I like my smartphone. I like Facebook (sometimes), Twitter, and email. I like accessing directions while I’m driving somewhere.
You may be different, preferring a flip phone, cork bulletin boards and stopping at a gas station for directions. I understand that. Most of us live with one foot in both worlds, enjoying crisp Christmas cards in the mailbox and photos of loved ones on social networking sites on the computer.
The same is true in the church. Your congregation likely has both a website and some kind of printed brochure or bulletin or order of worship. You may send paper and digital newsletters. Most of us know that some things can’t be reduced to zeros and ones – the binary code behind what you see on your screen right now. The difference between a crumbling, decadent chocolate cupcake in your hand and the image of one on a screen is still vast.
And in the same way that Skype is great for communicating with loved ones far away – but that physical presence is better when possible – podcasts of sermons, broadcasts of Holy Communion and digitized “giving” stations (church lobby ATMs) are good when you can’t physically engage in worship. But the rich chocolate cupcake on the screen or in the earbuds can never be replaced by the bite of fudgy goodness in your mouth.
Of course podcasts, broadcasts, emails and recorded sermons are good. They can be a means of grace, communicating grace and truth to people in your community and farther away around your state, country and world. Of course we shouldn’t shun emerging technology. Of course it should be both/and.
But it should be both/and. The Body of Christ can’t be reduced to a series of zeros and ones. This is why a nursing home resident may watch sermons on their television but still ask to be wheeled down to the weekly worship service in the multipurpose room. This is why that same resident may request that their pastor bring them communion occasionally.
This isn’t just a discussion on the digital age and screen time (Lord save us from a parenting debate on screen time). It’s about the value of physicality in worship. The Orthodox church embodies this beautifully, and let’s consider a few examples from their liturgy – which is their theology.
Visit an Orthodox church, and more even than visiting a Roman Catholic church, you will be immersed in a sensory explosion. The priest doesn’t just speak about the Holy Spirit or read about the Holy Spirit: thick incense covers your clothes, the scent lingering in your hair after you leave. When’s the last time you felt like you smelled the Spirit of God?
Visit an Orthodox church, and you will observe the importance of procession. Procession is a physical act of proclamation more than a verbal act of proclamation. We march, we parade the Gospel, we practice walking it around, we turn our bodies toward it and humble ourselves in its presence.
Visit an Orthodox church, and you will be allowed to kneel for a blessing and to receive blessed bread – not the Holy Mystery of Christ’s body and blood, but a blessed gift for visitors. The spongy bread often absorbs the heavy fragrance of incense, and again, there is rich awareness of the Spirit of God.
Our Orthodox brethren – for Protestants can at least claim Catholic and Orthodox believers as kin, even if they cannot theologically return the favor – are keenly aware of the symbolism that drenches every aspect of worship. No act is wasted or meaningless: and it’s been this way for about a thousand years.
So when you consider the relationship between worship life and technology, reflect on a few of these things.
*Is there value in physically putting money in an offering plate beyond the consumer-related act of swiping a card in a lobby? Is there value in inviting members to physically bring their offerings forward?
*Is there value in extending the Communion table, celebrating Holy Communion more regularly, and regularly sharing it with those at home, in the hospital or in care centers?
*Is there value in the senior pastor serving on the nursing home, homeless shelter or prison ministry preaching schedule, not just a staff member?
*Is there value in shaping your worship space to allow for occasional kneeling for those who are able? What is the value of physically kneeling in worship?
*Is there value in congregational standing for the reading of the Gospel? Is there value in incorporating procession in your service – whether clergy, children or choir?
In some cultures around the world, Christian worship is a very physical experience, never meant to be reduced to the act of sitting still and listening. So keep the website, the podcasts, the prayer emails, the YouTube sermons.
But remember – some parts of ministry can only ever be done one on one. And some parts of the Christian faith can never be reduced to zeros and ones. No one wants a digital potluck.
So “taste and see that the Lord is good”…