technology that is used in the church service. Bringing one’s awareness to center on our holy and loving God is not an easy practice in our over-mediated and distracted society. Technologies so commonly used in our culture may be out of place in the church service. A sermon illustrated by many video clips or images may shift the focus from the Word of God to images that do not reinforce the message of the Bible. “In the beginning was the Word,” not the video (John 1:1). God gave us a book to be read and followed, not a comic book to entertain us.
Some images or video clips may fit the message well, but the burden of proof is on the image, not the word. We tend to shift into entertainment mode when a common image or video appears. When I teach on the apologetics of intelligent design, I often show video clips, simply because the images reveal God’s design better than mere description. However, when I am preaching on a text or a theme, I never use images. Every preacher will have to make up his or her mind, but we need a healthy skepticism about using images. They can become idols all too easily.
Third, what of a church’s web page? I am not against that. But what should be there? The page should be pleasant and easy to navigate. The user should be able to find the location, times of services, programs, staff, and more without going through digital contortions. It should be up to date. I showed up toward the end of a service at a church in another city simply because the times of worship were not updated on the web page. I got to take communion twice, which I loved, but I was misled about the times.
My experience is that some churches do not have a doctrinal statement on their web pages. Or if they do, it is bare bones. Churches should teach, preach, and live the truth of the Bible. So, it is essential to affirm what the church takes to be true. When “spirituality” can mean anything, we should be known for what we believe about the objective reality of the living God. A clear and well-formed doctrinal statement will do that. It should not be off-putting or polemical. It should be written so that the common reader can understand. Rather, these statements should invite people to consider what the church considers to be true and important.
The Bible warns us to avoid worldliness. Paul writes:
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:2; see also 1 John 2:15-17).
If we are not careful, our use of technology in the church—no matter how well-intentioned—may become worldly and compromise our commitment to speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Technology is a helpful servant but a tyrannical master; and Christ alone should be our master (Luke 6:46).